Insincere Cheers

As my son is a senior marching band drum major, Friday I went to a local high school football game to film him for posterity.  And I noticed something obvious.

People like to cheer their teams on, but prefer to be encouraged by announcers, cheerleaders, bands, pep squads, and so on.  And while fans seem to care that these various leaders of cheer are impressive and loyal, fans don’t seem to care nearly as much if these leaders sound sincere.  The announcer carefully controlled his voice inflections, the cheerleaders carefully synchronized their arm movements, and everything they said was consistently loyal, but you couldn’t possibly have mistaken them for people who deeply and sincerely believed the words they spoke.

Sport cheers are often considered an analogy to political and ideological partisanship; we like to vote and declare our opinions similar to the way we like to cheer sport teams.  We prefer to support positions that have have loyal impressive cheerleaders.  It is nice if those cheerleaders are also sincere, but it is not especially important to us.  It is, however, important that our idea cheerleaders be impressive and loyal.  We might eagerly point out when leaders on the other side sound insincere, but that is mostly hypocrisy, since we don’t care much about our leaders’ sincerity.   

Just as we care more that our team wins than that they were actually the strongest team, we probably care more that our idea sides look good than that our ideas are true.

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  • Ben Jones

    Here’s a very sincere question Robin – have you ever really got behind a sporting team?

    Football (sawwker) is my sport, and my anecdotal evidence is, for the most part, taken from that.

    I would be the first to point to the evolutionary motivations for supporting teams, feeling tribal, chanting etc. I will also grant that many players and coaches can be mercenaries, and of course cheerleaders probably don’t care for the most part. However, I can vouch for the existence of the die-hard fans who are not only more sincere when cheering for their team than when talking to their friends and family, but who also genuinely care about the football their teams play.

    Anyone familiar with the Premier League will recognise the recent discord at Chelsea, who were steamrolling the opposition with flat, dull, effective play, and won two Championships with Jose Mourinho in charge. This wouldn’t be a problem for the type of fan Robin describes. However, the season-ticket holding lifetime fans were certainly not happy, and neither was the owner. Out went Mourinho. The more expansive passing game introduced by Luiz Felipe Scolari this season has been well-received by those who understand the art.

    From inside the game, the truth of the idea is very important indeed, often more important even than the winning. I’ve no doubt the same can, and often does, apply to politics.

  • Aaron

    Although I do agree that people get caught up in their parties ideology, I think this analogy might be a stretch. I’ve known a lot of people who grew more conservative when they grew increasingly disturbed by larger tax bills. Sports fans are usually ridiculously loyal, due to the fact that who wins or loses carries no repercussions beyond who gets to go to states, the bowl game, etc. There isn’t a right or wrong reason to root for a team, but the people I talk to don’t have arbitrary reasons for selecting which political party they affiliate with. Even moderates appear to me to be committed to the moderatism because it best reflects their viewpoint.

  • Micke

    It’s sort of ironic that the page title is “football-lesson”, since in football (you know, the sport actually played with the feet,as opposed to the US variant), you will find the most sincere cheering, singing and rooting anywhere. This is true both in Europe and South America and, I think, in Africa and some parts of Asia, even though it’s clearly not at all true in the US.

    I do agree that it’s a bit weird that so many Americans take sports so seriously, yet cheer so insincerely. But I’m reasonably certain that betting markets can fix this.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Ben and Micke, I’m not talking about fan sincerity, but about cheerleader sincerity.

    Aaron, I didn’t say people had arbitrary reasons for party affiliations.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    If I can try to summarize, the puzzle is that sincere fans don’t demand sincere cheerleaders.

  • http://blog.greenideas.com botogol

    Robin, I don’ think you’ve got to the bottom of this one: there is much other cultural ‘stuff’ going on and driving the behaviours you are noticing.

    For a start your opening premise seems to me not generic, but a very local observation “People like to cheer their teams on, but prefer to be encouraged by announcers, cheerleaders, bands, pep squads, and so on”.

    Well, perhaps in the US high-school football games, but this is hardly universal. EG Football (soccer) in the UK has none of that. Some rugby clubs in the UK do it a bit, but it’s far from clear that the the prmpts and cheerleaders are effective.

    So I think you have to start two steps back. Why are cheerleaders sometimes used and somtimes not? Are they used in ALL sports even in the US? If not, what distinguish the cheer-led sports/fans from the non-cheer-led?

  • Aaron

    Robin,

    I guess that’s just how I read that prior study regarding the moderates finding both parties fairly similar to one another. I agree with the idea that people like to support winners as opposed to the best ideals, strongest overall, etc. Being attracted to the most loyal and impressive cheerleaders, though, strikes me as moving towards values that are completely independent of the political process, which is a point I do think several other people other than yourself try to make. It’s one thing to say that out of a series of options, people select ones with the best chance of success. It’s quite another to say people are completely motivated by the external signaling of the various parties. But again, that’s just my take on how the discussion is being framed.

    All that said, how would you say the political process could be improved, making the cheerleading assumption? Since loyal and impressive is what we demand, is this knowledge already built into the process? Do we need more enthusiastic cheerleaders of different political stripes so that people can become more motivated by diverse ideas? Should we work against poll pollution à la Jason Brennan (http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/14923)?

    Aaron

  • Micke

    In European and South American football, there simply are no cheerleaders (American style). There may be a few guys coordinating a little of the singing/cheering/tifos. These people are *incredibly* serious about their fandom. So this is entirely a US phenomenon.

    Some non-popular sports in Europe, for instance basketball in those countries where it’s not very big, have imitated american style cheerleaders with pom poms, ridiculous announcers and a few other things you describe. Number of people falling for that and cheering extra because of it? Zero.

    I think most Americans would be very confused by actually attending a Swedish football match and a basketball match. The football match will have singing and cheering unlike anything an American has ever wittnesed, and no visible signs of who leads this. The basketball game will on the surface look a bit like a US high school game with cheerleaders and so on, but no actual emotions or reactions from the crowd.

    I can’t really think of a non-US example of sports fans being led by insincere cheerleaders and accepting it. Are there any?

  • Constant

    I think most Americans would be very confused by actually attending a Swedish football match and a basketball match.

    There are, of course, many popular American sports without cheerleaders. Baseball, for instance.

  • http://bccy.blogspot.com frelkins

    The issue, as is usual with the Hansonian, is larger than the specific example. I will venture that the core point is this:

    “We might eagerly point out when leaders on the other side sound insincere, but that is mostly hypocrisy, since we don’t care much about our leaders’ sincerity.”

    And I will venture a response: of course not, because people are monkeys and have a unique ability to design situations that monkeys can understand in a seemingly non-monkey world.

    In monkey world, juvenile males form hunting/exploring/military bands and patrol the fringes of the group’s territory. They struggle among themselves within and between bands for social order. Adult males spend a lot of time in male-only groups cultivating their hierarchy.

    There are relatively frequent challenges for leadership among these males. Sometimes these challenges are actually physical, but often they are display challenges such as chest-beating, vocalization, stick-pounding, and dust-stirring.

    These ancient structures may be reflected in, for example, hunter-gatherer groups, who while having a rather egalitarian structure compared to more specialized economies, still for the most part have an intricate system of male hunting-religious groups into which juvenile males are inducted.

    Modern societies replace these structures with others, such as sports affiliation. (This may explain why few care that much about women’s sports in the same way they do men’s sports, even the most vocal Title IX advocates.) While we tell ourselves the fiction that it’s women who mostly care about relationships, actually men have to care even more than women to maintain their place in a constantly fluid order.

    So for success, you have to belong to a group – and once inducted, you’re there. Evolution has perhaps given you a deep emotional component to find that place and be there. This is perhaps why people who move to different cities often retain their loyalty to the team of the previous city – they are emotionally fixed.

    But due to leadership challenges, perhaps you have be able to adapt to new leaders in the same group. In fact, you may have to seek to join the struggle yourself. The goal is social hierarchy prima facie. Because that’s how monkeys work.

    Thus people may not care that much about sincerity in cheerleaders, sports coaches, religious figures, CEOs, or politicians. We know the leader’s true goal is dominance per se, not particularly advancement of the supposed purpose of the group.

    We understand on some level that these structures are really about sorting the male monkey order, and safely handling potentially destructive challenges, so we don’t actually have deep expectations of a leader’s sincerity to any “cause.” But because we have personal reasons to be emotionally invested in group membership, we want to have the status-boost of belonging to one that outwardly impresses others through display to enhance our individual position.

    Of course each cultural structure will have its own methods of display, in the case of American football, cheerleaders.

  • Grant

    Couldn’t this just be a simple example of the collective action problem and social coordination?

    Loyal fans like to cheer, chant, etc (or at least I suppose they do, I must have been born without the gene that made me care about such things). One person can’t start a chant unless s/he has pull with the crowd. Cheerleaders have this pull, and so can fulfill the crowd’s demand for cheers. Sincerity isn’t necissary to do this.

    I’m not seeing anything irrational here, or with general leadership for that matter. Coordination is a service that doesn’t seem to require sincerity.

  • Grant

    frelkins,

    I think you’re stretching things a bit far. While everyone recognizes that many people like power (and so no one expects many CEOs to be terribly loyal), I think we can easily explain the success of insincere leaders. They provide public goods to their group, and so groups with good leaders tend to thrive and replace ones without. Stadiums and teams with good cheerleaders do the same. A good, disloyal CEO can pay more than a bad loyal one, and the numbers dictate there will be more of the former available.

    It may be that people also recognize insincere leaders are playing the same status game as them, but I think we’d have insincere (cheer)leaders even if that wasn’t the case. It just seems like good economics to me.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Some interesting answers suggested that cheerleaders are just there to get a job done, so it doesn’t matter if they’re sincere.

    But it does matter that they’re good-looking. That seems to refute those answers.

  • Patri Friedman

    As Grant says, I see the cheerleaders / announcer mainly as a synchronizing mechanism.

  • Grant

    But it does matter that they’re good-looking. That seems to refute those answers.

    Well in order to be a cheerleader, they need to be able to lead; they have to have some clout with the crowd. We all know about the traits that allow some humans to lead others more effectively (good looking, charismatic, etc). However, in many cases I don’t think looks matter. Mascots have some sort of charisma, but obviously no “looks” when dressed in a large costume. Those guys who show up shirtless and overweight with painted team colors on their skin don’t have a lot going for them in the looks department either.

    Hiring (or following) leaders with charisma just makes good business sense, even if it is only helpful because of ancient traits that emerged in tribal times.

  • http://www.bizop.ca/blog2/due-diligence/insincere-cheers.html THE BIZOP NEWS

    Insincere Cheers

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  • Joshua Fox

    Some houses of worship hire organists or choir members who do not belong to their religion. That always puzzled me.

  • Ben Jones

    Just as we care more that our team wins than that they were actually the strongest team, we probably care more that our idea sides look good than that our ideas are true.

    Robin, this is the bit I was responding to. Seems to me that this refers to supporters rather than disinterested cheerleaders.

  • David Peterson

    It’s funny you can see this at rock shows too with the band members saying “How’s everyone doing tonight?” and then holding the mic out to the crowd to cheer. They can even do it 2 more times if they act like the 1st and 2nd weren’t good enough.