Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sports and superstitions

I have a confession. Even though I feel that "sophisticated scientists" such as myself should be spending their free time analyzing their environment or reading philosophy or something else that is just so intellectual, I cannot help the fact that I love football (or soccer if you are an American).

Since I was four years old and my role model at the time, Peter Schmeichel played at the club I have been a loyal Manchester United supporter. I probably watch at least ninety percent of their games live on TV and have seen them once in real life. Much to my wife's distaste, the perfect Saturday for me involves crisps, beer, feet on the table and Manchester United performing one of their amazing comebacks in Fergie time against a rival such as Manchester City.

I acknowledge that there are many things you could potentially dislike about sports in general and football in particular. The extremely childish supporters is the first thing that comes to mind. Though Manchester City is of course a despicable and arrogant team that would be nobodies had it not been for oil money (;)), I would never dream of starting a fight or a brawl because another person were supporting them. I really don't see the point of that. Yet many people apparently do not see it that way and gladly put themselves in harms way to get a chance to best supporters from the other team. My own hypothesis is that such people merely use sports as am excuse to be able to do stupid things they would have done anyway.

The gambling aspect of the sports world is perhaps equally ugly. Gambling is of course intrinsically attractive to the human mind and winning a bet feels rewarding in the same way that taking drugs is rewarding. I am confident that people would gamble independent of sports but I still get a bad taste when I think of the way that sports and soccer in particular gets associated with gambling. This actually takes me to what I really wanted to write about here. Sports association with gambling and violence is very is unfortunate even if sports may only be the current outlet for basic human instincts.

What annoys me most however is all the superstitious sport stars out there. Today, when Bayern M√ľnchen take on Barcelona in the champions league semi final it is a fair bet that Lionel Messi will score a goal, because that is what he does. Who will get the credit if he does indeed manage to dance past 10 german goliats? You can be assured that Messi will point to the sky as if to say that it is God who awarded him the goal. If we grant for  a moment that God really does exist, would he really care who won the game and if so would he use his divine powers to interfere in a game and award one team a goal. If he is prepared to let innocent children starve to death every day, would he really use his powers to interfere in a soccer game? Messi is not the worst though. Javier Hernandez flamboyant religious displays makes Messi seem discrete. Before every game, Hernandez goes down on his knees on the midline, closes his eyes, raises his arms and brings his thump and index finger together. He sits there for about half a minute, then gets up and plays. Now if I was a soccer player I would feel quite odd at this sight, and judging by the look of his Manchester United team mates, they do too (a feeling that is probably shared by the other 70.000 people attending the game, plus another 50 million people at home). Thankfully, Hernandez is a so called super-sub which means that he only starts a minority of all the games (is this because Fergie thinks it is stupid too?).

Why do so many sport stars continue believing that they are benefactors of divine intervention? Apart from not having thought it through, my guess is that they are victims of schedules of random reinforcements. If a rat is rewarded with sweet tasking food every time he/she presses a lever, it get boring quite soon. If the rat gets a reward after a specified number of lever presses, he or she will keep going a bit longer. However, if the rat is rewarded after a randomized number of lever presses they will keep pressing that lever for a very long time.

For anyone who is giggling, thinking "silly rats", I want to immediately point out that humans are the same. If you go to Las Vegas or Macao (which I learned have casinos that earn six times as much as Las Vegas), you will see many people pressing levers for rewards that come after a randomized number of trials. Oftentimes, these rats... no I mean... humans, will spend all their money to perform these lever presses.

So back to sport stars. On some occasions Hernandez prayers will coincide with scoring a goal or even two goals. It does evidently not happen on every occasion, but sometimes. In other words Hernandez is really just like a rat pressing a lever... Whenever he gets the reward (such as a goal), it will be hugely rewarding, thus reinforcing the behavior. This explains all sorts of superstitions in sports (I only used Hernandez as an example). For instance, swedish hockey player usually don't shave throughout the end-season, and I have even heard rumors that they don't wash their underwear, which makes me look like a pretty good husband despite my love for football


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