Thursday, March 10, 2016

Book Review: This is Your Brain on Sports by Wertheim and Sommers

I’m not into sports. I don’t root for any teams and have no interest in the Olympics, World Cup, Superbowl, or anything that requires sweaty people to vie for a trophy. The quirky aspects of both fans and athletes has always been a mystery to me, but thanks to Wertheim and Sommers I have a better understanding of people who sit in a stadium with giant cheese wedge hats on their heads. The nature of sports turns out to be not much different from other forces that shape human behavior. Athletes and fans aren’t so crazy after all, and after reading this engaging book I realize I’m actually more like them then I care to admit.

The book examines sports from many aspects; behavioral psychology, marketing, economics, with a dash of evolutionary biology thrown in. Part of the fun is the often lighthearted approach seasoning the science. Why are quarterbacks always so darn good looking? Blame part of the reason on the halo effect which endows qualities of attractiveness to those in positions of authority or command.

A fascinating section on underdogs explains fan loyalty with teams in the bottom of the rankings. According to studies, the struggle to rise to the top is enough to engage support. As Wertheim and Sommers note, the role of the underdog seems natural. Losers are more human, poor schlubs striving to overcome obstacles like the rest of us. We relate better to them than those with godlike physical talents and attributes. People also frame the performance of a longshot more favorably; the humble, scrappy losers are endowed with more character than those prideful adversaries who stomped all over them. You don’t have to be a sports fan to understand.

This book isn’t a sugarcoated treatise on the benefits of sports. Negative aspects of competition are given an evenhanded investigation. A section on violence explains the link to arousal, and the authors draw interesting parallels between sport's violence,  the ability to negotiate a business deal, and ad agencies using arousal to cajole consumers to buy. Apparently sex not only sells, but also, according to research, doesn't detract from an athlete's abilities. Remaining celibate before the big game to improve performance is a myth. 

What I particularly enjoyed about This is your Brain on Sports is that it’s written for the fan and nonfan alike. The book is both entertaining and thoughtful. Even when the authors go deep into the science, explanations are easy for the layman to follow. Everyone will come away with a little better understanding of not just sports, but human behavior as well.  Sure, sports fans are a little crazy, but apparently so are the rest of us. Now, hand me my giant cheese wedge hat.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for a review.