Tag Archives: Sports

Champions Show War Ability

Sports make sense as a way for individuals to develop and show off certain packages of physical and mental abilities. Team sports make sense as a way to show off such abilities in contexts of team production, which have long been especially relevant to human success. Of course we need not be consciously aware of this function; genetic and cultural evolution needed only make us inclined to do sports when that might make us get and look good.

When two teams play each other, the final score is a good summary about the relative abilities of the two teams. Of course there’s more info to be gleaned from game details, but not that much more. And if you can’t study those game details well yourself, but must instead rely on the judgments of others, a final score is admirably resistant to bias and lobbying.

Many sports have a regular season of games, following by a championship round designed to select a tree of “champions”, a tree whose root is the uber-champion of all. Often a “world champion”. This is somewhat puzzling, as individual championship games are not that much more diagnostic about team abilities than are regular season games, and there are far fewer championship games. Why count these games so much more than others?

One could use an elo-rating type system to estimate the abilities of each team based on their pairwise scores. Or one could use even fancier statistical systems to estimate distributions over team abilities, using scores and other data. Within such systems, championship games would be just a few more games, and not be given extra weight. If we just want to know about team abilities, why put so much weight on championships?

Arguably, through most of ancient history the main abilities that observers were interested in inferring and developing via sporting contests were war abilities. This is plausibly why most sports have long been team sports focused on war-like contests, relative to more common social contests. And in war, one mainly cares about abilities displayed in contexts where stakes are very high: hard battles where a large fraction of combatants die, as opposed to practice battles where at most a few are injured.

So championships plausibly exist as a way to focus sporting displays on high stakes contexts. The closer a team gets to the root of the championship tree, the more is at stake in each game, and the better that game’s score becomes as a measure of player abilities in high stakes contexts.

Yes, outside of sports the stakes do vary over contexts, and observers should want to see how individuals perform across a range of stake sizes. But as war is rare today, in our world success mostly comes from consistent quality over many low stakes contests, not from a few super-battles. Designing sporting contests to instead maximize an emphasis on the highest stakes possible seems better explained as a heritage of war. As are many other features of modern human attitudes and behaviors.

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Why Work Hour Limits?

Many laws discourage and limit work hours. Laws require holidays and vacations, limit hours per day and week, and require extra payment for work over these limits. And of course income taxes discourage work more generally. The standard economic explanation for these limits is to prevent inefficient signaling. People motivated to gain relative status, to show their extra dedication to success, and to appear more able, work extra hours, for a net social loss. Work hour limits can reduce such losses. (Academic articles here, here, here, here, here.)

This argument makes some sense, but it would make a lot more sense if we set broader and more consistent limits. Yet we don’t at all limit housework, and place few limits on self-employed work. Furthermore, high status occupations are especially exempt. Doctors, lawyers, managers, financiers, artists, writers, athletes, academics, and software engineers often work crazy hours. Yet the signaling argument would seem to apply nearly as well if not better to such high status work. Why are we so selective in our limits?

One explanation is a battle for relative status between professions and activities. Areas where work hours are limited produce less, and so look less impressive. Ambitious folks who want to show their high abilities then choose other areas, leading to an equilibrium were observers reasonably less respect folks who work in limited areas. On this story, work hour limits were set in manufacturing and manual labor in order to reduce the status of such activities.

A second related explanation is that each society is eager to look good to other societies. So each society prefers to encourage, not discourage, activities that are especially visible to outsiders. When outsiders evaluate societies more on the basis of their athletes than their shop technicians, societies naturally subsidize the former relative to the latter.

Another third explanation is that voters support limits on work hours in some jobs mainly as a way to defy and “stick it to” employers, who are seen as evil and in need of taking down. Firms who employ low status workers may themselves seem lower status and “exploitive,” and thus more acceptable targets of ire. Work hour limits serve as a quantity limit which raises wages and thus employer expenses. Any reduction of signaling losses is nice, but mainly a side effect.

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Moneyball Slavery

Moneyball is a good movie – it is fun to see an underdog economist start a revolution somewhere. (Though I’d be more inspired if I could see more clearly how the world is better because of this revolution. Are fans happier now? Players? Who?)

Along the way, the movie vividly depicts profit-driven buying and selling of people, over which the people involved have little say. If traded, players must immediately move across the country, with little compensation. On the screen, it sure looks a lot like slavery. But I can’t find a single mention of slavery in any of the Moneyball commentary. It seems viewers don’t even notice the issue — even viewers who don’t know or care much for baseball, and doubt baseball makes the world a better place.

This supports the theory that we see “slavery” as low status by definition – so by definition anyone high status can’t be a slave. You may recall that in May I wrote:

Bryan is probably right – we don’t call conscripts slaves, but do call comfort women slaves, because the first is high status and the second low. … On reflection, the main effect here is probably that many people take “slavery is bad” to be part of the definition of slavery. So therefore by definition anything good cannot be slavery. (more)

Here is some detail on trading of baseball players:

Players eligible for neither free agency nor salary arbitration are very seldom offered contracts for much more than the league minimum salary, as the player has no recourse to try to obtain a better salary elsewhere. For this reason, in the first three major league years of their careers (except for the “Super Two” exception above), it is standard practice for players to accept comparatively low salaries even when their performance is stellar. (more)

Added 10a: It is possible to be sold into slavery, or to sell oneself into slavery, so up front compensation is consistent with slavery. The key is that while you are a slave you have little control over what you do. The “degree” of slavery is set by the size of the penalty if you don’t follow orders. A death penalty makes for a strong slave, while merely being fired from your current job with many similar jobs available makes for a rather weak “slave.” In baseball, the penalty is pretty big — never again working in your chosen profession and life-calling, and having almost no prospect for anything remotely as fun or profitable. For an analogy, imagine that if you don’t do what your boss says, you must to move permanently to a poor country where you don’t know anyone and have no unusually valuable skills.  That is a strong enough commitment that I’d be tempted to call it “slavery.” Even though you still have a choice.

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Sport Fan Signals

Wayne Norman on what sports fans signal:

  • Hey! you and I like the same team or sport, so we have something important in common… and maybe more; or at least we don’t have to fight each other.
  • Hey, you like a different team than me: we have to fight!
  • Look at me, I love this team, I bleed their colors, whatever you think about this team (and its brand) you can think about me.
  • You may think of me as a serious, professional, no-nonsense kind of person (or a nerdy anti-social kid…); but look, I’m passionate about this sport, so I’m actually a more normal, approachable person than you thought. …

Even couch potatoes who watch most of their games at home alone on TV feel themselves to be a part of a shared cultural experience. What happens in the game matters to them in part because of all the ways it matters to others. It may form part of their discourse with others at work or elsewhere; but even if it doesn’t they participate in a simulated discussion through debates shows on TV, and whatever they can read in papers and blogs.

While I can see that some folks might want to say such things about themselves, I don’t feel much inclined to say such things about me.  Which I guess helps explain why I’m not much of a sports fan.

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Why No Gather-Sport?

Male and female minds and bodies are optimized for somewhat different purposes. Our distant male ancestors tended to hunt and fight more, while females tended more to gather and care for kids. For example:

Researchers tracked men and women from a rural village in Mexico as they foraged for mushrooms. … Men were less efficient–they traveled farther, went higher, and exerted more effort than women for the same amount of mushrooms. Women also collected a greater variety of mushrooms from more sites. This pattern is consistent with the theory that, during the hunter-gatherer period of human evolution, women honed spatial skills needed for gathering while men honed spatial skills needed for hunting. (more)

Now sports let us show off many kinds of physically-expressed abilities. But it seems to me that most sports emphasize hunting skills, such as chasing, evading, throwing, and hitting, far more than gathering skills, such as visual search and fine finger control. Now it makes sense for men to prefer hunting sports, but oddly females also seem to prefer them; pretty much all sports emphasize hunting more than gathering skills. Why don’t women prefer sports designed to show off the skills for which female bodies were designed?

Now men do seem more keen to show off than women, who seem more keen to observe and evaluate. So we should expect to see more men than women doing sports. And if the fixed costs of creating a sport were high enough, there’d be only one or two sports to play, and they might all be tuned for men. But this hardly describes our world.

Men also seem in general to have more skill variance than women. So if only a small fraction of people, the very best few, played sports, we might expect most of them to be men, even in sports that emphasized gathering skills.  We might prefer sports that show off male skills best, if would be mostly men playing no matter what the sport was. But in fact most people, including most women, play sports, at least during their school years.

So why do both men and women prefer sports that emphasize male hunting type physical skills, over female gathering type skills? Looking for parallels, I notice that women are said to look good in male-style clothes (e.g., suits), far more than men are said to look good in female-style clothes (e.g., dresses). Women also earn more respect succeeding at male-dominated professions than men earn by succeeding at female-dominated professions.

The general pattern in all three cases is that we seem to respect women doing well at what mostly men do far more than we respect men doing well at what mostly women do. For better or worse, male abilities seem to more define which abilities count most for high status. Doesn’t seem fair to women, but there it is.

Added 12a: Yes there are activities that are like gathering.  But to be a sport, an activity must be scored and publicly ranked.

Added 5p: The main puzzle is school girl sports, as adult women do far less sport. The main alternative would be to make fem kids be physically active, but in some more fem like gathering way.  Perhaps this is part of how schools acclimate kids to being ranked – the quick and easy way to do that for girls was to make girls compete in male sports.   Inventing competitive gathering type sports would have taken a lot more work.

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Who Should Get A Life?

A common complaint about nerds is that they should “get a life.” For example, parents, teachers, etc. feel quite justifying in tsk-tsking hackers who spend most of their hours in front of a computer screen. Interestingly, we don’t feel much inclined to complain about athletes who are similarly focused. Alex quotes Wallace ’95:

It’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. … The actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them. … Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce.

This seems to me yet another example of people picking on nerds more because nerds are widely disliked.

Added 11a: Many suggest that “get a life” means “get popular, high status.”  OK, I can buy that.

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Blood On Our Hands

Ironically, rules to prevent blood from appearing on our hands, put blood on our hands.

Somewhere along the line, someone gave me the impression that boxing gloves made boxing safer. I learned to look down on ignorant ancestors or lowlifes who boxed with bare-knuckles. But in fact, we’ve known for a century that gloves make boxing far more dangerous:

The Marquess of Queensberry rules [requiring boxing gloves] took off not because society viewed the new sport as more civilised than the old, but because fights conducted under the new guidelines attracted more spectators. Audiences wanted to see repeated blows to the head and dramatic knockouts.

By contrast,… “In 100 years of bare-knuckle fighting in the United States, which terminated around 1897 … there wasn’t a single ring fatality.” Today, there are three or four every year in the US, and around 15 per cent of professional fighters suffer some form of permanent brain damage during their career. … A return to bare knuckles would be bloodier and less acceptable to mass television audiences, but one has to ask whether wheelchairs and life-support machines are any easier on one’s conscience.

Imagine proposing to your friends that they attend a bloody bare-knuckles fight, or mentioning to them that you had done so. I expect that for most folks, doing so would risk more social shame than for glove boxing. But why, if glove boxing is more dangerous?

Yes, perhaps most folks don’t know glove boxing hurts more, but how could such easily understood info of such wide relevance remain hidden for so long? It seems hard to escape the conclusion that we just don’t want to know.

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Athletes vs. Musicians

Consider three kinds of celebrities: politicians, athletes, and musicians. We clearly hold politicians to higher moral and social standards than we do musicians. This makes sense because we feel more vulnerable to bad behavior by politicians than by musicians. An out of control politician could kill us all, while an out of control musician would at worst just fail to make music we like.

What about athletes? While we may not hold athletes to the high of standards we hold politicians, we clearly hold them to higher standards than musicians. Tiger Woods was vilified for moral violations that wouldn’t be worth reporting about a musician. Yet the above explanation for politicians vs. musicians doesn’t work here. While we are no more vulnerable to athletes than to musicians, we still hold athletes to a higher standard.

For our distant ancestors, athletic skill was much closer to political power. Small forager bands feared that the few most physically powerful members would attempt to dominate the band by force. Foragers had much less reason to fear domination by the few most musical folks in the band. So it made sense for foragers to hold athletes to higher moral standards than musicians.

So I suspect our tendency to hold athletes to higher standards than musicians is a holdover from our forager days; I’d explain similarly the fact that it is easier for an athlete than a musician to covert into a politician.

We can understand why we treat different kinds of celebrities differently today in terms of reasons our distant forager ancestors had to treat them differently.  Can this approach help us understand our differing treatments of other kinds of celebrities?

Added 7p: The fact that athletes are held up as role models seems less an explanation for them being held to higher standards, and more as a restatement of the question. I’m not saying athletes are actually more moral, just that they are punished more severely when caught.  I think the fact that we tolerate far more subjectivity in judging musicians than athletes is also related, but I’m not sure how.

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Underdog Fever Is Far

We inherited from our forager ancestors a strong social norm of coordinating to resist dominance. But we follow this norm more in far mode than in near. Other folks far away, they should indignantly rebel and overthrow their oppressors, but we here must be careful and not oversimplify things.  For example, voters in other districts should throw out their corrupt politicians, but thankfully we can trust our politicians.

Also, when have little personally at stake, we support underdogs in sports, politics, and business. We overestimate their chances, and think them relatively hard-working, likable, virtuous, and beautiful. A sports team who is likely to win but gets paid less, however, is the underdog – dominance is more about overall gains than wins. But if we think a contest is close or important, such as if a business is close to home or if lives are on the line, we prefer overdogs. Details:

Two teams, A and B, were meeting in a best-of-seven playoff series for some unidentified sport, and Team A was “highly favored” to win. Which team would the students root for? Eighty-one percent chose the underdog. Then the students were asked to imagine that Team B had somehow managed to win the first three games of the series. … Half of those who first picked the underdog now said they’d support Team A. …

[Researchers] invited students to read a fake newspaper article about an upcoming rugby match. According to the article, odds makers had given one of the teams just a 30 percent chance of victory. When asked to make their own predictions, the students were more optimistic. Instead of pegging the underdog’s odds at 30 percent, they guessed it was more like 41 percent. If the article specifically referred to the disadvantaged team as an “underdog,” the effect was even stronger, with the students pegging the chance of victory at 44 percent. .. Replacing the rugby teams with mayoral candidates and then a pair of businesses competing for a contract, … the results were the same. …

Our love for the little guy is as much a judgment of character as an emotional investment. … Two-thirds of all voters in the 2004 presidential election described their preferred candidate as the “underdog.” … Presidential candidates were deemed more likable after being characterized as an “underdog”. … Being cast as the underdog can make your actions seem more virtuous and your face appear more beautiful. …

One side was described as the 9-to-1 favorite, having won each of 15 previous playoff matches. After viewing footage … the underdogs were characterized as having less “talent” and “intelligence” than the favorites but more “hustle” and “heart.” That was true even when subjects viewed the same video clip with the labels reversed. … In fact, recent data suggest that the underdogs might be dogging it. …

Two teams, A and B, are about to play an important match, for which Team A was the odds-on (7-to-3) favorite. … The students were to imagine that the players on Team A had lower salaries than the ones on Team B—their payrolls were $35 million and $100 million, respectively. … Two-thirds supported the favorite, Team A. … This was evidence that inequity aversion drives the underdog effect, “above and beyond” emotional self interest. …

A pair of companies were vying for a contract to test the drinking water in far-off Boise, Idaho. One was a large, well-established firm founded 30 years ago; the other was an eager startup. … People were inclined toward the underdog. But … if the subjects were told that the water in question might contain “cancer-causing mercury,” the underdog effect disappeared. And if the site of the water testing was changed from “Boise, Idaho” to somewhere in their own community, … subjects started rooting against the underdog.

Our affinity for the lesser team “is a mile wide and an inch deep. … We may feel morally good about rooting for the underdog, but our positive reaction is quite malleable.” … Perhaps that’s why the underdog seems most at home in the trivial world of team sports. With nothing much at stake, we’re free to indulge an idle preference for an upset. “At an unconscious level, we know we don’t take underdogs all that seriously.”

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Legalize Dud Drugs

According to Engber[‘s article], Human Growth Hormone (HGH or GH) has little to no performance enhancing-benefits. … I have the benefit of working down the hall from several exercise physiologists.  I forwarded [his] article to my colleague, John McLester. … “Oh yeah, I agree with [Engber]. This isn’t even controversial in exercise physiology. … There is no evidence of [benefit from bigger muscles]. It seems that the muscle that is developed is abnormal and not mature. I’ll point you to some studies (see below). …

With [Major League Baseball]’s adoption of mandatory testing for steroids, many thought that home run rates would drop dramatically. They didn’t, and many felt that the lack of a test for HGH could be part of the explanation. Well, it’s time for the scientists working on such a test to start something else more important.

That is John Bradbury.  He interprets:

The illegality of growth hormone actually promotes its use in sports. … The banning of a drug by anti-doping authorities sends a loud and incorrect signal that it works. … Therefore, I believe that legalizing growth hormone is needed to send the signal that it doesn’t work, largely to undo the widespread common belief that growth hormone does improve performance. … Think of the powerful effect it would have if MLB pulled growth hormone off its banned list. I can’t imagine a more powerful signal of a drug’s lack of potency as a performance enhancer. If we are going to be paternalists, let’s be effective paternalists.

Added 5Mar: See also here, HT Tyler.

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