Why Your Brain Loves the NFL

by Neil Minkoff

The NFL is by far the most popular sport in America. USA Today reported record ratings for last weekend’s opening games as baseball continued to slide. The viewership for the Sunday-night prime-time football game was a 16.9; the Sunday night primetime baseball game drew a 0.7. Even accounting for the weak teams in the baseball game, this is a telling disparity.

There are many reasons why the NFL is this popular. Games are played predominantly on weekend afternoons, so children can watch whole games. Rules changes are usually designed to favor playing styles fans prefer. The sport has a symbiotic relationship with four different television networks (besides the one it owns), which can provide worldwide distribution.

Allow me to add one other: Our brains have been conditioned to watch. We are hardwired to respond to the NFL season.

Baseball simply has too many games. This season will stretch from the end of March to the end of September. Each team plays virtually every day. This submits us as fans to a condition known as habituation.

Habituation is defined as the tendency to ignore frequent or constant stimuli. This is the explanation for people who live near the airport no longer noticing the planes or the noise. Habituation is an evolutionary response telling our brains and senses to deliberately ignore stimuli that were frequent, so long as they didn’t hurt us. In humanity’s youth in the African plain, we needed to have our senses attuned to new threats we hadn’t discovered yet.

So it goes with baseball. After a few days or weeks of a new season, we notice the daily games less, as we become habituated to them.

To a degree, the same is true for the NBA and NHL. At only half the games that baseball has, our habituation isn’t as severe. But these leagues face a different problem for the human brain: dealing with irregularity.

The human brain does not do well with irregularity. We are constantly looking for patterns. This is another evolutionary response. We look for patterns in the stimuli around us, seeking to find early warning to dangerous situations. This is how the earliest humans learned to survive. If they ate plants with red leaves and got sick, they avoided red leaves afterward.

If games were played on a regular schedule, our brains would spot the pattern and we would adapt to it. NBA and NHL travel schedules and shared arenas don’t allow for this, though. For example, the NBA has announced the 2011–12 schedule (this is a psychology essay, so the lockout isn’t relevant here), and my beloved Boston Celtics play on the same night two weeks in a row on just three separate occasions over a six-month season.

If we wanted to build the perfect sport to develop a fan base, what have we learned? There can’t be too many games, so we stay attentive, and they have to be in a pattern, so we will watch.

That’s the NFL. The NFL season is constructed as a form of temporal conditioning. This means the stimulus occurs regularly and we can develop anticipation to it. Also, we would miss the stimulus if it didn’t occur. I believe this is the reason that so many of us were giddy when the lockout ended in time to save the season. We didn’t want to miss our regularly scheduled football stimulus.

The NFL season has unwittingly developed to condition us to watch. It is the evolutionary acme of sport.

Right Field

Brief chronicles of our sporting times.