Your Brain Won't Let You Tear Your Eyes Away from the Yankees-Red Sox Brawl

The human brain rewards aggression.

Red Sox, Yankees

On Wednesday night, a Bean Town brawl went down between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, culminating in four ejections. It had everything: A bat slam, a “come and get me” hand gesture, relief pitcher Joe Kelly with his shirt half off. The spectacle elicited the frenzied adoration of fans. The stadium audience leapt to their feet, and at-home admirers replaying the footage (over 400,000 times, as of publication). There’s a reason fights trigger a gut reaction to cheer: As psychologists have shown, we’re drawn to sports partially because its relative safety lets us indulge in the more aggressive sides of our nature.

The suspense started early in the game, after Yankees first baseman Tyler Austin nailed Red Sox shortstop in the lower calf with his spikes, but even though both teams ran out onto the field, the situation de-escalated before any punches were thrown. But when Austin came back up to the plate, Kelly threw a 97.7 mph fastball directly at Austin, hitting the back of his left elbow. Austin slammed down the bat, Kelly said “let’s go”, and suddenly both teams were out of the field again, this time in an all-out brawl.

“Bench-clearing brawls are bench-clearing brawls,” Holt later told reporters. “I think Red Sox-Yankees makes it bigger for people outside of the Red Sox and Yankees — fans and media and stuff like that, I think that’s a big part of it. But I don’t think it’s any different for us.”

Holt has a point: Fans and media do like it, to a point where the New York Times said the fight was “good for baseball.” It also, at least for some, feels good to watch.

At the root of this fight — beyond the spiked-slide and the pitch-hit — is the way the brain processes aggression. In 2008, scientists from Vanderbilt University showed that the brain processes aggressive actions in the same way it does sex, food, and drugs: as a reward. Their experiments demonstrated that individuals intentionally seek out aggressive encounters in order to get that burst of dopamine pleasure — a motivating factor that reinforces the behavior.

“Aggression occurs among virtually all vertebrates and is necessary to get and keep important resources such as mates, territory, and food,” co-author Craig Kennedy, Ph.D., said in a statement. “We have found that the ‘reward pathway’ in the brain becomes engaged in response to an aggressive event and that dopamine is involved.”

Aggression and violence are the common factors uniting modern sports with more violent ancient ones. Studies show that men who play organized sports display more aggressive behaviors on and off the field, which social psychologists say is likely influenced by the social conditioning that boys undergo when first starting to play. Mantras like “Be tough” and “Take risks,” expectations stemming from male stereotypes, are drilled down during sports. So, the inclination to throw down a bat and start a fight isn’t just a response to an aggressive burst of dopamine — it’s a cultural expectation.

It’s more complicated, however, to explain why fans went nuts when Kelly and Austin threw down. One of many theories is that people like watching violence because it gives them the chance to experience something taboo. Fighting is generally unaccepted in society, but sports offers, quite literally, a new arena where penalties are slim. Psychologists call this “bracket morality” because during a game, fans and athletes adhere to a moral code that is different than the one in the outside world.

There’s also a theory saying that aggressive play adds to the drama of watching sports. Other studies have shown that male viewers enjoy watching the game more as the violence increases. Throw that in with fan identification, and you have thousands of people experiencing the drama of athletes as their own drama; their shared identity fueling the sense that they too have been wronged.

All that considered, we’ll soon see whether another brawl is on the horizon: The Yankees and Red Sox play again Thursday, and then again on May 8 in the Bronx.