Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Psychology: Self-interest versus collective good

My last post was about how normative practices (such as how players "get next") affect game conditions. I tried to make the point that local rules and norms in pickup basketball profoundly shape the experience of playing.

Thinking about this further, I realized that the specific issue of "next" actually signifies a larger tensionthat between self-interest and collective good. Skilled players who advocate a system of next in which captains can cherry-pick their teammates are acting selfishly because under this system, these good players will tend to end up on strong teams and will get to play longer by winning more. Average and bad players, of course, suffer under this system.

There are many pickup scenarios that highlight this tension. Here's one. Have you ever played in a game where one player made a few ticky-tack foul calls? What tends to happen? That's right, everybody starts calling more fouls! So here, Sensitive Foul Guy's behavior shifts the culture of the game. If others don't react by lowering their foul calling tolerances, then Sensitive Foul Guy has created an unfair advantage for him and his team. Of course, this dynamic almost always leads to a series of "That was a foul! That was not a foul!" arguments that threaten to derail the entire run. Increasing foul sensitivity is a great example of the "tragedy of the commons," where everyone would benefit from playing with reasonable fouling standards, but individual players' self-interests undermine this collective goal and ruin it for everyone.

Here's another, less common example. Lately in my pickup run we've had an organizational problem. When the run is especially busy, players like to get two full games going, with winners playing winners and losers playing losers in a "second round." Sounds good, what's the problem? The problem is that this system cannot accommodate new players. So what happens is that the first round games end and teams switch courts to play the second round. But new players invariably show up during the first round and wait by one of the courts. When the second round games are supposed to start, there is almost always a fight between the new players and the players coming over from the other court to play their second round opponent. (This system is stupid but it sounds cool to a lot of people. They need to get their f*cking heads checked.)

The personal interests of the players are clear: everyone wants to play as soon as possible. But multiple teams, according to completely different logics, have the "right" to play. Who capitulates? I DO. As one of the oldest players (and the only professor) playing in a college gym, I feel a responsibility to set a good example, so when I am caught in this situation, I calmly explain why the tourney system makes no sense, and then offer to wait. My teammates are not always happy about this, but I give them my speech about self-interest and collective good and they generally seem to be somewhat sorta kinda ok with it. What strikes me is the reaction of other players, who are braced for an argument and surprised that someone would willingly sacrifice his own playing time. Last week I did this very thing and a player on the team that was jumping us looked at me with genuine puzzlement and said "Wow, you're so nice." I explained to him that I was not being nice, but rather acting in a way that set a positive example so that we would all eventually benefit. I asked that next time he was caught in a situation like the one we were in, he volunteer to sit and wait. He furrowed his brow and appeared to consider it before checking the ball in and starting play. Baby steps I guess.

Final example. The other day I was ahead of the entire defense on a break. My teammate threw me a great over-the-top pass and I had a clear path to the rim. But as I caught the ball my feet got mixed up and I shuffled slightly before taking two big steps and laying the ball in. I think it looked a little funny, but no one on the other team said anything because it was a marginal situation. I turned right to my opponents and said "I traveled. No basket." They were shocked. My teammates were shocked. In response I simply said "integrity of the game."

I hope that by setting a good example I will encourage others to think of the collective before thinking of themselves. I want to create a culture in which personal sacrifice is normalized, where players are willing to act against their own interests when they recognize that the collective good is at stake. I often talk to other respected regulars about this. I tell them that we all need to think of the good of the game before we think about ourselves. But this is difficult in pickup basketballa loosely organized activity with an ever-changing roster of participants. The problem with asking players to attend to the collective is that the collective is amorphous and unbounded. Still, I feel that if the most respected players actively promote honorable behavior, others will be inclined to follow suit. The players I talk to seem to understand this in theory, but when there's a three game wait next Sunday afternoon, we'll see.

I'll close with some simple but powerful advice. When faced with a self/collective dilemma, we should always ask ourselves: What would Jesus Shuttlesworth do?