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Why We Like Sports (According to Science)

Updated on October 26, 2016

Millions of people spend billions of dollars each year to sit and watch other people play sports. Many consider their teams to be family or friends, and take each win and loss personally. Die hards aren't subtle about the fact that they prefer the company of their teams over the actual people in their lives. Many a relationship has been ruined by football season. And how about all of the arbitrary good luck rituals that, no matter how embarrassing or weird they may be, are performed before every game? Even if it involves a grown man dressing up in a tutu and and doing pretty little ballerina twirls. Strange things are going to happen.

Taking one for the team. Literally.

By Brad Coy [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Brad Coy [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What's Your Opinion

Have you done weird things to bring luck to your team?

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At First Glance, Science Says That Modern Sports Shouldn't Exist

Problem 1: Embarrassment as an evolutionary downfall.

At it's core, human nature revolves around popularity. So yeah...sorry fellow nerds. Popularity controls our potential resources, our mating pool, and even our mental well-being. Back in the day, all of those things didn't just affect our happiness...they determined our ability to survive and thrive. Therefore, our brains evolved to make sure that we conform to the group as much as possible. For example, ever wonder why you experience physical pain when you're emotionally hurt? It's because some parts of the brain process both social cues and hurtful sensations. Your mind picks up on the judge-y looks of your more popular peers. To keep you from repeating a social faux pas, it decides to punish you for your weird behavior and activates the pain sensing portion. Just like training a dog not to bark at the neighbors using a shock collar.

So in an early society built on...well, basically being liked by your peers, why would it be acceptable to make a fool out of yourself routing for a team when you have nothing to gain? It's an evolutionary dead-end, like trying to ask a cheerleader on a date in fluent elvish.

These glasses help him hide the brain pain.

By istolethetv from Hong Kong, China (supernerd  Uploaded by Princess Mérida) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By istolethetv from Hong Kong, China (supernerd Uploaded by Princess Mérida) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Problem 2: Beating the crap out of each other as an evolutionary downfall

This one is a bit self-explanatory.

Let's flashback to when people mostly lived in small tribes. In a world where your life depends on your physical ability, it would make sense to try to avoid potentially dangerous situations. There are going to be times when you endanger yourself while hunting or protecting your tribe, but these are the necessary parts of life. Sports, which can lead to serious injury even in modern times, are definitely not necessary (though I know a few people who'd disagree).

The evolution of sports could potentially be explained if arguments between tribes were settled by a good game of football. However, historic evidence suggests that the vast majority of games were played within the tribe...potentially weakening players who hailed from the same survival group.

This seems like it'll have no negative consequences on their health.

By Sarah Connors (Blues vs Lightning-7474.jpg  Uploaded by Carport) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Sarah Connors (Blues vs Lightning-7474.jpg Uploaded by Carport) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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How would you rather solve a serious conflict?

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Why Play Games?

The simple answer is to show off for potential mates and allies. Told you it's all about the popularity.

Proving Yourself To Allies

Those playing the sports would have a chance to demonstrate their physical prowess without being in mortal danger. Sure they may get a few broken bones, but it's better than being eaten alive by a lion while trying to prove your worth to a group.

If someone is great at throwing a football, they'll probably be pretty decent at throwing a spear. Therefore the better you were at sports, the more likely you would be invited to go hunting or on a raiding spree.

Not only would participating in sports help you get invited to parties where you killed things, it also helped you gain friends. These would come in handy if you were ever in an argument with someone from the same tribe. The more people you had backing you up, the more likely the person who stole your goat (or whatever) will just back down and admit defeat in order to avoid alienating your followers.

" I should've played soccer instead." - Goat

See page for author [CC-BY-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
See page for author [CC-BY-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Have you ever done anything stupid to impress your friends?

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Proving Yourself To Mates

The golden rule of attraction according to human evolutionary scientists is "the higher the social status, the more desirable the mate." Social status can come as a result of all sorts of things. A nice butt, a Lamborghini, and intelligence are all random status-increasing examples. They all also happen to be on my list for my future husband, so if you meet the qualifications you should give me a call.

Anyway, status comes in all shapes and sizes. However it's all really about the resources someone can provide. If you can afford a nice car, you'll be able to provide your mate with money. If you have a Kim Kardashian butt, you're indicating that you'll pass on genes successfully. Sports gave people the opportunity to show potential mates that they're able to provide food and protection.

In other words if you were able to score in a game, you were more likely to be able to score in real life.

That man just scored. If you know what I mean.

By Rulesfan (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Rulesfan (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Are you attracted to more athletic people?

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Why Watch Games?

To know the pecking order. Ancient sports separated the jocks from the geeks...oh wait. Modern sports do that too. If you wanted to know who was who, you had to be into sports.

Potential Allies

People who were in the market for a new hunting partner would've had to be good at judging athletic performance. As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. The more they watched the games, the better they would be able to evaluate someone's throwing arm, speed, and ability to knock other people over.

Physical ability wouldn't be the only thing spectators were looking for. How well someone works in a team would be an important factor as well. If you have a disloyal friend in a hunting party, they might end up decreasing your survivability. For example, a loyal hunting partner would distract the hungry lion running towards you, while a disloyal hunting partner will trip you so they can get away. Although a disloyal teammate in a game may cause you to lose, you most likely won't die because of that loss (once again, I know some sports fans who would disagree).

Studies show that modern day sport fandom has been correlated with ideals such as "purity," "morality," and "loyalty." The unconscious idea that the success of your team is somehow connected to your personal survival explains the extreme cult-like following of sports. This also works in reverse...you showing support for your team indicates that you have those team-building characteristics as well.Dressing up like a ballerina as a grown man for luck is excusable because it's unconsciously seen as sacrificing yourself for the common goal of the group. Strengthening your social bonds would then indirectly increase your fitness.

Note: Number 3 is great at team hugs.

By Jason Gulledge [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Jason Gulledge [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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What's most important to you in a friend?

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Potential Mates

For people who were looking for someone to have babies with, watching sports was like test driving a car instead of just reading the manufacturer's description of how it handles. They were able to use sports as "honest indicators" of a person's ability to survive and provide. Instead of having to trust that a person was telling the truth about the ginormous mammoth they caught, potential mates were able to watch the athletes' actual performance. In other words, actions speak louder than words. If the players lived up to their name, they demonstrated that they could provide resources and would pass on desirable genes.

Ensuring that their mate was able to provide resources was only half of what these window-shoppers were looking for. They also wanted to establish that the person they were going to have a baby with would be loyal. Babies are hard work. For years they are little crying, pooping, eating, exhausting, predator-attracting, uncoordinated blobs of adorable-ness. People wanted to be sure that their baby-momma or baby-daddy would stick around to help take care of the child.

This was especially important to females, simply because babies are more energetically costly to women than they are to men. For the first nine months, women have to eat enough food for two. Then, they have to be sure they are healthy enough to actually survive the birthing process. Even after that, precious energy would be used to produce calorie-rich breast milk for Junior. The only reproductive cost men have to invest is the energy it takes to produce sperm. If a woman's partner wasn't "loyal," she and her baby's chances of survival dropped exponentially.

"But if watching sports was really important to women, why do significantly more males participate in sport related activities?" - You write in the comments section.

You're right. Men statistically liking and playing competitive games more than women is a cross-cultural phenomenon. It occurs when men and women have equal opportunities to play, and even in female-dominated societies. The best hypothesis for this pattern is the development of language. Men, who were more likely to be the hunters, fighters, ect., would've also been more likely to play sports. They were also more likely to be better evaluators of athletes because they knew the qualities that were needed in a successful hunter, fighter, ect. Women could make a pretty good guess, but since they were less likely to actually participate in those activities, they could miss the subtleties that another athlete could pick up on. If they let the men watch and evaluate the actual game, they could listen to them talk later about who was better at what without having to learn how to figure it out by themselves. It's kind of like how we rely on sports announcers to pick up on and tell us the more elusive points the game. For us to have their extensive knowledge, we would either have to dedicate our lives to watching or playing the sport. Most of us have other things to do, so instead we pay them a lot of money to go on tv and explain sporty stuff to us.

"Nice trophy. Wanna make babies?"

By Edwin Levick (1869 - 1929) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Edwin Levick (1869 - 1929) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Now You Know

So during the next Super Bowl, sit down on the couch next to your friends and tell them that sex and popularity are the reasons why you are there. Then use science as an excuse for your posse to raid your next door neighbor's garage so you can finally get back the lawnmower they borrowed a year ago.

"This is for letting your dog pee on my bushes!"

Abraham Diepraam [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Abraham Diepraam [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What's Your Opinion?

Why do you watch sports?

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References

Buss, D. (2012). Evolutionary psychology: the new science of mind. (04 ed., pp. 114-123, pp. 400-402). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Deaner and Smith. 2012. Sex differences in sports across 50 societies. Available at SSRN: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2009329Preview the documentView in a new window

Deaner, R. O., Geary, D. C., Puts, D. A., Ham, S. A., Kruger, J., Fles, E., et al. 2012. A sex difference in the predisposition for physical competition: males play sports much more than females even in the contemporary U.S. PLoS ONE, 7: e49168.Preview the documentView in a new window

Lombardo, M. 2012. On the evolution of sport. Evolutionary Psychology 10: 1-28.Preview the documentView in a new window

Winegard and Deaner 2010. The evolutionary significance of Red Sox Nation: sport fandom as a by-product of coalitional psychology. Evolutionary Psychology 8: 432-446

Comments

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    • Leighbirrd profile imageAUTHOR

      Leigh 

      3 years ago

      Peachpurple, that's definitely true! The point of this article is to try to explain some of the reasons why we as a society would place enough importance on sports that being good at them is goal-worthy. In other words, how our development as a species has allowed being talented at a sport to be a significant achievement culturally.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 

      3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      some people like sports because of their talents in achieving a goal

    working

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