Close to where I live, there are several sports clubs, gyms, football, and basketball fields. I have access to a great selection of TV channels, explicitly devoted to sports, and when I watch the news, there is a special section devoted to sports. When I browse the internet, there is a huge selection of websites that specialize in sports news, while in the kiosks and shops in my neighborhood I can find a wide selection of sports magazines and newspapers. Such plethora of sports-devoted outlets, found in most Western societies, testify to peoples’ strong interest – and in certain cases obsession – in doing sports and in watching other people doing sports. And this is not a recent phenomenon – the Olympic Games that, appeared first in Ancient Greece about 2,800 years ago, were so important for the Greeks that all hostilities across Greece would cease during the duration of the Games.
The strong interest to engage in sports made me curious about what motivates people to do so. In order to address this question, I conducted a research where I asked people what motivates them to engage in sports.1 I found nine basic motives for doing sports and six basic motives for watching sports. People indicated that their strongest motive for engaging in sports was to be entertained. Simply put, people derived enjoyment from doing and watching sports which motivated them to do so. I also found that men, especially younger ones, indicated a stronger overall motivation to engage in sports than women and older individuals.
Thus, the question why people engage in sports can be answered as follows: People are motivated to do and to watch sports predominantly because they find such activities entertaining. This answer, however, gives rise to another question, namely “Why people’s mind interprets doing and watching sports as entertaining?” In an evolutionary perspective, people interpret as entertaining and enjoyable these activities which, in an ancestral context, enabled them to increase their reproductive and survival success, usually termed fitness.2 Simply put, individuals with such predispositions were better-off than those without them, as they were more likely to survive and reproduce, and thus to pass these predispositions to future generations. This being the case, an interpretation of my findings can be that engaging in sports has been fitness-increasing, especially for younger men; but why?
In human species, one way for men to gain access to the reproductive capacity of the opposite sex is to fight other men and monopolize access to women. This so-called male-male competition results in fights between men which can escalate to raids and wars, with women being a primary trophy for the winning party. In the pre-industrial context, where almost all human evolution took place, military technology was limited, so it was predominantly the physical skills such as strength, speed, and stamina that determined how effective a man could be as a warrior. Accordingly, it would pay for men to have a good knowledge of other men’s physical capacities because such knowledge would enable them to prefer men with good physical capacities as allies and avoid them as enemies. In the same vein, it would pay for men to display their physical capacities to other men, as doing so would enable them to be selected as allies and be avoided as enemies.1
Moreover, in contemporary and ancestral pre-industrial societies, individuals are not free to choose their spouses, but their parents are the ones choosing for them. There are two asymmetries, however, namely, parents control more the mate choices of their daughters than of their sons, while fathers exercise more control over their children’s mate choices than mothers. The consequence of these asymmetries is that mate choice usually takes the form of men (i.e., fathers) choosing other men as spouses for their daughters. When they choose prospective sons-in-law, among other things, fathers look for men who are physically fit and can help them in subsistence activities as well as in the defense of the family unit.3
In sum, there are reasons to believe that in ancestral human societies, young men, who faced the problem of gaining reproductive access to the reproductive capacity of the opposite sex, could solve it in two main ways. One way was to form male coalitions in order to fight other men and monopolize access to women. This path required displaying their physical capacities in order to be avoided as enemies and to be preferred as allies. It required also to monitor other men’s performance of physical fitness in order to be able to distinguish those men who were physically fit and could be preferred as allies or be avoided as enemies. Another way to do so was to be selected by fathers as husbands for their daughters. This path required also to display physical fitness, as well as to monitor the fitness displays of other men in order to keep up with the competition.The evolutionary problem of gaining reproductive access to the opposite sex through these paths can be partially solved by the mind interpreting the engagement in athletic competitions with other
The evolutionary problem of gaining reproductive access to the opposite sex through these paths can be partially solved by the mind interpreting the engagement in athletic competitions with other men and watching other men competing as enjoyable. The first mechanism enables men to engage in athletic competitions, and display in this way their capacities to other men, while the second to distinguish between men for physical fitness and to monitor the competition. Gaining access to the opposite sex is usually a problem younger men have to solve, which means that the motivation to engage in sports would have been optimized by selection forces to peak following sexual maturity and reside with age. This would also be the case for the motivation to watch other men competing. Nevertheless, because the problem of finding sons-in-law was one that older men faced, older men also maintain a strong interest in watching young men competing.
In this respect, men have evolved mechanisms that motivate them to engage in physical competitions with other men and to watch other men competing. The outcome of the functioning of these mechanisms is the sports clubs, gyms, and football fields next to my home (and probably yours), as well as the selection of TV channels, magazines, newspapers, and sports websites to which most of us have an easy access.
1 Apostolou, M. & Lambrianou, R. (2017). What motivates people to do and watch sports? Exploring the effect of sex, age, partner status, and parenthood. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 3, 20-33.
2 Apostolou, M. (2016). Feeling good: An evolutionary perspective on life choices. New York: Transaction Publishers.
3 Apostolou, M. (2014). Sexual selection under parental choice: The evolution of human mating behaviour. Hove: Psychology Press.