Monday, March 26, 2007

Terror management theory and the old ballgame

Alan Schwarz talks of revamping the schedule. (Hat tip: Dan Fox)

Bill James gives an interview over at Shea Faithful. (Hat tip: Baseball Musings)

Tango Tiger has a nice little rant on American culture and the over-romanticization of baseball.

A few comments on the Tango piece from a psychological perspective. He's right that people get dewey-eyed at the very idea of baseball and are much more shocked than they should be at the thought of baseball players behaving badly. The Catch-22 is that the problem of players behaving badly may actually increase the over-romanticization of the game.

A small introduction to the concept of terror management theory. (No, I haven't become "Baseball National Security Advisor") Terror management theory says that when someone experiences a threat (direct or indirect) to something that they hold dear, whether it is their life, their family, or their worldview, they respond by clinging on more tightly to everything they hold dear and begin to try to fashion some meaning out of it. (They "manage" the terror invoked by such a threat, not by confronting it and dealing directly with it, but by becoming more involved in other things.) The theory was developed in the mid-80s, but came to a very real demonstration with the 9/11 attacks. People were suddenly very aware of their own mortaility and security. What happened? Somewhat incongruously, everyone began buying American flags and flag lapel pins... as if that was going to stop Osama or bring back the dead. For months, all anyone wanted to talk about was how great America was, despite the fact that before the attacks, that sort of discussion wasn't really going on. Churches saw their attendance figures swell.

People were clinging to what they knew and places that could help them make meaning of life.

Fast forward to the baseball steroid scandal, the most recent big threat to the "integrity" of the game. I don't know whether individual players took steroids or not, but something about it sure doesn't pass the "smell test." Baseball fans see that and if the allegations are true, it does represent a challenge to the "purity" of the game.

Where did we get the idea of baseball as "pure?" If there is a game intertwined with the heart and soul of the American culture, it is baseball. The game has a special place in our cultural mythology that simply can't be touched by football or basketball. Perhaps the only proper parallel would be football/soccer in Europe and South America. We are a baseball culture. And, thanks to another wonderful psychological mechanism, the self-serving bias, we are the greatest thing ever put on the earth. (Doesn't matter whom you ask or in what setting. People almost always describe themselves...and people like them... as good and righteous.) By extension, baseball must be good, righteous, and pure.

So given these circumstances, when a threat to the "purity" of baseball comes along, psychology would predict not that people would become more disillusioned with some of the men who play it (confronting reality), but instead will cling more tightly to abstract ideas of "baseball as America" and celebrating the "untarnished spirit" (whatever that means...) of baseball.

Baseball, unfortunately, is not a transcendent force. It's a game played by imperfect humans. A game that has a good deal of beautiful poetry written about it and a great deal more that can be written. I love the game, but it's just a game.

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