A young man, raising funds for his high school football team, knocked on the door of a Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) researcher. And not just any CTE researcher: a CTE researcher who looks specifically at teenage brains. The two sat down, and the young man learned about how concussions are not necessary to trigger CTE; repeated shots to the head will do it. The young man listened, and, in fact, chose CTE as his research project in English. When I read this NPR story, I was hoping for a better ending.
And what did the young man decide about playing football? He’s still going to play. “This is something I love. I dedicate myself to [this]. This makes me healthier physically, mentally. I'm doing what I love, making friends, there's a lot of great experiences that I'm having from this.” He did decide, however, to cut back on boxing, so that’s something.
When I read this article I was immediately struck by the power of immediate reinforcement over the potential of bad things happening at some unknown time in the distant future. [As an operant conditioning bonus, in the very first paragraph, the student gives us a great example of discriminative stimuli. “He’d look for lights on and listen for kids’ voices.” Those stimuli signaled a greater likelihood of receiving a donation.]
But the reinforcement aside, I wondered about the social psychology of playing an intense team sport, like football. The student said, “I’m doing what I love, making friends, there’s a lot of great experiences that I’m having from this.”
In Sebastian Junger’s book, War, the author writes about his experience spending 15 months with a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan. Once, when out on patrol, the platoon got into a firefight along a road, taking cover behind a rock wall. Afterwards, Junger asked one of the soldiers if he was scared. He said he was. Junger asked why he didn’t run. He said he stayed because the soldier on his left stayed and the soldier on his right stayed.
While still considering the power of groups, my news feed produced a fascinating article on identity fusion. Research “suggest[s] that extreme self-sacrifice is motivated by 'identity fusion', a visceral sense of oneness with the group resulting from intense collective experiences (e.g. painful rituals or the horrors of frontline combat) or from perceptions of shared biology.” Once a person fuses their identity with the group, all it takes is a threat to the group to lead the person to self-sacrifice. And those groups need to be “local” groups, like a team or a platoon. “Extended fusion” to bigger groups like one’s country can happen, but it looks like it can only happen after “local fusion.” Those who have experienced identity fusion with a local group describe the others in the group as family. It’s common to hear teammates and platoon-mates describe each other as brothers (Whitehouse, 2018).
What sacrifices are you willing to make for your family?
Whitehouse, H. (2018). Dying for the group: Towards a general theory of extreme self-sacrifice. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X18000249