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An Excerpt From 'This Is Your Brain On Sports'

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The following is an excerpt from 'This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon.' Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Check out Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers' conversation with Only A Game's Bill Littlefield.


Why the T- Shirt Cannon Has Something to Teach Us About Human Nature
If sports fans were conferred military-style awards for valor, we would be inclined to nominate season ticket holders for the 2014– 15 New York Knicks. In particular Dennis Doyle, for demonstrating heretofore unsurpassed levels of courage and fortitude. A thirty-something recovering lawyer, Doyle left his job, withdrew $25,000 from his savings, and devoted the next year to attending every New York Knicks game. Not every home game. Every game. That meant venturing as far as London to watch his team. The Knicks fell in that overseas contest to the Milwaukee Bucks, 95– 79. Which was in keeping with a season in which it sometimes felt as if the franchise had signed a non-compete pact with the rest of the league. The Knicks weren’t merely bad. They were putrid, wretched, miserable. So much so that they flirted with the 9-73 record of the 1972–73 Philadelphia 76ers, the benchmark for NBA futility (the Knicks limped to a 17-65 finish, worst in the conference). So much so that by midseason the New York roster was gutted of players such as J. R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Amar’e Stoudemire, all either traded or waived. So much so that the venerable New York Times mercifully released the writer assigned to the team and offered him a new beat mockingly titled “Not the Knicks.” Doyle endured it all. The blowouts and the blown leads. The thousands of shots that clanged off the rim. The missed defensive switches. The failure to grasp the Triangle Offense. He dutifully watched every moment of every game. And he even kept a sense of humor, blogging about the experience at theoakmancometh.com. Sample post: “Asking a friend to a Knicks game at the Garden this season is a little like asking someone to a funeral—you shouldn’t have to do it, but you can always count on the close ones to appear among the bereaved.”

But this chapter is not about Dennis Doyle. Rather, our focus is on yet another amazing occurrence that took place game after game at Madison Square Garden that season. Night in and night out, no matter how dismally the team was playing, at least once per contest the fans stood and emitted full-throated yells and cheers as an unmistakable energy swelled in the arena. A spirited Knicks comeback? No. A flashy play by a fan favorite? Also, no.

This surge in vitality was triggered by something having abso­lutely nothing to do with basketball: The 7th Avenue Squad was about to shoot T-shirts into the crowd.

You don’t need to have Dennis Doyle’s attendance record to know that this has become a sports-event ritual as sacrosanct as the seventh-inning stretch or the singing of the National Anthem. A cohort of muscular and unnaturally peppy twentysomethings, their demeanor and high energy often totally at odds with the tenor of the game, emerge from the tunnel and, after making the obligatory I-can’t-heeeeear-you hand gestures, start catapulting rolled-up shirts in the general direction of fans. Most of the squads are equipped with air cannons. Others go old-school and use slingshots made of surgical tubing. The Phillie Phanatic, never one to be outdone, shoots off free hot dogs using a four-foot pneumatic gun.

Reliably, the crowd goes wild. Fans fall over themselves trying to snag a prize—as David Babusiak of St. John, Indiana, can attest. In 2007 Babusiak attended a White Sox game at Chicago’s U.S. Cel­lular Field. Between innings, the Chevrolet Pride Team fired a shirt into the section where Babusiak was sitting. He made his move for the shirt. So did a gaggle of his fellow fans. In the scrum, Babusiak later claimed, he was shoved to the ground and suffered a perma­nent back injury. He filed a civil suit against U.S. Cellular Field and the Pride Team, seeking more than $75,000 in damages. The de­fendants, he alleged, were liable because they were “engaging in an abnormally dangerous activity, namely, shooting free T-shirts as projectiles into an unsupervised crowd of spectators, some of whom may not have been sober.” (Records from the U.S. District Court in Northern Indiana indicate that “claims between the Parties have been amicably resolved.”)

From the perspective of the teams, it’s easy to understand the T-shirt-cannon phenomenon. It’s a cheap and easy way to keep your fans happy, sometimes in the midst of a dreary Knicksian season. Give them something to look forward to, even during another blow­out or uninspired performance, and they might stick around longer and spend more money on concessions—not to mention keep com­ing back for more games, perhaps against their better judgment.

But from the fans’ perspective, the phenomenon seems mystify­ing: Why do spectators all over the world go to such lengths, risk­ing even paralysis, for an inexpensive prize? These shirts, after all, aren’t particularly special or high-quality. They’re of arbitrary size and often emblazoned with the logo of a team sponsor. (A Knicks shirt is arguably cool; much less so when it says “Modell’s Sporting Goods” on the back.) So what’s the big deal?

That the product is scarce adds some appeal: Not everyone gets a shirt, so those who do feel special. It’s the same reason a sales promotion is billed as a limited-time offer, or a collectible is called “special-edition” and has its own serial number. That the “lucky” fan has to catch a flying polyester projectile also adds a certain ca­chet that wouldn’t exist if the shirt were simply handed out at the turnstiles (see IKEA Desk, page 144).

But the real appeal seems to be simply this: The shirts are free.

You’ve no doubt heard the expression “If it’s free, it’s for me.” That’s not just a throwaway line. Free is catnip for humans, an en­ticement so strong that it sometimes causes us to behave ridicu­lously—or at least in ways at odds with common sense and our best interests.

One famous series of studies—repeated, modified, and critiqued in equal measure—has been dubbed “the Hershey’s Kiss experi­ments.” Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and a nimble behavioral economist, gave subjects a choice of two chocolates. They could buy premium Lindt truffles (which usually cost around 50 cents apiece) for 26 cents each, or they could buy the beloved but mundane Hershey’s Kiss for a penny. In the outcome of this study, participants were equally split between the two choco­lates. Fair enough.

Then Ariely reduced the price of each chocolate by one cent. The Lindt was now 25 cents; the Hershey’s Kiss was free. What happened? Tastes changed dramatically. A full 90 percent of respon­dents opted for the Hershey’s. At first blush this makes no sense. The price differential was the same—still 25 cents more for the Lindt. Why would demand change so drastically? As Ariely later put it: “The power [that] zero exercises over people’s choice in chocolate nicely demonstrates the irrational draw of free things.”

Not that it’s only free chocolate that causes us to act question­ably. Ariely is quick to include himself among those seduced by the power of “free.” Several years ago he was in the market for a practi­cal minivan. Instead he drove home a sleek Audi. Why? One big rea­son was that the Audi came with the promise of free oil changes for three years. “In fact, those services were worth only about $200, but the promise of ‘free’ anything was very appealing,” Ariely explains. “They could have offered me a $2,000 discount on the minivan, and I still would have bought the wrong car because the free oil-change offer was so tempting in the heat of the moment.”

Who among us can’t relate? We have zero interest in taking part in your telephone survey, but promise us free movie passes and we’ll stay on the line for half an hour answering tedious ques­tions about how many times a week we use soap powder. We opt for “free” credit cards with exorbitant interest rates over cards with a modest annual fee but much lower interest, even though we know we’re going to carry a balance each month. And how many of us go to Trader Joe’s or Costco with no interest in buying, say, jalapeño kale chips but gladly stand in line and have a bite when we can try them for free? (Empirical analysis of in-store sampling promotions shows that they work: Shoppers spend more money at a store after getting a free sample, as if they feel obligated to return the favor. As Ariely has noted, “Reciprocity is a very, very strong instinct. If somebody does something for you, you really feel a rather surpris­ingly strong obligation to do something back for them.”)

We’ll even make long-lasting bad decisions due to the allure of “free.” Ariely writes about a Dutch movie theater that offered pa­trons, in conjunction with the release of The Girl with the Dragon Tat­too, the opportunity to see unlimited free movies for an entire year if they simply got a tattoo of the theater’s logo: a doglike creature fly­ing under a film reel. More than a dozen moviegoers were up for it.

Irrationality like this can accelerate when consumers have al­ready paid an exorbitant sum for something. Spending hundreds of dollars on floor seats to watch a crappy basketball team (not to mention $50 for parking and $12 per beer) leaves us feeling entitled to something in return. “Entitled consumers often believe that their every whim should be catered to,” explains Mike Norton, Ariely’s collaborator and a co-author of Happy Money, a book on the science of spending. “Sports fans in this state of mind likely do more than experience the allure of giveaways,” he told us. “They can more or less demand them, as though the $500 they shelled out for a ticket gives them a God-given right to one of those flying T-shirts.”

Fans aren’t the only ones swayed by the power of free stuff. For years, teams’ radio broadcasters struggled to cajole players and coaches to appear on postgame shows. Then they got smart and started offering guests free watches or steakhouse gift certificates in exchange for their time. Rationally this shouldn’t have affected the players’ behavior. For the most part, these are multimillionaire ath­letes, often making thousands of dollars per hour. Yet the siren song of a free Timex or Morton’s voucher was too seductive to resist.

Or consider a story recounted by a former tennis star in her autobiography. At the height of her popularity, tournaments offered her large appearance fees simply to show up. Despite her initial misgivings, she committed to one such tournament in Japan. “It was just too far from home, and I was tired from the travel grind,” she writes. “They kept offering me more and more money for an ap­pearance fee—well over a hundred thousand dollars—but I said no.

Finally, they offered to fly my whole family over [for free]. That did it. We went, and I won easily.”

In his review of the book, the writer David Foster Wallace was struck by this anecdote and by the player’s “odd financial sense.” Writes Wallace: “She won’t come for $100,000+, but will come if they add a couple thousand in airfare?” But such is the powerful in­ducement of “free.” Had she (or, more likely, her agent) negotiated a bump in fee from, say, $100K to $105K, it would not have changed her mind. But, by accident or design, when the tournament pro­moter dangled the prospect of something “free,” it got the job done.

One more example: In the early 2000s, the Portland Trail Blaz­ers hired a crew of workers to wash and wax players’ vehicles dur­ing practices. Rationally speaking, this was silly: These millionaire athletes were singularly well suited to pay for their own buffing and polishing. Cynical journalists held this out as another example of athletes being pampered and cosseted. But perhaps a shrewd mem­ber of the Portland brass realized that the value would outstrip the cost—that in exchange for the free services, the athletes might do things they ordinarily wouldn’t. Such as play defense. Or hustle for loose balls. Or respect the U.S. penal code (this was, after all, the height of the Jail Blazers era). It was the NBA version of Google pro­viding its employees on “campus” with free gourmet food and dry cleaning, all in the effort to boost worker morale and performance.

All of which is to say: When we get something for nothing, we feel as if we’re putting one over on the world. Except that often it’s just the opposite.

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