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.