Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Your Brain On Football

It’s kickoff time. And whether it’s played at high schools, colleges or in NFL stadiums, football is increasingly becoming America’s game. Women now make up 44 percent of the NFL fan base, for example, and last season, the sport drew in a record number of Hispanic viewers as well. The game is even a hot export, with four teams scheduled to compete in England this season. That means that marketers are using more football imagery (and across more categories) than ever: Sabra Hummus, in the hopes that the gridiron can make chickpeas seem macho, is now the official dip of the NFL

For those of us who study the emotional centers of the brain, though, the real game is in decoding why there is a growing fascination with a decidedly primitive pastime: Winning requires speed, guts and bone-crushing power.

In general, spectator sports get their emotional appeal from a very basic human drive—the need to shape an identity that lets us belong to one group, while differentiating us from others. (Like when we threw rocks at rival tribes thousands of years ago.) But because we’re civilized now and can’t engage in that kind of bloodthirsty bonding, sports provide a very interesting and emotionally useful release. They allow us to explore and engage with those primal areas of identity that we may be unable to express in the real world. 

In the case of football, it’s a very particular mode of vicarious identification: The ritualized conflict of the game provides an outlet for our personal desires to be aggressive and emerge triumphant. It provides as well an important outlet for sublimating all of the slights and injuries we suffer in the real world, but can’t do anything about directly. We may not be allowed to knock irritating coworkers to the ground. But our beloved Giants (or Vikings, Broncos or Bears) can.

Of course, all sports are ritualized conflict, to a degree. But because football is more full-throatedly physical, it’s more emotionally visceral. (My apologies to those who have been body slammed in basketball games.)  In fact, football is probably the closest thing we have to a modern day form of the gladiatorial contest – the popular (so we hear) spectator sport for our ancestors.

Affiliation with the local team of football warriors is so powerful for some people that it spills out beyond weekend games. They express their feelings of belonging through bumper stickers, tattoos, team jerseys, and house flags (I keep waiting to see motorcycle helmets.)
Sports team loyalties also provide strong social signal value, as we become members of a “club” of those around us who like and follow a team. The explosion of fantasy leagues has created a new level of fandom, where we actually get to manage teams, as well as watch them.

Women join the huddle

The emergence of women as a key fan base for the NFL, though, is even more fascinating. Women’s roles have evolved, moving from historic social pressures to seem (if not actually be) submissive, into a modern social context that allows – or even encourages -- being increasingly assertive.  Football provides another place for women to swap out the old fashioned pacifist, nurturing role and try on something a little different.

This piece of cultural evolution has an interesting double edge: at the same time that football is having an impact on women’s changing emotional lives, women’s emotional orientation is influencing the culture of football.  Women’s increasing involvement in football (both as activist parent and as spectator) is very probably implicated in the much greater attentiveness in football at all levels to its risks, especially concussions and the role they play in serious brain injury.

While some people may lament what they see as a sissification, (I concede it was probably fun to watch guys with swords compete in pits thousands of years ago, too.) having spectator sports that bring both sexes together in a continuously evolving “modern gladiatorial game” is probably an emotionally desirable outlet for modern life.

So let’s salute the arrival of another football season – giving us a great opportunity to cut loose when we need to and give the “bad guys” some serious pushing, shoving, and a good taste of the dirt.  Our vicarious victories will as always have a thousand fathers (we really annihilated ‘em!) while our team’s defeats can remain orphans (the bums just couldn’t get it together.) And then of course there’s that Seven Layer Bean Dip…

About the Author: David Forbes holds a Ph.D. in clinical and cognitive psychology from Clark University, and was a member of the faculties of Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry and the Harvard Laboratory of Human Development before beginning his career as a business consultant. He founded Forbes Consulting over 20 years ago as a strategic market research consultancy dedicated to creating business advantage through psychological consumer insights. He has since built Forbes into a major resource for scores of major corporations in the CPG, Financial Services, and Pharmaceuticals industries, domestically and internationally. David is the creator of the MindSight® emotional assessment technologies, a suite of applied neuropsychological methods for understanding consumer emotion and motivation, without the distortions of conscious editing and self presentation.  

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