Us, Them, & Non-zero Sumness

I love baseball, having played from Little League through high school. The game taught me many lessons about athletics, but also about life. As a New Englander, I grew up a Red Sox fan, which was sometimes painful (the infamous Bill Buckner game of the 1986 World Series fell on my 12th birthday). However, the 2004 championship was pure elation, and made up for everything. After the Red Sox came back from a 0-3 deficit to beat the Yankees in the ALCS (the semi-finals, for you non-baseball fans), my father, brother, uncles, cousins, and I took photos in front of the television, as if we were documenting history. I even made sure my infant son was in the photos, to prove to him when he got older that he was there. Ridiculous, right?

Game 5, 2004 ALCS (

In 2004, I was fortunate enough to attend Game 5 of the ALCS- a tense, but magical, 6-hour game won by a David Ortiz single in the 14th inning. Inside Fenway Park there was an explosion of jubilation, with complete strangers hugging each other, as if World War Two had just ended (I confess: I was one of them). But outside the park were lines of police in full riot gear, reminding people not to let their emotions get out of hand, and the exiting crowd quickly became subdued. A few nights later, after the Sox had completed their comeback, riot police in Boston fired pepper-spray to disperse a potentially out-of-control crowd. One projectile hit a young college student, Victoria Snelgrove, in the eye, killing her.

To an outside observer, the amount of emotion that people invest in a silly game where grown men hit a ball with a stick (or any sport) must seem ludicrous or obscene (**). However, maybe it is more than a game. Maybe it is simply another manifestation of group identity. Us and them.

USC and UCLA fans. Can’t we all just get along? (wikipedia)

While I identify as a fan of Boston sports teams, I can consciously step outside of that role. Social psychology is not my specialty, but it’s important for everyone to question why we cling so tightly to group identities and rivalries, whether it’s Red Sox & Yankees fans, USC & UCLA, Celtic & Rangers, Israelis & Palestinians, Kyrgyz & Uzbeks, Sunni & Shia, or Democrats & Republicans. We can even carry our identities to the grave, sometimes segregating ourselves after death. At a cemetery near my home, one section is almost exclusively comprised of headstones bearing Armenian last names and script. They are so heavily clustered that it must have been done deliberately.

Clusters of Armenian graves in a New England cemetery (click to enlarge)

On the one hand, it’s very easy to get caught up in pride in who we are and where we come from. On the other hand, we should consider how arbitrary it is that we came to form our identities in the first place. Without perspective, conflict and violence can result when passions run high. This occurs in religious and ethnic conflicts, in sports fans, and in plebeians or patricians, as all humans are evolved animals with deep-seated emotions and a desire to see their cause as justified.

Last week in Connecticut (the borderline of Boston/New York influence), a Red Sox fan was in critical condition after being stabbed by a Yankees fan in a restaurant after an argument over the rivalry. A similar incident occurred outside a bar in New Hampshire in 2008, when a 43 year-old woman ran over a group of Red Sox fans with her car, killing one man and injuring another. Personally, I’ve seen fights at some of the games I’ve attended at Yankee Stadium and at Fenway Park, with fans of either team acting as aggressors. Some of that is sparked by alcohol, but the rivalry provides the powderkeg. A former student once told me her brothers looked forward to the games when the Yankees came to town because it meant they could get into a few fights, which seemed reminiscent of the hooliganism in European football.

Conflict is more likely to arise when interactions between two parties are zero-sum, and one party’s success (+1) necessitates another’s failure (-1). Most sports work this way, except those that allow a draw. Baseball games cannot end in a draw, and in theory two teams will play for eternity until one of them wins…  unless it’s an All-Star game. Obviously, many types of interactions are not zero-sum, and it is possible for parties A and B to both gain something. This is a non-zero sum interaction (+1 & +1 = +2). Trade works this way, as does any form of cooperation, whether between genes, cells, individuals, or groups (Wright 2001). When two groups are interdependent, attitudes toward each other tend to shift toward the better.

The classic experiment on this was done in 1954 by psychologist Muzafer Sherif at a summer camp at Robbers Cave in Oklahoma. Sherif took two groups of eleven-year-old boys (all strangers) and randomly assigned them to different campsites. The groups were unaware of each other for a week, allowing them to form their own internal dynamics and identities. Sherif then introduced the groups to each other, and announced there would be a week of competition in order to win prizes. Unfortunately, with the groups now pitted against each other the boys soon engaged in taunting and nearly engaged in physical violence.

This could be viewed as an example of how readily we can demonize ‘outsiders.’ However, Sherif also created artificial situations that required cooperation between the two groups in order to attain superordinate goals, such as obtaining water or pooling resources to watch a movie. Former tensions soon subsided, leading to cohesion between the groups.

It may not always be easy, but former enemies can reconcile. Peace is possible. Seemingly intractable conflicts can be solved when attitudes shift and old identities take on secondary importance to a newer, more inclusive, one. As Darwin wrote (1871):

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shows us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures.”


p.s. Mr. Buckner, I never blamed you.

Red Sox fans reconciling with Bill Buckner, 2008. (Boston Globe)

** In 2006, I briefly met former Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice in a Chicago airport. I told him that I thought he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, but did so quietly to avoid calling attention to him (he was later elected in 2009). He was polite, said thank you, and shook my hand. As I walked away, I realized my hands were trembling. I then started to laugh at how ridiculous it was to be nervous about talking to someone simply because he was a famous baseball player. Apparently, these things run deep. We are not always rational animals.

Related Post: Making Peace with the Past


Darwin, Charles (1871) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray.

Wright, Robert (2001) Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. New York: Vintage Books.

4 thoughts on “Us, Them, & Non-zero Sumness

  1. This was a really fantastic post, and I’ll be sharing it with my students.

    Also: I may have been transplanted to the midwest, but I am still a Sox fan through and through. I miss my boys.

  2. Pingback: Making Peace with the Past « Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

  3. Tragic incident at UCLA-USC game (Dec 4, 2010).

    “Dozens of fans brawled in a Rose Bowl parking lot before the Southern California-UCLA football game Saturday, leaving two men stabbed, two police officers with minor injuries and three men arrested, authorities said.

    Said Pasadena police Commander Darryl Qualls: “The fans are pretty passionate about their football teams.”

    Us and them strikes again.

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