Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Modern Competition, continued

We've looked at why people play sports and games, and why they are legitimately valuable to our development.  But why do we care so much?  How did they get so big?  Why do we love them even after we've long stopped playing them?

Since it's really the number of spectators that determines how big a sport or game becomes, let's look at the main reasons people cite for being spectators:

1) They enjoy displays of skill and human potential.
2) They feel pride in a region, city, town, school, or country.
3) They played the game, understand it, and enjoy it because they appreciate the efforts and skills involved on a personal level.

Each one of these reasons has some clear root.  Why enjoy, appreciate, or admire skill and potential?

Well, people who are skilled and have abilities demonstrate fitness; that is, the ability to survive in a given niche.  People value fitness, because if we didn't value it, we wouldn't pursue it, we wouldn't obtain it, and we wouldn't survive.  We also value people who demonstrate fitness; we follow them and listen to them, because if they show a capacity to survive and thrive, by attaching ourselves to them, we increase the ability to do so.

Imagine if we didn't.  Imagine if strong and fit members of a group were not admired, or sought after, or emulated by others.  That group would pursue things that would either hurt their survival, or just not contribute to it.  The ones that didn't seek fitness--or at least value it enough to associate with people demonstrating it--would not be likely to survive.  Therefore, that tendency wouldn't be likely to survive.

What about patriotism, and group pride?  Likewise, it makes sense--from the perspective of genetics--to value your group above others.  People who support the group are likely to contribute to its survival, and in turn their own survival because, well, they are in it.  If they don't see the group as valuable to their survival--or more specifically, see benefit in abandoning the group--the odds of cooperation and support go down.

This might be a bit of a stretch.  After all, we consciously know that sports are not the same as an actual competition for survival (sports riots notwithstanding).  But we do know that, even when sorted into groups randomly, people display preferences for their own groups.  We also know that many chemicals released in the brain, and many physiological processes that we undergo in the throes of competition are the exact same ones we see in survival scenarios.  So even though this link is speculative, I'm not that hesitant to make it.

The third reason, appreciation for the game because you've played it, is kind of a combination of group-appreciation and fitness-appreciation.  The respect is enhanced by being aware of the skill required, and you resonate with the players more because in a sense, you form a group with them.

As for how sports became so big, it--and this is just a guess--may have just come down to the above factors, along with marketing and social proof.  The game is fun, and people value the best players.  Recognizing that the sport is popular and people attach value to the celebrities, companies will endorse them and hitch their wagon to rising stars, hoping spectators will associate the products with success.  Money from sponsors allows the sport to grow, to finance players, to help them get better, to make a living playing the game.  And as the game gets bigger, people without a previous stake in it will start caring just because other people do!  It gets bigger, more money becomes invested, the sport grows, and so on.  And as the field becomes more competitive, being at the top becomes more impressive.  And since it's a way for people to prove their own value to others, individuals, groups, and institutions have a reason to invest time and energy into it, stimulating growth further.

But when people play the games, even though they are just simulations and ways to stimulate personal growth, people become really attached to the outcome.  They care about winning.  Crazily enough, they care about winning these simulations so much that they'll forsake relationships and damage their own health to do it, completely short-circuiting the original goal.  And this is even true in games that are small-scale, without monetary or social benefits attached to them.  Why care so much about winning?

A few things come into play.

First, the simulation reflects your desire for fitness and survival.  Wanting to achieve and demonstrate fitness manifests itself in the desire to win.  This is enhanced by the presence of fight-or-flight survival chemicals and hormones; even though it's just a simulation, your brain decides the activity is important, and responds accordingly.

Second, even if you just start out having fun, as you invest more time, you become more interested in seeing a return on the investment.  So there's a combination of ego appeasement and loss-aversion at play; you want to feel good about your ability to succeed when you try, and you don't want to "lose" the time you spent training.  So you care more.

Third, any time there are real-life factors at stake--money, gainful employment, or social standing--your survival depends on it (in a sense).  So caring about winning in that case is very natural as well.

And finally, you may have nothing but an ego investment related to someone or something else.  Social pressures can exist even if you otherwise would not care.

But here's the money-making question: how beneficial is it to you to want to win?  Not from a survival perspective, or evolutionary psychology perspective, but one of practicality.  How much should you want to win?  How much is too much?  And what does striving for victory even get you?

I'll go into that on Friday.  Thanks for reading.


  1. People don't struggle for "genetic survival." That's an overlay that distracts from the real mechanics involved and encourages you to think like a monkey. They struggle for what they want, and on average people who want to reproduce reproduce more often, so people tend to want to reproduce. Man I hate evo psych. We're not fucking monkeys. We're not even "only human" if we don't want to be. You know a guy burned himself to death in protest and didn't even flinch? You know one guy killed 600+ men in WW2? A guy walked the twin towers on a tightrope. A guy scaled buildings using suction cups. There's a few guys who climb cliffs without any safety equipment. You know some people volunteered to be gladiators in the colloseum? People risk and spend their lives every day to keep the world ticking over, for fun, to be great for a moment, to be an inspiration, to save complete strangers. And just look around you every day. People make their friends laugh because it makes them happy. People do things because it makes them better off, someone they care about better off, because it's part of a plan to cause that, or because they feel like it. Survival is a necessary first step for being or doing anything as a human being but once you have survival you want to grow, or laugh, or play, or whatever it is you as an individual prefer. People who are motivated by "fitness and survival" are either legitimately struggling to survive or wasting their life keeping up with the Joneses.

  2. You're familiar with Maslow's heirarchy of needs? It more or less covers the order in which people pursue needs, and the most basic level is immediate survival. As you said, it's a "first step for being or doing anything." The higher levels of happiness and self-actualization are pursued *after* establishing one's survival. But they do not exist for very long without first making sure you are alive.

    The thing to remember is that, from an evolutionary perspective, happiness, fulfillment, these things don't matter to your DNA. Your DNA wants to propagate. It will make you miserable if that is what it will take. It will make you happy if that is what it will take. Over time, if miserable people are more likely to win the game of life than happy people, more people will end up tend to be miserable, because evolution does not have a "design," it only follows the rule of "whatever works, works." Nature will gladly turn us into second-class citizens of our own minds, considering it's the place that decided "hey, you should lay your eggs in this other critter's stomach and have your babies burst out of it." This idea that we should be pursuing happiness and fulfillment as an ideal is OUR invention, not nature's.

    I don't know if you have read the rest of the blog, but one of the things I go into detail about is that "observation of tendencies permits us to alter the tendencies." The whole point of evolutionary psychology is to be speculative, assume that our behaviors have a purpose, and then decide whether our tendencies serve those purposes anymore. It gives you a more compassionate format for viewing your biases and desires. And if you ask, "hey, why do you suppose these tendencies seem to *innately exist* within people?" then it must be viewed through an evolutionary lens, at least initially. We aren't monkeys now, but we have reason to believe that we used to be.

    Like you said though, we don't have to be "just human;" I completely agree with this. This series of posts was dedicated to *speculating* on where we might have *developed* our love and appreciation for competition, not a prophesy on how we *must* view it in the future.

    Thanks for the passionate reply.

  3. I think this article would have benefited greatly from citing other sources. I do like how these thoughts are coming out of your head. But without backup, I have to wonder how far down this path we'll go and the concentration of quality points/observations.

    On another point.. sports be crazy. Know what I'm sayin? The fans be crazier! You feel me?

    Personally, I have disconnected with getting excited over other people playing sports. I am not part of the team. I did not help them train. I did not research the coaching strategies. I have no real pride in the Dallas Mavs or any other team. I cheer for them because not rooting for a side is a weird way to spectate. But other than that, I can't get invested. I have so many real problems and projects in my life that really depend on me that I can't take an ounce more of loss from people who really just want my money.