Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind

A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior

If Darwin were a sports psychologist: Evolution and athletics


Surprisingly little evolutionarily informed research has been done on our species’ strange love affair with sports. Why do we care so much about such arbitrary and ostensibly functionless displays of physical and mental prowess? Although data derived directly from evolutionary hypotheses are scant, theories abound. In a recent issue of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine , for example, Andreas de Block and Siegfried Dewitte from the University of Leuven in Belgium seek to explain why our obsession with competitive athletics is such a predictable expression of human nature.  

Before we get into de Block and Dewitte’s claims, though, a disclosure from yours truly—one that might well slant this story. In the wake of this Olympics season, this will undoubtedly render me abhorrent among a broad swath of Scientific American’s audience and beyond. But the truth is, I care very little for sports. It’s not that I actively dislike athletics; I’m just utterly indifferent. I can’t help it. The prospect of watching a sporting event, any sporting event, is about as appealing to me as is spending my free time reading the crawling news ticker at the bottom of C-SPAN.

It’s been like this for as long as I can remember. In central Ohio where I spent much of my childhood, being a fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes was like being a member of a religious congregation; it’s perhaps little wonder that the same glossy, creepily cultish eyes of the average sports fan there tended to share a common head with the evangelical churchgoer. My father used to drag me along to OSU basketball games, where I’d spend hours spying on the other people in the stands with my binoculars—their private, subtle behaviors massively more interesting to me than anything happening on the court below. I did enjoy participating in athletics, though. I played soccer and tennis for years. As a teenager, I even wrestled for a while, a fact that prompted a curious friend of mine to recently ask me what it was like being on the wrestling team just as I was realizing that I was gay. The answer: It was fabulous. But watching other people compete athletically against each other was always so yawningly boring to me that I never mustered enough interest to care one way or the other who won.

Of course, my sports apathy is in sharp contrast to the legions of people around the globe—including many very dear friends of mine—who experience near orgasmic delight at the sight of an abnormally tall human being trying to throw an orange ball through a hole, or an abnormally thick one stuffed into brightly colored tights and trying to carry an oddly hewn chunk of leather across a white line while other monstrously large men (wearing different-colored tights) try to jump on him. Even my eighty-two-year-old and, I suspect, slightly androgenized grandmother would bolt upright on the sofa and launch angrily into a cataclysmic torrent of invectives when the “jackass” quarterback for her favorite college football team (again, OSU) would throw an interception.

The completely random, culturally constructed nature of our society’s own particular sports is easier to recognize when we look at everyday sports in other cultures. As de Block and Dewitte point out, basketball and football probably seem just as exotic to rural people from the Central Asian steppes region as their traditional sport of “buzkashi” seems to us. In buzkashi, an interesting twist on polo, horseback riders try to snatch up the headless carcass of a calf and pitch it across a goal line or into a bucket. And these people take their national pastime seriously. According to one online description:


The carcass of the calf is soaked in cold water for 24 hours before the game so that it may be tough enough for the horsemen. Usually, a calf is beheaded, its four legs are cut off from the knee, its insides emptied before soaking. When there is no calf available, they use a goat in this manner.


Buzkashi is played even on grounds covered with snow and 95 percent of the people turn up to watch it despite the cold or drizzle. They get so excited when the calf is brought to the pitch that sometimes spectators fight spectators like in some football stadiums. Even women share this [excitement] as they watch from rooftops.


Using the animal’s body this way may seem brutal and “uncivilized” to us Westerners, but the reality is that we pretty much do the same thing for our games of football, baseball, soccer, basketball and so on—we just process the dead animal a few steps further and turn it into a nice, shiny, compact ball for our amusement. The point is, when we’re evaluating the evolutionary reasons for sporting behavior, it’s easy to get lost in the strange labyrinths of cultural variation. Any given sport is, of course, a product of social learning. But underlying cultural differences, de Block and Dewitte claim, are the same innate motivators. Here’s the crux of their argument:


From a Darwinian perspective, sports may be seen as one of the cultural activities invented to promote the acquisition of status. And acquiring status is—on average, in the long run, and in the ancestral environment to which our species is adapted—beneficial to an individual’s reproductive success. That is not to say that gaining status is our (only) conscious or unconscious motive for participating in a game. Many players and observers are primarily interested in the fun of the game. The claim that sports result from [evolutionary processes] means only that sports (like many other games and cultural practices) establish a reliable prestige hierarchy loosely based on (Darwinian) fitness, and that this function is the ultimate cause of sports.


In other words, the demonstration of physical—and mental—prowess in a public forum provides athletes with an important showcase to display their evolutionarily desirable traits. Excelling at any specific sport is largely irrelevant; it’s unlikely that our brains evolved, say, a “volleyball module” or a “rugby module” to solve specific adaptive problems in the ancestral past. But what great athletic talent signals indirectly, say de Block and Dewitte, is the underlying genetic quality of the athlete. The best athletes tend to have extraordinary mixtures or concentrations of strength, endurance and litheness, and each of these traits would have been tremendously advantageous in the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness,” during which time human beings evolved. Thus, according to these authors, because our brains have had such little time to change fundamentally since those early Pleistocene days, we’re still on the lookout for prospective mates and allies who possess these coveted traits.

Anecdotally, of course, it’s the “jocks” that get the girls, especially in late adolescence and early adulthood, the developmental period that marks the peak of mate competition in our species. And empirical data match these anecdotes. A 2004 study [PDF] in Evolution and Human Behaviour by Université de Montpellier researcher Charlotte Faurie and colleagues Dominique Pontier and Michel Raymond, for example, found that French university student athletes—both male and female—had greater mating success than non-athletes. Furthermore, sports achievement correlated positively with the number of sexual partners. Perhaps we should take these data with a grain of salt, though. The researchers’ measure of “mating success” was the student’s self-reported number of partners (not that athletes ever lie, of course).

But further evidence that some lusty, unconscious incentive spurs our desire to participate in competitive sports comes from a recent study [PDF] by University of Edinburgh psychologist Daniel Farrelly and Newcastle University’s Daniel Nettle. In a 2007 issue of the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology , Farrelly and Nettle investigated the performance stats of hundreds of professional male tennis players (ranging in age from 20 to 30 years) and found that players’ ranking points significantly decreased from the year before their marriage to the year after. For professional tennis players who remained unmarried, no such decrease in winning percentage occurred over this same period. “It seems likely,” the authors write, “that this effect was due to the evolved psychological mechanism that leads such players (albeit unconsciously) to devote less time and effort to competition and more to married life.” That is to say, these newlyweds’ drive to win allegedly waned because advertising their genetic value via tennis had already paid off for them in a high-value, long-term reproductive partner. As we know from the recent Tiger Woods scandal, many married athletes still seek extramarital reproductive opportunities, of course, and so it’s important to note that this general finding reflects a statistically measuable dip in performance rather than an absolute plummet.

For their part, de Blocke and Dewitte borrow largely from the logic of University of New Mexico psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who in 1999 penned the influential book The Mating Mind (Doubleday). In that book, Miller speculated that athletic ability is, essentially, a lot like the male peacock’s ostentatious feathers: just like the peacock’s tail works to attract reproductive partners because it signals that the bird can “afford&rdqrdquo; to display itself so outrageously without an obvious reason for doing so, so too is sporting behavior an energy inefficient, individually variable (heritable) and risky trait that, perhaps above all else, makes one attractive to the opposite sex. “Sports,” de Blocke and Dewitte tell us, “may be understood as culturally invented courtship rituals.” There’s even some evidence that male athletes who occupy certain key positions on their teams tend to be more physically attractive to women than their teammates. In several studies, women have been shown to rate the faces of male goalkeepers and “forwards” from hockey and soccer teams, as well as quarterbacks from football teams, as being more attractive than those of their teammates, without knowing in advance which faces belong to which players. Many have interpreted these findings as suggesting that these key positions require the most evolutionarily valuable traits (such as agility, spontaneity and creativity), and because facial symmetry is a reliable gauge of genetic quality, good looks and certain types of “higher-order” athleticism often go hand-in-hand.

There’s one glaring problem, of course, in relying exclusively on the argument that sports is simply an elaborate mating ritual. This is the fact that it fails to explain why most men prefer watching other men compete and why so many women prefer watching other women compete. I’m assuming that the average male Red Sox fan wouldn’t sit for hours in the rain and cold just to satisfy his homoerotic appetite. (Although Yankees fans might say that’s a viable hypothesis.) But de Blocke and Dewitte anticipate this criticism. They counter that watching members of one’s own sex compete in team sports allows us to assess these individuals not only as potential mates, but also as cooperative partners and as prospective leaders and followers. There’s also the many “peripheral games” that occur in the bleachers, where fans are essentially competing against each other for symbolic glory (and sometimes even literally in the form of hooliganism), or gambling for fiscal wins and so on.

Indeed, rooting for the “in-group” sports team can even modify human physiology. In the classic spectator study by psychologist Paul Bernhardt and his colleagues, 21 male soccer fans provided salivary cortisol samples before and after watching their favorite teams compete against international rivals on TV for the World Cup. Mean testosterone levels increased in the fans of winning teams and decreased in the fans of losing teams.

Some sports seem to get people more easily riled up than others. According to de Blocke and Dewitte, the most popular sports in a given culture are those that possess three characteristics of “signaling value.” First, for a sport to really catch on in a society, it must be informative . Sports that allow athletes to clearly showcase their most evolutionarily important attributes—strength, intelligence, endurance, speed and litheness, for example—attract the biggest following. This may be why, say, geriatric lawn bowling remains in relative obscurity compared to other sports.

Next, because a sport is only informative to the extent that it is capable of producing truthful information about the genetic value of its athletes, the more popular sports are those that tend to score high on the dimension of accuracy . Sports that rely too much on completely random factors or luck, for instance, fail to tease apart subtle differences in ability between closely matched competitors. I’ve no doubt that members of the U. S. Association of Rock-Papers-Scissors (RPS) have honed an above-average suite of skills related to their tactical deftness, mental acuity and manual dexterity for their sport. (There’s also an international league, in case you’re wondering.) But chance factors so heavily in RPS “bouts” that I’d be surprised if even world champions were scoring above-average points in the bedroom—unless as an artifact of prize money and in a room full of fellow RPSers.

The dimension of accuracy may also explain why we’re so hostile to the notion of athletes using anabolic steroids to enhance their performance. This deceptive enhancement of physical strength undermines our ability as spectators to evaluate competitive athletes on the basis of their heritable (in other words, genetically endowed) attributes. What looks like exceptionally rare genes from our stadium-level view is actually just good drugs. In Darwinian terms, Mark McGwire doping up on androstenedione is the equivalent of an okay-looking woman having extensive cosmetic surgery and coming out looking like a supermodel. Both are just illusions born of modern technology and designed to tripwire our species’ evolved penchant for certain looks and abilities in others. And learning that we’ve been duped, after having invested in these people, leaves us cold.

Finally, say de Blocke and Dewitte, for a sport to cultivate a large fan base, it must possess a reasonably high degree of transparency . The rules of the sport must be easily interpretable by the audience to generate a following because fans need to understand which evolutionarily desirable skills are necessary to win. The transparency of a sport is something largely determined by social learning . An American invited out to a cricket match in England might be left scratching his head and failing to see why it’s so appealing on that side of the Atlantic.

None of this explains my own indifference toward sports. And I suspect there are others like me out there who don’t get what all the fuss is about either. I must say, I’m not sure where we’d fit in this evolutionary scenario—clearly I, at least, have an alternative mating strategy that may have something to do with it. But for all you other athletic apes and sports fans out there, de Blocke and Dewitte’s big evolutionary picture seems a home run to me. Or at least a double—is that what you call it?


In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again. For articles published prior to September 29, 2009, click here: older Bering in Mind columns.

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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