The Human Zoo on why we are hardwired to watch sport

01 August 2016

  • The Human Zoo explores why sport has a compelling hold over people
  • Nick Chater explains it has a lot to do with psychology and neuroscience
  • Our neurosystems fire up and we 'feel' the emotion of participants
  • This emotion is hardwired into our brains says Professor Chater

With the Olympics almost upon us, behavioural scientists have revealed why watching sport is so compelling for the vast majority of people.

Professor of Behavioural Science, Nick Chater, will reveal on BBC Radio Four’s The Human Zoo on Tuesday (August 2) the psychology and neuroscience of being a sports spectator.

Related article: The psychology of rare events

“Almost anything can look like a competition; and we find competitions endlessly fascinating,” said Professor Chater. “They may be perceived as a ritualised form of a battle, or a display for dominance, or perhaps even the pleasure of seeing a world of clear rules, objectives, and clear winners and losers, in contrast to the complexities of the wider world.”

“There is also evidence our neurosystems fire up when we watch sport, and these overlap in some ways to those participating – so we’re almost feeling some of the things we are seeing.”

Daniel Glaser, of King’s College London, suggests neuroscientists are now beginning to discover important overlaps between the brain’s activity when watching, and performing, actions. Crucially, the research suggests that the brain activity of spectators may “mirror” the brain activity of the players – especially for people who have played that sport. So another reason for the pleasure of watching sport may be that we are experiencing a ‘neural shadow’ of the pleasure of actually taking part.

The same “mirroring” process may apply to emotions in sport, too.

Related article: Why we all think we are experts

Dr Glaser explains we even move in a happy or sad way. Footballers will walk across the pitch differently after losing on penalties, so even if we are not consciously sad, our brain will generate the sad emotion within us. Watching a player moving in an excited or despondent way causes pale versions of these emotions in spectators, a process of “emotional resonance.”

Professor Chater said: “The emotion involved in sport is something we have almost hardwired into our brain, we will make a competition out of anything, even two rain drops running down a window. The emotional ups and downs sport creates in us, as spectators, is one of the reasons so many of us will be glued to the Olympics.”

To listen to the new series of The Human Zoo click here.

To find out more about behavioural science sign up for Warwick Business School free online course The Mind is Flat: the Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology.

Join the conversation

WBS on social media