Sports, Politics, Tribe, Violence, and the Social Human Animal's Drive to Survive

We may like to think that “it’s just a game”, but rooting for our teams, and all the other groups to which we belong, is tied to nothing less than our very drive to survive.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published at the end of the 2011 baseball season. 

            For at least a few more days in Tampa and St. Louis, it’s still time to BIRG. In Boston and Atlanta, people are CORFing all over the place. This phenomenon is evidence that rooting for the home team is about something WAY deeper than sports. We may like to think that “it’s just a game”, but rooting for our teams, and all the other groups to which we belong, is tied to nothing less than our very drive to survive.

            Record-setting collapses by the Red Sox and Braves allowed the Rays and Cardinals to make the playoffs. So from Land o’ Lakes to Sun City Center in Tampa, and from the Gateway Arch to Chesterfield in St. Louis, the cry is “WE won.” And from Maine to Cape Cod, and from Athens to Atlanta down to Albany Georgia, the lament is “THEY lost.” Note the pronouns. Winners are celebrated in the first person “WE”. Fans Bask In Reflected Glory. They BIRG. Losers Cut Off Reflected Failure. They CORF, and distance themselves from failure with the third person “THEY”. We associate with winners, and disassociate from losers.

       The phenomenon was first noted by Robert Cialdini et. al. in a famous paper in 1976 “Basking in Reflected Glory: Three (Football) Field Studies.” Cialdini and colleagues kept track of the apparel of students in psychology classes at seven major universities on the days after football games. On the days after the local team won, far more students were dressed in the tribal – oops, I mean, the team’s colors – than after a loss. And when asked to verbally describe the results of the game, far more students said “WE won” after a win, and “THEY lost’ after a defeat.

     What’s up here? Clearly these people weren’t consciously thinking about which pronoun to use. This behavior, and language, comes from someplace deeper, more instinctive, more ancient, more tribal…someplace that I would suggest is tied to nothing less than the deepest instinctive imperative of all, to survive. After all, we are social animals. We depend on the tribe for our safety and well-being. When the lion attacks, as a group we’ve got a shot. Alone, we’re lion chow.  When our tribe is doing well (economically, militarily, politically, whatever…), our chances go up. When it’s doing poorly, our chances go down. So it feels good to belong to a winning tribe, and not so good – threatening, in fact – to belong to a group that’s losing.

     Think about all the ways we support the tribe. We subconsciously choose our views on many issues so they match the views in the groups we most strongly identify with, a theory called Cultural Cognition. We vote for our tribe (political party). We fight to the death for our tribe in everything from gang wars to wars between nations (tribes).  In fact, if you look at a lot of the wars and mass violence in recent history they were about nothing BUT tribe; Protestants v. Catholics in Northern Ireland, Serbs v. Croats v. Muslims in the Balkans, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda.

     Sports are only less violent surrogates of precisely the same human need, to belong to a tribe that’s doing well because as the tribe’s chances go, so go yours. Think about the trappings of sports; the teams are your surrogate tribal warriors, wearing tribal uniforms, the battle grounds (stadia) decorated with tribal flags (banners) and tribal emblems (often fierce animals or warrior figures), the fans painting their faces in tribal/team colors and wearing tribal/team clothing, chanting tribal chants (team songs), fighting long-standing (tribal) rivalries. The warriors (your team) fight to defend YOUR territory (HOME field), and you root and cheer and do all sorts of superstitious stuff that you think will affect the outcome on a playing field you in fact have ZERO influence over, and your emotions and actual body chemistry go up, or down, depending on the outcomes.

     And if everything goes as hoped, the season ends with a championship capped by huge civic rallies in which everyone chants and screams “WE won!” No. The athletes won. You watched. But it feels like YOU won, because you need to feel like your tribe is successful and dominant, because that literally makes you feel safer. And if your team lost you go out and trash the city like fans in Vancouver after the Stanley Cup loss last year, or countless other fans in countless other ‘defeated’ cities. Or, worse, you violently attack fans of the other team…the other tribe. It really is way more than just a game.

     As this is being written, the baseball “WE won” BIRGing may be shifting to Detroit (Tigers) and Forth Worth (Texas Rangers), and the fans in New York and Tampa may soon be doing a little more “THEY lost” CORFing. And the stories about all this will run in the sports section, which will somehow separate these ‘pretend’ wars from the other things that divide us into groups, and create conflict…real, violent, destructive conflict. But BIRGing and CORFing is not much different from the polarized closed-minded antipathy people on the right and left feel toward each other, the virulent and often violent hatred people in the orthodox branches of various faiths feel toward people outside their sect, not much different from the antipathy Kikuyus in Kenya feel toward the Luo tribe or the violence between Pashtuns and other tribes in Afghanistan or the angry feelings people in so many nations have toward the people in other countries.

   Red Sox and Yankees. Hatfields and McCoys. Palestinians and Israelis. They each have their own story line, but at their heart these conflicts, and BIRGing and CORFing, are all part of the same phenomenon. They represent the social human animal’s need for tribal affiliation and cohesion, a belonging which is vital to nothing less motivating than survival itself.

     (Go, Patriots! KILL the Jets!!!)

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