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This Is Your Brain on Sports

The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn From the T-Shirt Cannon

By L. Jon Wertheim & Sam Sommers
12-minute read
Audio available
This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn From the T-Shirt Cannon by L. Jon Wertheim & Sam Sommers

This Is Your Brain on Sports (2016) is a fascinating journey into the human brain and an examination of what exactly happens to it when we play sports. Far more than mere games people play, sports provide a great deal of insight into our psyche and what makes us tick, observations that ring true for players and fans alike.

  • Die-hard fans who take sports and their favorite teams very seriously
  • Students of psychology
  • Readers looking for a new perspective on the wide world of sports

L. Jon Wertheim is a senior writer and executive editor at Sports Illustrated, as well as a contributor to CNN, NPR and the Tennis Channel. He has written several best sellers on a variety of sports, including Strokes of Genius and Running the Table.

Sam Sommers is a social psychologist at Tufts University, and his work has focused on the way racial diversity can influence how people think and act. He is also the author of Situations Matter.

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This Is Your Brain on Sports

The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn From the T-Shirt Cannon

By L. Jon Wertheim & Sam Sommers
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn From the T-Shirt Cannon by L. Jon Wertheim & Sam Sommers
Synopsis

This Is Your Brain on Sports (2016) is a fascinating journey into the human brain and an examination of what exactly happens to it when we play sports. Far more than mere games people play, sports provide a great deal of insight into our psyche and what makes us tick, observations that ring true for players and fans alike.

Key idea 1 of 7

Sports can teach us about our love for underdogs and about group mentality.

No matter which sport you play, there’s generally a winner and a loser. But even when one team seems to lose all the time, they’ll still have devoted fans following them in every game. In fact, these fans can be even more passionate than those of other teams, since people love rooting for an underdog.

There are good reasons for this phenomenon, as it plays into our sympathy for those who are considered weak and our desire for the unthinkable to happen.

In an experiment conducted at the University of South Florida, students were presented with some details about the Israel-Palestine conflict, including different maps of the region. The two nations were then pitted against each other in a hypothetical sporting event.

As it turned out, when students who received maps that showed Israel surrounded and outnumbered by larger Muslim-majority countries, most of them rooted for Israel.

Likewise, if students were given a different map where the main territory was Israel, with its settlements encroaching on Palestinian territory, most of these students would then cheer for Palestine.

An underdog scenario is appealing because it represents the possibility of an unlikely outcome, where a team or an individual might persevere in the face of a daunting challenge. This makes the game more personal, since we often think of our own situation in life as a similar battle.

For instance, when we try to get someone’s attention and sympathy, we’ll often portray ourselves as an underdog trying to overcome impossible odds.

This impulse also sets up an us-versus-them mentality that can lead to both cheering and fighting.

When our team does win, we feel the desire to join other fans and celebrate in the streets like it was a festival or parade.

But this tendency has its dark side as well, and it can easily turn to aggression against the fans of the opposing team or even bystanders with no interest in sports at all. In the end, our desire to belong often goes hand-in-hand with our desire to exclude.

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