Years ago, an anonymous poll of NFL players showed that many would be willing to shave years or decades off their lifespan if it meant they could win a Super Bowl. If that sounds crazy, consider this: The fans might care even more than the players.
Elif Batuman recently wrote about Turkish soccer fans in The New Yorker:
"The athletes are competing in play," Umberto Eco writes in an essay about soccer, "but the voyeurs compete seriously and, in fact, they beat one another or die of heart failure in the grandstands." I heard a similar view from a Carsi member. "The players only play the match," he said. "We live the match."
Sports fans go to great lengths to support their teams. We've all heard of players who don't wash their socks when they're in the middle of a hot streak. That could make some perverse sense, even if it is superstition. But it's hard to see how fans who don't wash their socks — and make no mistake, they're out there — could possibly help their team win.
Is there some way for fans to help their teams win? As it turns out, audiences can influence behavior in surprising ways.
Instructors typically assume that they are teaching their audience. But as my old mentor Allen Neuringer found out one year, the audience can sometimes turn the tables and train the lecturer.
Allen was teaching about operant conditioning: If you reward a behavior, you increase the likelihood of that behavior. So, naturally, his students decided to condition him. Whenever he moved left, they would all look up and pay rapt attention. Whenever he moved right they acted bored and looked away. To make a long story short, he ended up pressed up against the wall, as far to his left as he could get, happily lecturing away to a seemingly fascinated (and quite amused) audience.
Allen's students had a profound effect on his behavior by subtly adjusting the way they paid attention. Sports fans have the advantage in that they are far less subtle. They scream their hearts out. But maybe they, too, can train the people they are watching.
What we Cheer For
A good outcome is not the same thing as a good decision. Sometimes terrible decisions lead to good outcomes. And like the rest of us, athletes make terrible decisions sometimes (just look at their tattoos).
If a baseball player makes an unnecessarily risky but spectacular catch, that's a good outcome, and the fans will love it. But it's a bad decision. As Lou Brown, the Indians' manager in the movie Major League said in such a situation, "Nice catch, Hayes. Don't ever *$%&# do it again."
Fans don't cheer for good decisions, they cheer for good outcomes. Sometimes that means cheering for bad decisions, which increases the likelihood those decisions will be repeated in the future. And that can hurt your team.
How to Help Your Team
What if an entire crowd learned to reward players for good decisions not good outcomes? It's just possible the team would start making a lot more good decisions - and they'd win more games, simple as that.
Of course it's not so simple. Fans are supposed to have fun at games, not follow orders. Plus, organizing a vast conspiracy isn't easy. But there's a bigger problem: It's not easy to judge which decisions are good and which aren't. Most of us fans think we are qualified to do it, but that's probably because we aren't even wise enough to perceive our own ignorance.
But what could work is if the fans had a conductor. What if an assistant coach controlled the JumboTron? He could tell fans to go wild after good decisions (even with bad outcomes) and to pipe down following bad decisions (even with good outcomes).
I, for one, would be more than willing to pitch in some cheering to help the team.