All those times I sat with friends around the TV armed with junk food and beer to watch a sports game (ok, maybe like 3 times), I felt I was living a lie.
Secretly, I‘d rather compromise for a 3 star Netflix documentary. I never told anybody about this. I’d just quietly devour all the BBQ wings within arm’s length and fake my best dramatic response when something happens in the game.
You might already disagree with the title of this post. Thinking: “I know a lot of girls who love to watch sports, don’t make this a gender thing!”
In a study published by the Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, a 2014 survey found that in 37 countries, men were more likely to play sports than women. In another 2013 Survey of 50 countries, led by psychologist Robert Deaner of Grand Valley State University in Michigan, men were twice as likely than females to be involved or interested in sports.
So, there you go.
But if you agreed with the title of this post, then I am sorry that I judged you.
It’s just that when I first threw the question at a group of guy friends, they had this reaction. And when I asked them why they like sports, I observed the following:
- They said: ‘I’m not even THAT into sports, I just like it.’
- They denied very hard at the unspoken suggestion that they might like sports because they are naturally competitive.
- They gave ‘friendly’ or one might even describe as ‘sweet’ reasons for why they like sports:
- It brings back pleasant childhood memories.
- It’s nice to watch the sport with a group of friends.
- They seemed stirred and uncomfortable.
Maybe they really didn’t want to come off as aggressive and intense, like this guy:
I do empathize.
Another friend self-identified as a legitimate sports fan offered: ‘Because it gives you a team to root for. When they are winning you are winning, and that just feels good.’ But when asked why it feels good for a guy, he couldn’t say.
So there are all kinds of reasons why people love to watch sports, but these don’t really explain why men like to watch it more.
It brings back pleasant childhood memories because a lot of their friends grew up playing soccer, cricket or basketball, but why do more men have these memories?
It’s nice to watch the sport with a group of friends, but why is it more common for guys to watch sports together?
Why do more men get a high out of cheering for a winning sports team?
Where are these nice feelings coming from, and why don’t women have it as much?
I found 2 theories.
(And I much prefer no. 2, in case you want to read less.)
1. To find friends or foes
Throughout human history, men had to fight for food, water, land, women, and political control. They couldn’t do it alone, so they teamed up to fight against other men.
This meant they had to evaluate the fitness and strengths of other males. They themselves also had to develop the athletic capabilities to be preferred allies or feared as strong competitors.
Over time, this evolved into putting on a game where players show off their sporting skills, and other men would monitor their performance as spectators.
My gripe with this one is: don’t women also need to evaluate men to scope out mating potential?
2. Sport is war without bloodshed
Well, not on purpose anyway.
We can all easily relate one or two similar qualities between sports and war, right? Competition, strength, endurance, agility, intensity, rivalry, performance…
In both, we see more male involvement, by a long shot.
Historically, sports was used to prepare young man for war. It channels their aggression, trains their physical capabilities and helps them develop the qualities they need to become a good soldier.
Today, sports is like a successor to war as a powerful expression of masculinity.
It’s offensive and probably not completely accurate to say men need war. And now that we don’t have war in many developed countries, men need sports to channel their aggression.
But there is an underlying psychological need for both, which drives men to be grossly engaged in such activities.
This need has to do with testosterone, found a lot in men. (Fun fact: On average, testosterone levels are about 7 to 8 times more in adult males than in adult females.)
What’s interesting is, studies show that even though testosterone levels rise in men when they defeat their rivals, it does not change when they are competing against their friends.
While testosterone makes men want to crush their enemies, it also brings men together in a deeply moving way to crush their enemies, together. (which totally makes it much more okay)
It made me realize that this supported the nice feelings my male friends were experiencing.
War and sport both inspire social cohesion and greater purpose.
In William James essay ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’, he describes that war allows us to express higher human qualities that otherwise aren’t fully tapped into in more comfortable peace-times.
People sacrifice themselves for the lives of others, communities come together and assist each other against collective threats. It propels us to contribute to the bigger picture. This is the good side of testosterone. That special ‘winning-with-your-team-feels-really-good’ hormone.
See how all this also fits in the context of sports or even businesses?
So the conclusion to my original question is that men like sports more because they have more testosterone.
But here are some other interesting side findings of testosterone and its effect on the genders:
- Testosterone reduces anxiety and women are shown to have higher anxiety compared to men.
- As male testosterone drops with age, the prevalence of depression increases. And depressive disorders are found more in females.
- In many clinical studies, learning and memory improved in both sexes after taking more testosterone.
- Testosterone is found to positively correlate with spatial recognition.
But take it all with a grain of salt, because our physiological functions are really really complicated. There are so much more that comes into play in affecting how we behave. And the studies that have been done in this area lack standardization and perfect administration, resulting in many contradictions.