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Follow the Talent

David and I have taken to watching ice hockey — David’s always loved the sport, and I’ve learned to appreciate the skill it takes to chase a tiny black disc around a slippery sheet of ice while skating backward on steel blades just a few millimeters thick. But the best thing about game night is that neither David nor I care who wins. As such, we can appreciate when anyone, from any team, does something awesome. On the flip side, we feel no need to remain loyal to the team of any player who does something rotten.

During the World Cup playoffs (soccer is another sport we enjoy watching), it was the same — there was no particular country I rooted for. I just wanted the best team to win, regardless of whether it was the U.S. or Ukraine.

I can’t relate to people who freak out when “their” team loses. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to know where they’re coming from. Human behavior has always fascinated me. Cultural anthropology was my favorite course in college; I regularly peruse psychology and science journals for new studies that might reveal why people act the way they do.

When I dug into the psychology of sports fans, I began to understand why some fans get so emotional. First, a team can provide a sense of identity and self-esteem. A professor at Indiana University found that “men and women who were diehard fans were much more optimistic about their sex appeal after a victory,” and more hopeful “about their ability to perform well at mental and physical tests.” But when their team lost, all that optimism vanished. I couldn’t imagine placing my sense of self-worth in some stranger’s hands, but, apparently, lots of people seem willing to do just that.

Sports fanaticism involves “us against them” thinking. In her article published in Psychology Today, Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne writes, “[Sports fans] are passionate about their teams, know every detail about the players, and religiously follow the progress of their hometown heroes. The only factor that differentiates these groups is the team they root for. Yet, people create arbitrary distinctions between the teams (and fans) they love and those they hate. It’s doubtful that knowledge of this social psychological principle will lead to fans of the Patriots to reach out and hug fans of the Giants, but theoretically they should recognize that they are more alike than they are different.”

Though I appreciate scholarly insight, I don’t always leave it to the experts. Pesky sibling that I am, I have a penchant for pushing buttons. My own little social experiments disclose things to me that I wouldn’t otherwise know. For example, whether or not someone is super-glued to a particular belief, regardless of whatever contrary-but-reliable information might surface.

When I came across a recent headline that proclaimed, “Intelligence Study Links Low I.Q. to Prejudice, Racism, Conservatism,” I clicked to learn more (but not before I posted the provocative headline and link on my Facebook wall). The actual title of the study, which was published in Psychological Science, was, “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact.”

Basically, the study found that children “whose level of intelligence was below the median at age 10” were up to 65 percent more likely to display “above-median levels of racism during adulthood.” Most people I know, both conservative and liberal, would agree that prejudice is born of ignorance, but that has more to do with lack of world experience than innate dimness. One psychologist explained it this way: “Reality is complicated and messy. Ideologies get rid of the messiness and impose a simpler solution. So, it may not be surprising that people with less cognitive capacity will be attracted to simplifying ideologies.”

What I gleaned from the study is that stupider-than-average people have “poor abstract-reasoning skills.” When I brought this up to David, he said, “Makes sense. People are threatened by things that are different from themselves. It takes an open mind to consider and accept that people can be different than you while still not posing a threat. The basic instinct is, ‘We’re right, we’re good, and those different people over the hill are not, so we’re afraid of them.’”

I’ve witnessed stubborn, uncompromising convictions tossed up from both sides of the fence. I don’t think it’s a liberal/conservative thing so much as a close-minded/open-minded thing. And the tighter the doors on one’s mind, the more difficult it becomes to shine any light through the cracks.

Despite my button-pushing predilection, I recoil from heated arguments. Experience has taught me that the more passionate someone seems to be about a given topic, the less reasonable they will be in discussing it. Such people have already chosen their team and they will remain loyal, discounting any contrasting opinion simply because it comes from a member of a different team.

I treat politics the same way I treat sports — I follow the talent. As a registered Independent, I’m not overly attached to any one team. I’ve voted both Republican and Democrat. Sure, I have my liberal leanings, but I’m not shackled to one perspective. It may not always seem like it, but I make sure to remain open to well reasoned, civilly presented opinions contrary to my own. Conversely, when I encounter someone with a steadfast stance, I tend to smile and change the subject.

My father-in-law enjoys arguing politics as a competitive sport. I have no desire to engage in debates with him as to who’s more reliable — Fox News or Jon Stewart. It’s more important to me that we enjoy each other’s company and that everyone’s blood pressure remains low. This is why, when I find myself in “mixed” company, I find it best to avoid discussions of politics, religion, how gifted and talented your kid is, how much you just paid for something, your medical problems, taxes, and death. Of course, if someone has a well-reasoned opinion as to why these topics make for suitable dinner conversation, I’m all ears.

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