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Why we still root for the Pirates: An interview with Eric Simons

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Journalist Eric Simons' new book, The Secret Lives Of Sports Fans (Overlook Duckworth), examines the psychological underpinnings of sports fandom. What makes us identify with our teams, and how do our brains respond when they win or lose? Pirates fans are clearly in a pretty unique position as sports fans, since we've gone two decades without receiving what would seem to be a key reward for our loyalty -- a winning season. As the Bucs hopefully bring their streak of losing seasons to an end, I spoke with Mr. Simons to find out what's made us stick with them this long.

Tell me why mirror neurons are important to sports fandom. What happens with our mirror neurons when, for example, Andrew McCutchen hits a home run?

These are really interesting new brain cells [scientists have] discovered. The idea is that you have a type of cell in your head that plans actions and that executes actions. And the way they found them is that they thought these two were separate, that you had to do the planning over here, and then you'd go somewhere else and you'd tell your body what to do.


They started in monkeys. They found that these monkeys that were hooked up to brain scanners, it didn't matter whether they were thinking about the action or whether they were actually doing the action. It seemed to be the same place. From there, they discovered that, whether you are doing the action, or whether you are thinking the action, or whether you're watching someone else do the action, it's all the same neurons, these mirror neurons, that are acting.

What it means for sports fans is that, when you're watching Andrew McCutchen batting, you're not just watching him swing and thinking about this swing. These neurons, the same neurons in your head that would swing a baseball bat if you were standing there, are running this simulation of him. And so when you see him take a good swing, when you see him connect, there's this feeling you get, 'Oh, I knew it was gone right away.' And the more you've done this, the more you know exactly what this person is doing. It moves even beyond that, to not just actions but emotions and gestures. You can read people's facial expressions -- you can read pain and joy. There's this argument that, basically, the root of our ability to understand other people is these remarkable mirror neurons.

But we're able to control mirror neurons.

Yeah. This is where they have to take things, I think. The mirror neurons are not fans, in any sense. They do this unconsciously, reflexively, for every human we've come across. And if you're a sports fan, you know that you may mirror Andrew McCutchen's joy, but you could watch someone else get hurt on another team and not care nearly as much, so you're not mirroring them as deeply. And the question is, well, even though this is, in a lot of ways, a reflex ... somehow, the data that's coming in is getting interpreted before you even have a chance to think about it. It's not like you think, 'Joey Votto is wearing Reds colors, so I'm not going to empathize with him.' By deciding that you're a Pirates fan, you in some sense predetermine that your mirror neurons are not going to empathize with rival teams, [and] that you're going to empathize more deeply with your own team.

And so the question of how this works is a pretty interesting one. The science on this is a lot less secure. So what we're doing right now is speculating a little bit that part of this is set up to tie into how you're rewarded for things. The way the brain makes you happy or makes you sad or makes you remember things that are useful to you is also telling your mirror neuron system what to do.

Tell me about social defeat, which surely would be of interest to Pirates fans.

This one leaped out at me because I'm a fan of the Cal football team, which hasn't won anything in 50 years, and I'm a fan of the San Jose Sharks, who are always good but never quite good enough.

One thing that researchers are really curious about is what happens when your brain is stressed out all the time, and, specifically, what happens when you are at the low end of the hierarchy in a group of animals. And so what they do is they take these rats or mice, and they'll take your average small little rat, happy little guy, and they'll put him in a cage with a large, aggressive, territorial rat. And they'll wait for the nice normal little rat to cower (and) say, 'I'm defeated, I give up,' to acknowledge the other rat's dominance. And then they pull it out of the cage, and then they do this every day for a couple days.

What happens is, after five or six days in a row, this rat completely changes. It becomes depressed. It loses interest in sex, it loses interest in play. Rats love to swim, [and] it doesn't want to swim. It doesn't want to eat. It just becomes this horrible, sad-sack rat that loses all the time. And I read this and I was like, 'Here's what happens to me when I watch Cal football!' I think every fan out there in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Buffalo is just reading this like, 'I'm that rat! That's me! They put me in a cage with the larger, aggressive, territorial asshole rat from wherever, and I lose.'

But not completely, fortunately for us. Because even when our teams lose, [we're] able to pick out some good things about it. But there is a little bit of an explanation there, I think, for why a loss feels so depressing.

It's not as if, as a Pirates fan or a Cal fan, we get addicted to cocaine, like the rats in the studies.

There's two parts. One is that we have other things going on in our lives. You have family, and you have, hopefully, other hobbies. You can go out with your friends and probably feel better. All this stuff will mitigate losing all the time.

But the other thing is that, actually, some of the rewards in sports are not tied to winning and losing. I think one of the lessons from sports is that in the brain's hierarchy [are] questions about, Who am I? Where do I come from? And what's meaningful to me? To be able to tie yourself to a team and use the team to answer those questions is more important than the team making you happy. The Pirates really provide you with a source of identity. They're able to tell you who you are, and they're able to tell you where you're from. You feel part of the fanbase that's loyal and proud, despite all the failure. You're willing to put up with the losing, even though you'd prefer that they win. And you're not becoming the rat, because you are getting rewards out of this.

You talk a lot about identity in the book, and you connect it to this idea called the social prosthetic system.

That's an extension of this argument that these teams are providing us with a concept of ourselves. I think there's a lot of research that suggests they can go even further with it. And actually, this is what we do when we have relationships with other people. The idea of social prosthetics is that, even though it looks like we are having relationships with other people because you're interested in them, really it's all about you, in some sense. It's a form of distributive processing. You're using their resources, their abilities, their talents, to help you get through the day. Part of the reason you get so into relationships is because they offer you these ways of expanding what you are.

And part of what you can say about a sports team is that, if it has an identity, as most sports teams do, you look at, What does the team stand for? Who is this team? And then you can kind of expand yourself to include all of those ideas. From as simple as, "I like black and gold," to, "This is a blue-collar team that hustles, and I am a blue-collar guy [who] hustles." Any of that stuff, you can adopt as your own, or it can confirm what you already know about yourself. So what the relationship [psychologists] find when they look at people in relationships is that not only is this the theory, but it actually seems to be literally true. For example, if you ask people who are in a close relationship about things that are true of them and false of the person they're in a relationship with, it takes them a little bit longer, because we really get confused about who is who.

And I think this is what's happening with sports teams. You start to really become the Pittsburgh Pirates, so that when they succeed or they fail, it really processes a little bit in your brain as if you have succeeded or failed.

You also write about B.F. Skinner's idea of operant conditioning. What does that mean in the context of being a Pirates fan?

This is basically Pavlov, with a twist. You know the idea of [Pavlovian conditioning] -- you give the dog food, and it salivates, and you ring the bell every time you bring the food, and if you do this often enough, you don't even have to bring the food. You just ring the bell, and the dog starts to salivate.

Well, [Skinner] was trying to get pigeons to behave a certain way, and he [would give] a reward for doing an action, like raising their heads. The pigeon would lift its head, and it would get the reward. The pigeon would learn pretty quickly. What he was interested in, which is what I was interested in in sports fans, is [what happens when] you stop giving the reward. Once the pigeon has learned to do this, how long does it take for them to stop doing it?

If pigeons get a reward all the time, and then stop getting the reward entirely, they'll stop really quickly. And likewise, the ones who just get a reward every time, and you keep giving them rewards whether they raise their heads or not, they'll stop raising their heads. But the ones where you give them a reward variably, where, sometimes you give it to them for raising their heads and sometimes you don't, and you make it random, they will keep [raising their heads] after you stop giving them rewards for a really, really long time.

The argument is the way their brains work is the way our brains work. We really want to know what got us this reward. When it comes every time, the rule is really obvious. But if you get one sometimes, your brain says, 'I can figure this out.' You stick with it. You keep raising your head. Or, in the case of the Pirates fan, you keep going to the games. Because you're waiting for this reward that you've seen is possible. You know it can happen, but you're not quite sure why. This is the same [principle] that slot machines take advantage of. There's no rule. And sports is just like it. Sports is random -- I mean, for the most part. The outcome can't be predicted.

And so, as a Pirates fan, you are rewarded. Even in their worst years, you win 60 or 70 games. And every game you go to is unpredictable. You really want to stay with them until you figure out why they win. Obviously, this is not conscious -- you're not saying, 'I'm going to stick with these guys until I figure out the rule.' But it attracts your brain very powerfully.

But we're also calibrating our expectations of the team to the probability that they will actually win, or that they will actually produce some kind of reward for us.

This is really important. There's a neuroscientist at Cambridge who's done a lot of this work. The reason we respond to rewards is because it helps us find things in an otherwise difficult universe. When you get something useful in the world, you need to remember how you got it. You get this little surge of dopamine, and it makes you feel good, and it activates your memory. It says, 'Oh hey, that felt good. We should remember this,' and it helps you to find it again.

In part, what your brain does is remember how difficult to get it and how likely it is to get it again, and it turns out that the amount of dopamine you get is basically proportional to how expected the reward was. So if you remembered it once, for example, and then you get it again the next time, you don't need much dopamine because you don't have to remember. If you didn't expect it at all, you really want to remember it, and so you get a huge amount of dopamine. It makes you feel great, because here's something really worth remembering.

For a sports fan, your brain is kind of like a big bookie, and every time your team wins or loses, it does an amazing calculation of how likely that was to happen, and the amount of dopamine you get as a result is based on that prediction. This is why upset wins feel so great. This is why March Madness is so fun for so many people. Because those upsets, when you don't expect them, you just get a huge amount of dopamine, and it feels awesome. This is why it doesn't feel that great to be a Yankees fan or a Heat fan. It doesn't feel good to be the favorite, because if you win, it was just expected. You really don't get much dopamine.

So the argument is that, for a Pirates fan, it might actually feel better sometimes, because you'll get unexpected wins, and they'll feel better than all the expected wins of all the favorites.

You'll often hear Pirates fans say, 'It's been awful these last 20 years, but if the Pirates finally do win a playoff series or something like that, it'll feel that much sweeter.' And it turns out that's actually true.

Yeah. I'd even add on to that there's this idea about pride and self-esteem, that pride, in at least in a psychological sense, is not so much a fault as it is just the knowledge that other people know you've done well, and that can be converted into knowing that you've done well. So if the Pirates win, not only do you get the dopamine blowout, but you get this corresponding pride and self-esteem. You get this enormous psychological boost. There is a reason to hang in there and hope.

So what characteristics do you think a Pirates fan would need in order to make it this far?

Well, the hope I just mentioned is probably not enough, at this point. But I think that the idea of getting rewarded for a lot of things other than winning and losing is important. So, people who have family who are also Pirates fans. People who are proud of Pittsburgh, who like Pittsburgh. The benefit you're getting from it has to do with something that's important to you -- your family, your friends. I [also] think there are people who have particular traits about themselves they really value. People who really value loyalty -- this is a test of your loyalty, and it's important to you to stick with it. I [also] think there's people who could be contrarians. For people who stuck with it for a long time, there has to be some aspect of their identity that's rewarded.