Law in Contemporary Society

Rational Actors, Where Art Thou? Ray Rice, Floyd Mayweather, and $180 million.

-- By CMcKinney - 23 May 2015

Mid-May: Unconsciously Seeking Repose(1)

In the wake of Ray Rice firestorm, the American public mind condemned domestic violence and its perpetrators wholesale. The vitriol was palpable. It was uniformly manifested by the brand equity indexes, public approval polls, and social media case studies published that September. The NFL egregiously violated its audiences’ conscious social and political beliefs.

But then, something peculiar happened. I am not referring to the $180 million signed, sealed, and delivered to Floyd Mayweather nine months later – although that is relevant. This peculiar thing happened much sooner - Nine days after the American public mind excoriated Ray Rice. Nine days after countless individuals paraded their outrage and advertised their morality by way of tweets and statuses, the NFL’s ratings boomed. Two million new viewers tuned in, sat through advertisements, and spurred league revenue.

This paradox rattled me. And I sought to assuage the discomfort by punching out an essay about pay-per-view boxing in mid-May. With stinging rhetoric, I attempted to illustrate a clear example of the fact that consumption patterns are not well correlated with peoples’ conscious goals and political beliefs. But as I typed away, with vision blurred by animus and insecurity, I missed the point. Not only because many of the people who called for the NFL’s punishing Rice never bought a boxing pay-per-view or sat through an NFL broadcast. More fundamentally, I missed the point because this phenomenon should be analyzed far beyond a “rational” or “irrational” classification. There is a more important question.

The Real Question

Why were 4 million Americans willing to pay $99.50 to watch a fistfight on television? Why did 21 million Americans watch the first game of the 2014 NFL Season? And why did they do each shortly after the American public mind unequivocally denounced watching domestic-abusers engage in athletic rituals? The answer lies in unconscious motivations driven by biological, intra-psychological, social-psychological, anthropological, and historical influences. Even if they do not realize it, countless Americans are unconsciously captivated by blood sport.

The Unconscious Motivations of Blood Sport Viewers

Understanding the Audience

Any discussion of unconscious motivations must be preceded by an identification of the target group. National consumer studies show that the vast majority of individuals who watch football on TV and purchase pay-per-view boxing matches are males, aged 35 to 49. They are predominately white, and they are predominantly Christian. Overwhelmingly, these men watch in a group setting, surrounded by other males. And their initial attraction to blood sport probably inheres at birth.

Biological Influences, Archaic Response Tendencies, and Adaptive Impulses

Scientific evidence indicates that humans are biologically predisposed toward violence. Violent stimuli trigger dopamine secretion and engage the same reward pathways associated with the satisfaction of food, sex, and drug cravings.(2) This biological predisposition seems consistent with evolutionary theory.

Early humans persisted by continually screening their environment for danger. Over millennia, this heightened concern for potential violence proved adaptive. The trait endured in the brain’s older structures, especially the limbic system. And this biological influence elicits a continued interest in observing violence.(3)

Intra-psychological Impulses and Historical Influences

Prominent intra-psychological influences further these athletic rituals’ appeal, and these same influences explain why blood sport viewers are primarily male. ‘Cultural guides-downloaded during early childhood-instruct American males to suppress emotion and excitement.(4) Violent sports occasion an opportunity for males to shout, jeer, and cringe in a hyper-masculine context, free from the social pressure to suppress emotion and excitement. The expression of these routinely contained emotions offers viewers a reprieve from the aversive, subjective cost of suppressing behavioral impulses.(5) Historical developments have made these opportunities increasingly rare.

For centuries, extravagant participation was both socially accepted and typical amongst crowds attending operas, dramas, and symphonies. Audiences cheered, jeered, and threw objects. At the turn of the nineteenth century, however, the highly participatory audience was sacralized.(6) Silence was expected, and outward emotional expression was repressed. Operant learning and contextual priming now instruct males to suppress emotion. And the social gatherings occasioned by violent sporting events afford a unique opportunity to express emotion in a generally prohibited fashion.

Social-psychological Tendencies

The appeal of violent sport is increased by a social psychological impulse to establish a masculine identity. Beyond the opportunity for male bonding, these events afford males the chance to prove to their peers that they are unperturbed and self-assured as they watch hostile athletic rituals, prone to cause bodily injury and devastation. They might outwardly express emotion while watching, but they are present and engaged.(7)

Anthropological Influences

At an anthropological level, violence shares an intimate connection with Christianity. One need not look further than the Act of the Apostles for a prime example, with its tale of Ananias and Sapphira, the couple struck dead by God after they embezzled income from a property sale. The scriptures of every widespread western religionare laced with accounts of battles, killings, and damnation. Perhaps blood sport viewers have unconsciously linked spirituality with images of war, carnage, and malediction.

A New View: Ray Rice, Floyd Mayweather, and the Rational Actor

During an era marked by a lexicon vehemently opposed to domestic violence, why did millions of Americans indirectly compensate a league that harbored domestic abusers? And why did they directly remunerate Floyd Mayweather? Answers lie at biological, intra-psychological, social-psychological, anthropological, and historical levels. But this is about something more than plain blood lust.

There is a certain confusion among people who like to watch violent sports, and it is a confusion provoked by a belief that the rituals’ participants indicate their passionate commitment by willingly taking the greatest of risks for sport. These combatants are unfazed and c0nfident in the face of aggression – which is precisely what these viewers seek to become. Like Freud’s playwright, participants in violent sports afford their viewers a certain schienwelt – Fans identify with them, take center stage, and satiate their unconscious impulses. And, in 2015, the American public mind’s conscious social and political beliefs-proclaimed through all forms of signs, symbols, ceremonies-were no match for a deeply rooted predisposition toward violent sport. Rational, conscious choice? It had little to do with it.


1 :

2 :

3 : Zillmann, D., & Zillmann, M. (1996). Psychoneuroendocrinology of social behavior. In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles. New York: Guilford Press.

4 : Shennum, W. A., & Bugental, D. B. (1982). The development of control affective expression in nonverbal behavior. In R. Feldman (Ed.), Development of nonverbal behavior in children. New York: Springer-Verlag.

5 :

6 : Clover, C. J. (1992). Men, women, and chainsaws: Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

7 : Brosius, H.-B., & Schmitt, I. (1990). Nervenkitzel oder Gruppendruck? Determinanten fur die Beliebtheit von Florrorvideos bei Jugendlichen. In H. Lukesch (Ed.), Wenn Gewalt zur Unterhaltung wird . . . Beitrage zur Nutzung und Wirkung von Gewaltdarstellungen in audiovisuellen Medien. Regensburg, Germany: Roderer.


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r12 - 23 Aug 2015 - 21:44:47 - CMcKinney
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