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The Home Run King and I

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, July 23, 2007

Exhibit A: Sometime over the next few days, a San Francisco athlete will break baseball's most treasured record. Despite his achievement of hitting more home runs than anyone else in Major League Baseball, Barry Bonds will be greeted with rage, ridicule and vast amounts of spit -- because many people think he is a jerk.

Exhibit B: Former "Law and Order" star Fred Thompson is expected to soon enter the 2008 race for the Republican presidential nomination. Conservatives are salivating because America associates Thompson with the stern-jawed character with a homey sense of humor he has played on TV, even though everyone knows the character is fiction.

Bonds and Thompson are very different examples of the same curious psychological phenomenon -- they exemplify how we form intense personal relationships with entertainers with whom we are never going to have personal relationships. If you are never going to share a dinner table with Bonds or have any personal interaction with him, does it really matter whether he is a nice person?

Similarly, if the best president is supposed to be the administrator with the best ideas, why do voters gravitate toward politicians with outsize personalities with whom they think they can be friends?

In recent years, a number of researchers have become interested in why people form strong personal bonds of love and hate with celebrities who do not know they exist. Evolution seems to provide the best explanation for these one-way relationships: For much of our evolutionary history, people who acted nice or nasty were people you actually came into contact with. If you knew a jerk, it was almost certain that the jerk would know you. It made sense to care whether someone acted selfishly or kindly because one day you might have to trust this person with your life.

Television, movies and the mass media have hijacked this brain mechanism. We relate to people we see on TV as if they were actually in our living rooms, which is why so many people feel personally hurt when a sports star acts badly or a president has an affair.

"We evolved to live in small, social groups, so our psychology of judging other people is based on their interacting with us and playing a role in our lives," said Catherine Salmon, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Redlands in California. This is why people routinely choose leaders based on how they feel about them and evaluate professional relationships using personal metrics.

"From a logical standpoint, all you should care about is whether he does a good job, but most people complain about their doctors' personalities," Salmon said. "Would you prefer a nice doctor who was not good at his job?"

You don't have to be interested in baseball to tell something interesting is going on with Bonds, who is on the verge of blasting away Hank Aaron's career tally of 755 home runs and claiming the crown of home run king. Sports fans who love to hate Bonds point to allegations that the 42-year-old superstar used steroids. But the drug charges have never been proved. (And even if they were true, there is widespread agreement that Bonds, even without any drug enhancement, would still rank among the all-time greats.) Besides, you never saw the same vitriol when Lance Armstrong was gobbling up Tour de France cycling victories, even though allegations of cheating dogged him every grunt of the way.

Bonds blames racism for his low standing, a theory that is suspect, given the record he is breaking is one set by another black man. And the number of widely admired black athletes in America is legion, so why would the bigots single out Bonds for their calumny?

Bonds's infamy probably has much more to do with his personality -- and our psychology. As a player and a person, Bonds has made no bones about the fact that he looks out for himself. He has gone out of his way to disdain sports pundits. He claims to be indifferent to his critics. He regularly snubs the fans he does have.

"The human brain evolved in a certain environment, in small bands of 150 to 200 people," said Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics who has studied why people form personal relationships with figures they see on television. "There were no TVs, films or videos. The only realistic images of people we saw 100,000 years ago were other real people. There was no brain module to recognize TV stars and fictional characters."

Kanazawa is not saying that people who form intense relationships with television characters and celebrities are delusional -- people know, of course, that they do not have a personal relationship with Bonds. But there is a part of our brains that does not know this, and it influences how we come to care about or hate celebrities .

This is why, Kanazawa has found, people who watch a lot of TV not only report having a wider circle of friends than they actually have but also report being happier than others who do not have such fictional relationships.

"People become happier when they see their friends more frequently," Kanazawa said. "The same thing happens with watching TV. The people watching those six friends living in a Manhattan apartment every Thursday night were happier than those who did not."

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