This Is Your Brain on Sports | L. Jon Wertheim

Summary of: 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


Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for a fascinating exploration of the human mind through the lens of sports! ‘This Is Your Brain on Sports’ unveils the psychological and emotional factors influencing both athletes and fans. Delve into the world of underdogs, rivalry, and effort justification as this book summary uncovers the reasons behind our love for sports and how we relate to them in our day-to-day lives. You’ll discover the factors driving the halo effect, the curse of the expert, and the significance of hot and cool cognitive states. Get ready to unravel the mind games of sports and their broader implications in our daily lives!

The appeal of an underdog

Why we love rooting for the unlikely victors

Humans love to root for the underdog, even when logic dictates that they are unlikely to emerge victorious. The appeal of the underdog phenomenon appears to be the possibility of an unexpected outcome, which reinforces our desire for unlikely things to happen. Sympathy for those who are considered weak and the desire for the unthinkable contribute to this phenomenon. This plays on our personal situations in life, and portraying ourselves as an underdog stirs our emotions. The “us-versus-them” mentality this creates can lead to both celebration and hostility. One study conducted at the University of South Florida where students were presented with different maps of the Israel-Palestine region reinforced this. The students cheered for Israel when they were presented as the underdogs surrounded and outnumbered by larger Muslim-majority countries. Consequently, when the students received different maps that portrayed the main territory as Israel, with its settlements encroaching on Palestinian territory, most of them cheered for Palestine. While this is an exciting phenomenon, it also has a dark side. It is common to see aggression against supporters of opposing teams or even bystanders who have no interest in sports. Whilst the underdog scenario is compelling, it creates an “us-versus-them” dynamic that is sometimes toxic.

The Halo Effect and Effort Justification

Our perception of leaders is influenced by physical appearance, while effort justification affects decisions in sports management.

Have you ever wondered why we perceive successful people in one area to be successful in other areas as well? This is called the Halo Effect, and it affects our judgment in sports and leadership. The tiniest physical features of a person can influence how we perceive their ability to lead, according to research by psychologist Nick Rule. Coaches, for example, may consider a young football player’s broad shoulders as a sign of how good he’ll be as a quarterback.

Effort justification is another psychological effect commonly seen in sports. We tend to value things we put more effort into, as in the IKEA Effect, where we appreciate furniture more when we assemble it ourselves. This applies to sports management as well. A manager may keep a troublesome player on the team longer if they put a lot of effort into improving them, even if there’s not much improvement. Meanwhile, a player who doesn’t require much effort from management may be let go, even if they perform well.

Understanding these effects is crucial in sports and leadership, where judgments about a person’s ability to lead or perform can have significant consequences.

The Curse of the Expert

When it comes to promoting someone to a higher position, relying solely on statistics may not be the best approach. This is due to the curse of the expert. This phenomenon causes experts to have trouble explaining their skills or putting themselves in the shoes of a novice. Ego is a crucial factor that contributes to the curse of the expert. Successful athletes need self-confidence to excel, but it tends to hinder coaching as it focuses on others’ needs. This self-confidence can also result in a totalitarian ego, leading to an obsession with oneself rather than focusing on the team’s success. The curse of the expert is prevalent in fields like sports, where Hall of Famers become poor managers, while players with less impressive careers excel in managing positions. Michael Jordan is a prime example of succumbing to the curse of the expert as a player turned president of basketball operations.

Impulses in Sports

The success of athletes in sports largely depends on their impulses, which make split-second decisions possible, but can also lead to regrettable actions. Positron emission topography (PET) scans reveal two distinct states of being: a cool state and a hot state. The hot state is characterized by emotional responses, shutting down pathways that facilitate higher-level thoughts and leading to bad decisions. However, hot impulses have been crucial for human survival by enabling quick action in dangerous situations. In sports, impulses determine whether you win or lose. Rivalry is another intense aspect of sports that often pushes competitors to their limits, leading to healthy competition and improved performance. The same can happen in business when companies compete to be the best they can be.

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