Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Most Exciting Thing at the Bulls Game

I was talking about this story with JS earlier this evening. I was at a Chicago Bulls game a few years ago. The Bulls weren't very good and were losing, but the crowd was reasonably into it.

But what was fascinating to me is that the loudest cheers of the day, by an order of magnitude, were for the Dunkin' Donuts race. This is the one where a TV screen shows a bagel, a donut and a cup of coffee racing around a track. Each person got a card with a character's name on it, and if your character won, you got a free donut.

Watching this tinny video, you probably don't get the sense that the crowd was actually going nuts for this race. But believe me, they were.

Just think about that. You're cheering for fictional characters in a race whose outcome is already pre-determined. Not only that, but the value of what you win is perhaps a dollar, at a venue where you pay five bucks for a coke. My guess is that most of the people who won wouldn't actually be bothered collecting their free donut anyway.

And yet this event excited people in a way that world class athletes did not. Remember, these were people who self-selected for their willingness to pay a good amount of money to watch these athletes perform. I wonder what the players think when the Cup of Coffee gets louder cheers than they do. Probably a mix of humbling embarrassment and contempt for the crowd. Maybe something along the lines of 'Hey, the guys who come and cheer for me might actually be imbeciles, given they also cheer for a Donut. I wonder what that says about the worth of my endeavour?'

JS mentioned that he saw a similar thing when the Lakers were on the verge of winning by a large enough margin that Jack in the Box would give everyone two free tacos. There at least the outcome was genuinely in doubt.

Now, I would happily dismiss this with glib snobbishness as an example of the mental capacity of basketball fans. But the tens of thousands of people there weren't idiots, they were instead completely representative of humanity at large. And when you realise this, you realise how fascinating the whole thing is in terms of psychology. Truth be told, it actually WAS more exciting than the basketball game! There is an large appeal of games of chance, and a truly massive appeal at the prospect of getting free stuff, no matter how worthless.

Not only that, but people will anthropomorphise fictional characters, and cheer for them even though they know that the race is fixed. And when you ask them about it at the end, they will probably deny that this was the high point of the game. Except their cheers bely the fact that they were yelling louder for that, unprompted, than they were when the cheerleaders and TV screens were urging them to yell 'defense!'. What people really want in life, it seems, is to win a free donut. That will bring them more happiness than the basketball game they paid fifty bucks to see.

I walked away with the sense that if you actually understood all the implications of this one event, you would know a great deal about human nature and human folly.

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