5 Reasons Why Humans Can’t Do Without Sports

The importance of being playful is evident in how ancient the behavior is.Photograph by U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Jannelle McRae

Last year, more than 111 million people—about a third of the U.S. population—watched the Super Bowl. The numbers will likely be similar on Sunday: Devout football fans, and those watching their first N.F.L. game all year, will feel the thrill and pull of watching the two playoff finalists, the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, face off.  

Among the two-thirds of Americans who won’t be watching, some will be no doubt be wondering what anyone gets out of the spectacle. It’s true, in an evolutionarily sense, it may not be obvious what the attraction is: Sports cost time and energy with no clear or direct survival payoff for the players—ditto for the spectators. So what’s the point? Well, it’s also true, in an evolutionary sense, that sports showcase human nature. Here are five reasons why we watch and play sports.

1. Playing sports prepares us for dealing physically with the world

The importance of being playful is evident in how ancient the behavior is. Humans are not the only animals who play. Birds and other mammals play, and safely learning how to live seems to be play’s evolutionary function. Predators play by acting out attacks, pouncing on each other, stalking, wrestling, and softly biting. Ever wonder why your dog likes squeaky chew toys? It sounds like a little animal dying. Prey animals, on the other hand, pretend to evade each other, leaping and running around when they play.

Humans also play to practice things that they need to do to survive—at least in our ancient environment. It’s no accident that when we “play” sports, like football, so much of the activity involves running, throwing, aiming, and cooperating. All of these were necessary to hunt on the savannah. Those who played the best probably performed reliably well when it counted, winning the admiration of members of their sex and the attraction of the opposite sex.

Team sports represent, deep in our minds, interpersonal conflict.

2. Watching sports stimulates many of the same parts of our brains as playing them

Why would we want to watch—or even pay to watch—someone else playing sports? Because, in our minds, we are playing them. When you watch a quarterback fake out a defender, the motor areas of your brain are active in ways similar to when you are actually doing the activities (the same goes for imagining sports—working out in your mind can make you stronger). We like to watch sports for the same reasons we like to play them.

3. We like drama

Crabs wave their claws around until it’s clear who would win the fight, instead of hurting themselves. We can interpret competitive sports as the same kind of symbolic violence and, as with stories, the most popular sports, like soccer, involve the most obvious, pronounced conflict. Team sports represent, deep in our minds, interpersonal conflict. They trigger our sense of loyalty, one of the foundations of moral psychology. People align themselves with a team and vicariously feel the joy and sorrow of their team’s successes and losses. This is also why most people feel strongly about the football teams from their their home cities. Men get a surge of testosterone when they see their favorite team win.

4. We like appreciating physical excellence

Be it in sports, the arts, or anything else, we are fascinated by a person’s or team’s prowess. Exactly why is unknown, but we can speculate.

Because our brains react similarly when watching an activity or doing it, perhaps we are subtly learning something about how to do things when watching others. (The popularity of “fail” videos might be explained by our desire to learn how not to do things.)

5. Sports can be beautiful

Lots of people like sports for aesthetic reasons. This is more obvious in sports that are judged, such as figure skating and gymnastics, but even in football, people will describe a “beautiful play.” When you ask people why they like sports, they say they watch to get excited, or to calm down, or to get their anger out (even though that doesn’t work).

There’s no single answer to why people like sports, just as there no single reason why people are religious. The attractions of both appear to be a complex combination of different psychological motivations.

Jim Davies is a professor of cognitive science at Carleton University. This post is based on his bookRiveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the UniverseHis sister is novelist JD Spero.