Baseball Meets Psychology: Why are fans so aggressive towards ‘cheaters?’
by Tony Aubry,
April 29, 2009

Steroids. Who knew that one word could elicit such aggression, animosity, and debate when viewed in a baseball context? It’s quite interesting. A better question is, “why do fans act so aggressive towards alleged steroid users?” Is it really because they are upset that Barry Bonds has hit more home runs that Hank Aaron? I think not. To put it bluntly, baseball has no tangible benefits towards people unless they A) play it for a living B) work for the media or a team or C) have an altruistic relative who plays for a major league team. To go one step further, why did it take a multi-billion dollar stimulus plan for us lowly citizens to show increased aggression towards crooked politicians and CEOs of large companies? We’ll get to that later.

Of course, I am not here to argue that baseball is pointless for us fans. Baseball - and other sports - gives fans peace of mind. It allows us to escape from the real world. It allows a student like me to take a rest from analyzing PPF curves for Economics. It allows homeowners to take their mind off of figuring out a way to pay their mortgages. So why exactly do fans get so angry at steroid users when baseball does not mean much in the ‘real world’?

Let’s introduce the Frustration-Aggression theory. This theory argues the idea that frustration - the perception that you are being prevented from attaining a goal - increases the probability of an aggressive response. What is the goal in the case of the fan? Peace of mind. Enjoyment. No one likes to have to wonder if what they’re watching is ‘fake.’ When we go to a baseball game on a beautiful Sunday afternoon with our loved ones, we are trying to relax, trying to get away from all of our problems, and the last thing we want to do is to question reality. Besides, don’t we have enough to worry about in our lives? When we are so close to attaining a goal (peace of mind), and then our expectation of pleasure is thwarted, the more likely we are to act aggressively. Also, when we’re at a game, we’re not expecting an act to disrupt us. When we’re not expecting frustration, it also increases aggression.

As an example, let’s look at an experiment done by Kulik and Brown in 1979. In it, they hired students to call strangers to ask for donations for a charity. One group was lead to believe that they would make a lot of money (students worked on a commission basis) and the others we’re lead to expect much less. So what happened? The students who were lead to believe that they would earn a lot of money were far more aggressive both verbally and physically (the students slammed the phone).

This brings us back to the politicians and CEO’s. Most people perceive these people as greedy and deceiving (at least I do) so our perception is not thwarted. Therefore we don’t act out as much. However, as previously mentioned, the same is not true for baseball. It may be bit different now since we already perceive that players are using them, which explains why many fans don’t care as much now. However, when we first found out that there was a large scandal in the making, people were extremely upset.

To summarize, the fact that Barry Bonds broke the record for homeruns is not likely the reason why many fans are upset, although that’s what they might tell you. It is more likely the fact that their perception is altered when watching the game, and frustration is following them around from the ‘real world’ to the stadium.

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Tony resides in Queens, New York and can be reached at