What Babies and College Football Tell Us about Human Nature
“Us and them” is perhaps the simplest explanation of human nature. As many of you may have seen recently on 60 minutes, our understanding of babies and what they are thinking has grown leaps and bounds thanks to fascinating research being conducted at the Yale University baby lab. Teamwork Culture is critical because it helps us to see the whole, not always our own self interest. Or more appropriately, seeing our self interest in the greater interest. When times are difficult or changing teamwork culture will help guide human behavior in the right direction.
What we are learning is that babies will consistently like stuffed animals who behave (when animated by puppeteers) nicely over stuffed animals who behave meanly, with an interesting exception. What we have also learned is that babies like stuffed animals that share their interests, and don’t mind if those that don’t share their interests are punished. That’s right, you read this correctly. Babies as young as three months who choose Cheerios over graham crackers will actually like a stuffed animal that behaves meanly if it is doing it to another stuffed animal that preferred graham crackers to cheerios.
No surprise really considering our ability as humans to form tight knit groups with unfailing loyalty was a huge part of our success as a species. Evolution rewarded those humans that stuck together. Look no further than the demographics of the recent presidential election to see that people like similar people, and often form extraordinary belief systems that propagate blind membership regardless of external facts or circumstances.
We as humans are at our core social; no surprise Facebook became so popular so quickly! We have an inherent need to fit in into groups, to be trusted and accepted. For those of you reading this that are thinking “I don’t care what other people think”; you’re wrong. Mark R. Leary conducted (http://people.duke.edu/~leary/research.html) a fascinating study to disprove this notion showing even when we think we don’t care, we really care a lot. The disconnect is that we care at a below conscious level where 99% of all of our behaviors come from anyway; unless you are a psychopath then you truly do not care.
Interestingly 60 minutes followed up this fascinating piece on the Yale baby lab with a highly relevant piece on college football. I am not sure if this was pure genius or mere coincidence, as they did not link the two segments overtly on the show. I have argued for years and in fact wrote a college paper arguing that College football is its own religion. It shares many of the characteristics of religion including blind faith, getting together weekly, and being a part of something greater than self. Perhaps this is taking it too far, however, what we know for sure is that the exact same characteristics found in the babies are found in college football fans.
College football fans have a distinct tendency to group together in extremely tight knit groups with a single minded interest: the survival of their football team, AND they distinctly do not like the other groups that do not share their interests: the other team and especially rival schools. This is similar to a great Teamwork Culture. When you talk with Michigan and Ohio State fans, they hate each other. I am not sure this is too strong a word either. The same can be said of Auburn and Alabama fans, and many other long standing rivalries. Here in California, my own impression is that we have a harder time mustering up intense emotions about our college football teams, but even so you won’t find too many USC Trojan fans hugging UCLA fans. They most certainly do not share warm emotions. All of these are examples of a culture that persist sover time and guides behavior and beliefs similar to an excellent Teamwork Culture.
Perhaps you are thinking to yourself “I get along fine with many people who are (fill in the blank rival team” at work, at church, in your family and friend circles, etc… which is probably true. The real question is how many of those do you have over on game day? One difference between babies and adults (most adults) is that as adults we have had our brains filled with many virtuous thoughts which can override our instinctual reactions to people from the other group. Remember, we are above everything else social animals that thrive on acceptance.
The 60 Minutes segment of babies highlighted this growth process by showing experiments the Yale lab did with different age children where they were given a series of choices involving tokens. The children were asked to make a series of choices that involved keeping tokens for themselves and giving tokens to an anonymous child. Younger children when faced, for example, with the choice to get two tokens but also let the other child have two tokens, versus getting only one token and giving the other child no tokens, chose the ladder. They were willing to get less for themselves if it meant they were getting more than the other child. As the children aged they began to choose the former, and then around age 11 or 12 they actually started giving the other children more tokens than they kept for themselves.
I am a die hard Denver Bronco football fan. I was indoctrinated when I was a child by my entire paternal family. I always remember being a Bronco fan. I can still feel the shock of losing Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys. I now live near the bay area in California where there are millions of Oakland Raider fans. I have good friends who are Oakland Raider fans, and Pittsburgh Steeler fans (they are everywhere), but we don’t watch football games together. Despite all of my education, and virtuous intentions for world peace and doing the right thing, I return to my basic inherent nature every Sunday during the fall.
The same thing happens to all of us under stress or when it comes to our core beliefs about, for example, politics and religion. Circling back to my previous blog “Why Republicans and Democrats Can’t Get Along” it makes perfect sense why we can have things in common with people, get along with people well, and consider them friends, except when it comes to politics and religion; in which case we distinctly do not like each other.
Extrapolating from this premise, we get a glimpse into the dynamic that is going on inside ourselves all the time. We must flip the understanding of the human being 180 degrees from how we have all grown up thinking about ourselves; namely that our rational mind makes our decisions and is in charge of managing our “crazy” emotions; to a more accurate model posed by among others Jonathan Haidt, that our rationality is responsible for helping us to fit in and be accepted, but our behaviors are almost exclusively determined by the 99% of mental processes and emotions we are unaware exist.
There is nothing rational about investing our happiness, identity and self-esteem in the outcome of a group of 18-21 year old boys, no more so than blindly having allegiance to the Denver Broncos for decades. It feels good though right? We instinctively enjoy the game of “us versus them,” and billion dollar businesses are built on it. Teamwork Culture understands and leverages these instincts to create a Teamwork Culture customized to your company. A Teamwork Culture increases loyalty and commitment.
Understanding how humans feel, think, and behave is critical to building an organization that breeds the same level of loyalty as we have for our sports teams. The first thing I notice about organizations I work with that want to build a team culture, and that want employees to have blind loyalty and faith to the greater cause, is that they have been targeting the wrong part of the human. They aren’t selling the decision maker. What we say, what we think we believe, are often very different from what we really believe and how we will really act under pressure.
To understand more about how to actually build loyalty and great teams in your workplace, feel free to watch our ongoing Video series, and download my free e-book, The Seven Steps to Dynamic Discourse. When you are ready for real change, give us a call and let us transform your group into a motivated and loyal force ready to go to battle for the team!
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