This is an old post from Overcoming Bias, but it’s been a while since I’ve read something this well-written and coherent and NEW. It’s been a draft for a while now, and I was planning on putting this up before the US Election got over, but I don’t really think I have anything to add whatsoever. The analogy has not been explicitly extended in my excerpt, but it should be fairly obvious. It’s a lot more pessimistic that my default worldview,though.
Consider, in this light, the episode of the Blues and the Greens in the days of Rome. Since the time of the ancient Romans, and continuing into the era of Byzantium and the Roman Empire, the Roman populace had been divided into the warring Blue and Green factions. Blues murdered Greens and Greens murdered Blues, despite all attempts at policing. They died in single combats, in ambushes, in group battles, in riots.
Who were the Blues and the Greens?
They were sports fans – the partisans of the blue and green chariot-racing teams.
It’s less surprising if you think of the Robbers Cave experiment. Favorite-Team is us; Rival-Team is them. Nothing more is ever necessary to produce fanatic enthusiasms for Us and great hatreds of Them. People pursue their sports allegiances with all the desperate energy of two hunter-gatherer bands lined up for battle – cheering as if their very life depended on it, because fifty thousand years ago, it did.
Evolutionary psychology produces strange echoes in time, as adaptations continue to execute long after they cease to maximize fitness. Sex with condoms. Taste buds still chasing sugar and fat. Rioting basketball fans.
And so the fans of Favorite-Football-Team all praise their favorite players to the stars, and derogate the players on the Hated-Rival-Team. We are the fans and players on the Favorite-Football-Team. They are the fans and players from Hated-Rival-Team. Those are the two opposing tribes, right?
And yet the professional football players from Favorite-Team have a lot more in common with the professional football players from Rival-Team, than either has in common with the truck driver screaming cheers at the top of his lungs. The professional football players live similar lives, undergo similar training regimens, move from one team to another. They’re much more likely to hang out at the expensive hotel rooms of fellow football players, than share a drink with a truck driver in his rented trailer home. Whether Favorite-Team or Rival-Team wins, it’s professional football players, not truck drivers, who get the girls, the spotlights, and above all the money: professional football players are paid a hell of a lot more than truck drivers.
Why are professional football players better paid than truck drivers? Because the truck driver divides the world into Favorite-Team and Rival-Team. That’s what motivates him to buy the tickets and wear the T-Shirts. The whole money-making system would fall apart if people started seeing the world in terms of Professional Football Players versus Spectators.
Imagine two football teams. The Green team’s professional players shout the battle cry, “Cheaper tickets! Cheaper tickets!” as they rush into the game. The Blue team’s professional players shout, “Better seating! Better seating!” as they move forward. The Green Spectators likewise cry “Cheaper tickets!” and the Blue Spectators of course cheer “Better seating!”
And yet every year the price of tickets goes up, and the seats get harder and less comfortable. The Blues win a football game, and a great explosion of “Better seating! Better seating!” rises to the heavens with great shouts of excitement and glory, and then the next year the cushions have been replaced by cold steel. The Greens kick a long-range field goal, and the Green Spectators leap up and down and hug each other screaming “Cheaper tickets! Hooray! Cheaper tickets!” and then tomorrow there’s a $5 cost increase.
It’s not that there’s a conspiracy. No conspiracy is required. Even dishonesty is not required – it’s so painful to have to lie consciously. But somehow, after the Blue Professional Football Players have won the latest game, and they’re just about to install some new cushions, it occurs to them that they’d rather be at home drinking a nice cold beer. So they exchange a few furtive guilty looks, scurry home, and apologize to the Blue Spectators the next day.