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Morgan LEVEY: My name is Morgan Levey, and I am a senior producer at the Freakonomics Radio Network.

You already know Morgan if you listen to the podcast that she produces: People I (Mostly) Admire. Morgan has also produced several episodes of Freakonomics Radio. She and I are colleagues.

LEVEY: We are colleagues. 

Stephen DUBNER: Now, Morgan, before we go further on the conversation we’re about to have, what would you say if I told you that we have got a surprise guest joining us?

LEVEY: My heart rate just increased and I have this smile on my face.

DUBNER: Would you like to guess who the surprise guest might be? 

LEVEY: I mean, we’re doing this conversation about my love of Formula 1. And so all I can think is that you have a driver.

DUBNER: What would you say if I told you that not only do we have a driver, but this driver’s name is Lewis Hamilton? 

LEVEY: You do not.

DUBNER: Okay, we don’t. We don’t. I’m so sorry to have abused your — you alright? 

LEVEY: Yeah, I did — I did need a minute. The build-up, it — every molecule of my being was like, “logically, no, that’s not a possibility right now, it’s not happening.” But I had a very physical reaction to just the pure mention or even the pure possibility of being in a Zoom call with Lewis Hamilton. I think I would have cried.

Lewis Hamilton is one of the best drivers in the history of Formula 1, which is the biggest motorsport in the world. Many people consider Hamilton the best driver in history, as he has won the world championship seven times. Hamilton is English, and Black — in fact he’s the only Black driver in the history of Formula 1. He is an advocate for greater diversity in the sport and he is also Morgan Levey’s favorite driver. I knew this going into the conversation with Morgan, which is why it was particularly cruel of me to prank her. But there was a point to be made here. I asked Morgan why she is such a big fan of Lewis Hamilton.

LEVEY: I almost wish I had a more interesting answer to who my favorite driver is because he’s the most winning driver of all time. I mean, he dominated the sport for years. I think the Lewis Hamilton of today is very different than the Lewis Hamilton of ten years ago. He has evolved into this icon of the sport and this very gracious human, the way he talks to his team and the way he talks about his team. And it’s been a really frustrating season for him. But it’s — it’s been really fun to watch him start at the back of the grid and just hunt down other drivers and make these really bold moves.

You may not share Morgan’s devotion to Lewis Hamilton, or Formula 1. But there’s a good chance you are a devoted fan of someone or something. Maybe it’s an artist or a musician or a whole style of art or music; maybe it’s a football or basketball team; maybe you are a fan of some business icon or scientific genius; given that you’re listening to this show, maybe you’re a fan of economics! Today on Freakonomics Radio: we all know what fandom is; but what’s it about?

Jay VAN BAVEL: Every single society that’s ever been studied on Earth, you can find coalitions or groups of people. So that seems to be part of human nature. 

LEVEY: I think my obsession sort of crept up on me.

And what happens when that kind of obsession invades our politics?

Harvey MANSFIELD: There’s nobody who is a partisan of the two-party system. Everybody wants one of them and not the other. 

The promise — and the perils — of fandom. That’s coming up right now.

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The word “fan” has been around since at least the late 17th century, although it didn’t become common for another 200 years, when it was applied to sports enthusiasts. A baseball manager and player named Ted Sullivan claimed to have originated the word in 1883. Today, as you well know, fandom is big business; it powers mainstream industries like entertainment and sports — but there are hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of smaller tributaries where fans connect with the object of their affection — and with each other.

VAN BAVEL: So one of the cool things about the internet is it’s allowed people to find like-minded others. And so even if you grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere like I did, you could now find your people online.  

That is Jay Van Bavel. And his job?

VAN BAVEL: Professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University. 

The small town where he grew up, in the middle of nowhere, is in northern Alberta, Canada. He moved to Toronto to get his Ph.D.

VAN BAVEL: And there I started studying how identity works, how identities shape how we see the world, how we evaluate people, shape our conscious and unconscious minds.

Many psychologists focus on individual traits: our thoughts, emotions, our personalities. Van Bavel got into what’s called social psychology.

VAN BAVEL: It’s all about how situations affect our behavior and the way we think and act. That could be macro-level factors, like what type of economic system you’re living in. It could be cultural-level factors, whether you live in a country that’s individualist or collectivist. It could be community-level factors, like what your neighbors are doing, what the norms are in the environment. Or it can be organizational factors.  

And in each of these systems, Van Bavel says:

VAN BAVEL: We try to make sense of them and try to figure out how to fit in. Often our goal is to be a good group member. If you’re not a good group member, you know we have words for those people, like heretics and sellouts and all these things. 

So what does a social psychologist have to say about fandom?

VAN BAVEL: Fandom to me is just a form of social identity, which means you identify with a group. And that group can be like your favorite football team. It can be a company that you love or a brand that you are a hardcore supporter of. It can cover video-game fans. It can cover fans of certain genres of literature.

But why do we become fans of these things? Why do we want to identify with a genre of literature or a football team? Let’s put this within an economic framework, and consider the benefits and costs. Benefits first:

VAN BAVEL: So fandom scratches a lot of itches that we have. It allows you to connect to a community of strangers and make new friends and feel a sense of shared purpose and shared reality. Fandom can give you a sense of status — if your team wins the championship, you get to brag about it, post about it on social media, wear your jersey to work the next day. It allows you to have a sense also of distinctiveness, which means that you’re different from other people, you’re different from other fans of other teams. 

If it’s a team you’re a fan of, it matters whether your team wins or loses. Last year, Van Bavel and his fellow psychologist Dominic Packer published a book called The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony. In the book, they describe a couple of studies where researchers surveyed U.S. college students shortly after their football team played a game.

VAN BAVEL: After a win, people would refer to the team as “we.” “We won.” But when the team lost, they would say, “Oh, they lost.” Because I’m not part of the team. I wasn’t on the field. And so we take credit and feel identified and connected when our team wins. When they lose, we try to distance ourselves psychologically.  

But win or lose, Van Bavel says, this aspect of fandom has value.

VAN BAVEL: We have a crisis of loneliness in this country right now. Part of that is solved by feeling like you’re connected to something that’s bigger than you or some group. 

Okay, so those are some benefits of fandom. What about costs? It’s easy to think of the extreme cases: the stalkers, the mentally unstable fans like Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon. People whose reality is so distorted that their fandom tips into standom, like the title character of the Eminem song “Stan”:

EMINEM: Dear Mr. “I’m Too Good to Call or Write My Fans.” This will be the last package I ever send your a**. It’s been six months and still no word, I don’t deserve it? I know you got my last two letters, I wrote the addresses on ’em perfect.

But even ordinary fans can experience a distorted sense of reality. In 1951, Dartmouth and Princeton played a football game, and it got rough.

VAN BAVEL: In fact, so rough that the All-American quarterback from Princeton had to be carted off the field with an injury and the violence escalated. 

Afterward, each school blamed the opposing team for the foul play.

VAN BAVEL: So a professor at each university got together and tried to figure out why is this? And they had people come in and tell them which team committed more fouls, Princeton or Dartmouth. And the students from Princeton who had watched the game had very different memories of the game than the ones at Dartmouth. 

Then the researchers showed these students some film from the game.

VAN BAVEL: Even though they had the video of it right there in front of them and had just seen it, they still came to opposite conclusions. Basically, they’re seeing what they want to see. This is why everybody, of course, hates the refs or the umpires at games. They all think the ref is getting it wrong. But in reality, what you’re seeing is most fans are so biased that they’re not able to be as objective as the umps or the refs. 

DUBNER: When I was a little kid, I was a big sports fan, but I was particularly a fan of a football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who no one else I knew was a fan of because I wasn’t anywhere near Pittsburgh. I had just fallen hard for them. And so I was a deep, deep, deep fan, especially of this one player whose name was Franco Harris, but the whole Pittsburgh Steelers. So for me it wasn’t a group thing. Is that maybe veering out of fandom and into some sick version of hero-worship that is different from what you’re talking about? 

VAN BAVEL: You can be a fan of a team that you don’t have any connection to. Were you wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey while you were watching the game all alone at home?

DUBNER: Not only that, but I would wear the jersey to school the day after a victory. 

VAN BAVEL: Okay. So now you’ve internalized it where you’ve decided to wear this at home where no one’s going to see you. This is one of the funny things about fandom, right? Is you’re sitting at home alone in your living room cheering and you feel some sense of accomplishment or excitement when the team scores a touchdown or gets an interception, even though you had no part in it. And so that’s where it really starts to become a sense of identity. 

DUBNER: So that sounds both alluring and a little frightening, because I know there’s an old phrase from, I guess, social psychology, if I think of Robert Cialdini way back when, called “basking in reflected glory,” which is what you’re describing right now. I can go either way on that — like, yeah, it’s wonderful that people can take pleasure from the activities of someone that doesn’t know they exist. On the other hand, is it a little pathetic in that I should be actually doing something for myself? How do you see that? 

VAN BAVEL: I mean, on one hand, it’s pathetic because you don’t really accomplish anything, but you’re feeling part of something, right? That’s one of the cool things that identity does. It usually binds you to a community of other people in other situations and allows you to make common ground with complete strangers.

DUBNER: So what are you a fan of in your life? 

VAN BAVEL: For sports teams, I’m an Edmonton Oilers fan. For baseball, I’m a Toronto Blue Jays fan. And I saw a great study on this where it turns out that if you’re about 10 to 12 years old, if the team in your local area wins a championship, it kind of imprints that fandom on you for life. And so when I was a kid, the Oilers were the best hockey team in the world. And the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series back-to-back, right at that critical age. And so now I’m stuck with those teams, even though they haven’t won a championship in about 30 years.

DUBNER: Tell me what you know about Formula 1 racing. Are you a fan? 

VAN BAVEL: I’m not really a fan but I watched the whole first season of that Netflix show, and it is super-compelling, I have to admit. It’s great watching.

The show that Van Bavel’s talking about is called Formula 1: Drive to Survive. It’s a behind-the-scenes reality show produced by Netflix and Formula 1.

ANNOUNCER: Verstappen makes a decent start, but Hamilton’s coming alongside him.

LEVEY: So Formula 1 is the most elite form of car racing.

And that again is my colleague and Formula 1 fan Morgan Levey.

LEVEY: There’s ten teams. Each team has two drivers. The teams are responsible for building their own cars. Each team consists of hundreds of engineers, mechanics.  

VAN BAVEL: These cars are incredible. And the speed at which they’re driving and the risks that the drivers are taking are just mind-blowing. 

LEVEY: A race weekend consists of three practice rounds, where drivers just familiarize themselves with the tracks. Qualifying, which sort of has three rounds in it and qualifying determines their placement on the track, what’s called the grid, when they start the race on Sunday. And then Sunday is the race, and races are usually about 2 hours. 

VAN BAVEL: Drivers on each team actually seem like arch-enemies. One of the best quotes was one driver said, “you know, your teammate is your worst enemy.” Can you imagine that in any other sport, someone saying that? They’d immediately be kicked off the team. 

Drive to Survive is now in its fourth season. Back in 2017, before the show debuted, Formula 1 was struggling to grow its audience. It had been popular for decades in Europe, Asia, parts of South America, but now it was stagnating under its longtime C.E.O. Bernie Ecclestone, who openly dismissed the idea of making the sport more accessible. That all changed when the U.S. firm Liberty Media acquired Formula 1 for $8 billion, and they set to work building an American audience. (Liberty, we should say, also owns the majority of SiriusXM, which happens to be the producing partner of Freakonomics Radio.) Formula 1 now wanted to go after younger viewers, especially younger women, and as part of that initiative, they gave Netflix access to produce Drive to Survive. The show is a documentary of sorts, but a highly manicured and manipulated documentary. Highly successful too. It attracted scads of new fans — like Morgan Levey.

LEVEY: Yes. Oh, yes. I’m fine that I was manipulated in this way. Like, it doesn’t bother me in the least. 

Morgan isn’t what you might have thought of as a racing fan.

LEVEY: I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I think motorcycles are incredibly dangerous. I have hated go-karting the times I’ve gone. Nothing about me screams “car racing fan,” nothing. I hike, I camp, I ski, I do ceramics. 

DUBNER: Would you consider yourself an environmentalist? 

LEVEY: Yeah, absolutely. I’m an environmentally responsible person. And then yet I love Formula 1, which sends thousands of people crisscrossing the globe every other weekend.

DUBNER: I assume they have to fly the cars around the world, yes? 

LEVEY: I think so. I mean, I would — they must, yes.  

DUBNER: And then the racing itself. I mean, forget about the manufacture and upkeep of the cars, but then they’re going really fast and they’re burning some kind of gasoline, yeah? 

LEVEY: Yes, exactly. 

DUBNER: So what is it about your fandom that lets you override so many of your priors? 

LEVEY: I think my obsession was — even though it was quite quick, it sort of crept up on me. So I wasn’t thinking about the ways that it sort of goes against my ethos as a human. I mean, it was never something that held me up and it hasn’t held me up. I just started watching Drive to Survive.  

VAN BAVEL: The thing that the documentary does is it makes it human, right? You feel social connections to these people on these teams and get connected to the drama. One of the things about human nature is that we’re very flexible in the identities that we hold. And so all of us contain multitudes. 

The Formula 1 strategy seems to be working. According to ESPN, in just the past two years, the average U.S. T.V. audience for races has more than doubled. The business went after fans, and now the fans are boosting the business. Coming up after the break: corporate fandom at its finest:

VAN BAVEL: I think Apple’s done a better job of building identity than almost any other company I can think of. 

And, this being election season in the U.S., we look at red fans versus blue fans. I’m Stephen Dubner, this is Freakonomics Radio; we’ll be right back.

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Jay Van Bavel is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at N.Y.U. who tells us that fandom promotes group identity and can therefore help us feel more connected. But it can also make us antagonistic towards people who are fans of a rival entity. Because it can arouse such strong feelings, fandom is useful even to consumer-goods corporations.

VAN BAVEL: So here’s an example of a corporate fandom. All my products are Apples, whereas I used PC products forever before.

DUBNER: And what if Apple came to you and said, Jay, we know you’re a big fan and we know you understand this dichotomy between Microsoft and Apple users, and we want the whole market. And while we’re there, let’s talk about Google and Samsung and everybody else. So how can you as an Apple fan — and you as a social psychologist who understands the psychology of fandom and group identity — how can you help us persuade the rest of the world to come over into the Apple team?

VAN BAVEL: Apple’s done a better job of building identity, better than almost any other company I can think of. I don’t know if they know the theory behind it, but one thing they’ve done is they’ve created optimal distinctiveness with their products. So the most famous ad of all time is “1984.” It was run during the Super Bowl. And it was an Apple ad where it shows this woman and this Big Brother-type of person droning on to all these people, kind of like hypnotized by it. 

DRONING VOICE: Today we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the information purification. 

VAN BAVEL: And this woman runs up and just smashes it. And it was supposed to be like Apple is for people who are anti-conformists. 

ANNOUNCER: On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984.”

VAN BAVEL: And when Steve Jobs came back and took over the company, they had their “think different” advertising campaign with Martin Luther King and Amelia Earhart and Gandhi. 

ANNOUNCER: Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. 

VAN BAVEL: What they’ve been able to do, I think, with that type of messaging and advertising is create the sense that exists now among users, all these people with iPhones and their MacBooks and their iPads, they all feel like they’re unique snowflakes. And so they’ve allowed people to identify with this huge corporation and at the same time feel like we’re all original rabble-rousers and artists and so forth. 

In the market for computer operating systems, Apple and Microsoft make up what economists call a duopoly. That’s a market that’s dominated by two major players. Think of Boeing and Airbus in jet airliners; think of Coke and Pepsi. In 2018, we put out an episode called “America’s Hidden Duopoly.” Here, from that episode, is Katherine Gehl, an ex-C.E.O. who became a reformer against what she calls the political industry.

Katherine GEHL: So each side of the duopoly — Republicans and Democrats, and the players that are playing for those teams, effectively — have over time worked to improve their own side’s fortunes. But collectively, they also have come together to improve the ability of the industry as a whole to protect itself from new competition, from third parties that could threaten either of the two sides of the duopoly.

The players in this duopoly are also reliant on fans, and seek to create them. Jay Van Bavel again:

VAN BAVEL: People who are supporters of a political leader or political party. They get to cheer on, post things on social media. They go to rallies and public events and speeches and conventions. So this fandom can be all types of groups and identities. 

DUBNER: So as you’re describing political fandom now, that sounds kind of wonderful in that you get all this utility and perhaps joy and group participation from your political leaders. On the other hand, I can imagine an argument, a pretty easy argument, that while fandom is a natural outgrowth and maybe a benefit of sports or of entertainment that politics should not be the realm of fandom, that it should not be treated like a sport in that way. What’s your position on that? 

VAN BAVEL: I would say you’re partially right, I would say partially wrong. You’re partially right, I think, because it would be ideal if our politics was really about ideas and policies and careful, reasoned debate. 

DUBNER: Ideas, policies, careful-reasoned debate and politics, did you say? You put all that in one sentence?  

VAN BAVEL: That’s an idealized form of politics. But politics is also about mobilizing people, getting people out to vote. And often you’re not going to do that unless you make it feel like a sense of community. And they have a shared sense of purpose and also a sense of support and a network that is engaged. What you want to do is harness those partisan identities in healthy ways, create healthy norms that, for example, uphold democracy. 

DUBNER: Let’s drill into the political fandom a bit and let’s split it into the demand side and the supply side. So from the demand side, let’s think about voters, but also political fans, let’s call them. People who get a lot of utility out of joining a team, a red team or a blue team. And then there is the supply side, which are the parties themselves and the candidates. The politicians and the campaigns seem to be offering something of high value that will translate into better society, good ideas, and so on. But in reality, my take is that they treat it as much as a game as the demand side does.

VAN BAVEL: The elements of fanship, are, I would argue, a part of human nature, and political leaders who harness that often are more successful. So I’ll give you one study as an example. They looked at the speeches of political candidates over like 100 years in Australia, and the candidates who won political office were twice as likely to use collective pronouns in their speeches, like “we” and “us.” And so people feel connected to them, they feel a sense of shared purpose, but also they’re more willing to maybe vote, volunteer, donate some money. And political leaders who understand that part of human psychology are going to leverage it for good or for evil. 

DUBNER: Now, you were the coauthor of a paper published not so long ago in Science. It was called “Political Sectarianism in America: A Poisonous Cocktail of Othering, Aversion, and Moralization Poses a Threat to Democracy.” There’s so much to unpack there. First of all, define some terms. “Othering,” meaning what?

VAN BAVEL: Othering just basically means that you see another group as different from you. They’re out-group members, they’re not in-group members. And there’s kind of a clear line for you psychologically. 

DUBNER: Okay, “aversion.” I think I know what that means. But is there maybe a more concrete definition in this context?

VAN BAVEL: Just a feeling of disdain, of dislike for another group. Because you can have some identities that are really positive, but you don’t necessarily dislike other people who don’t share them.

DUBNER: And “moralization.” How is that defined in this context? 

VAN BAVEL: The moralization, I think, is the key piece, which means that the other group is not just wrong, but they’re evil. That they’re doing something morally abhorrent. I think you could have looked 40 years ago and it would have been the case that people were disagreeing over marginal tax rates. And it was really more of a debate about, okay well, how is that going to affect the G.D.P. or our trade deficit? And there could have been a reasonable argument. Now it’s really seen, I think, much more as that what you’re proposing is really evil and I can’t vote for you or find a compromise with you because doing so would morally compromise me.

DUBNER: You know, psychologists — particularly social psychologists like you — are constantly saying that if we experience an emotion or have a behavior, that it’s definitely fulfilling some evolutionary instinct. And I’ll be honest with you, I find a lot of those explanations a little bit suspect, only because I’d like to think that we’ve evolved a bit more than that explanation would have us believe. But let’s say I embrace that explanation for now. What utility is there? What evolutionary purpose or just modern utility is there in getting to feel like the other side is evil? What’s the upside of that? 

VAN BAVEL: I don’t know if there’s a strong evolutionary drive to feel the other side is evil. And so I don’t want to act as if American politics is a natural outcome of our evolutionary psychology. It’s probably something about political leaders, political messaging, political media that has taken something that could have been channeled in a healthier way, a part of human nature, and turned it in a really dark direction. 

Coming up after the break: let’s shed some light on that darkness, with help from George Washington. And, just a reminder this election season: you don’t have to be a fan of either political party to cast a vote. This is Freakonomics Radio; I’m Stephen Dubner; we’ll be right back.

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In 1796, toward the end of his second term as president, George Washington published his Farewell Address. It offered both a reflection on his time in office and a view toward America’s future. Washington warned of the threats facing this young republic: foreign enemies, government debt — and political parties. At the time, parties were loosely organized and didn’t play a major role in the electoral process. But, as Washington wrote, parties are, quote, “likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”

MANSFIELD: Well, Washington didn’t like parties. He thought they got in the way. 

Harvey Mansfield is a professor of government at Harvard. He identifies as conservative Republican.

MANSFIELD: A little bit more Republican than conservative, because I like to win. I’m willing to make concessions that will head in that direction.

America did not heed George Washington’s warning against political parties, and it wasn’t long before they grew powerful. First came the Federalists, who wanted a strong central government. As with most political endeavors, this action prompted a reaction.

MANSFIELD: It was Jefferson who had to form what he called the Democratic-Republican Party, a party that thought that the Federalists were too close to monarchy. They wanted to centralize the government too much. And Jefferson thought that was hostile to republican liberty. 

The showdowns between the Federalists and the Jeffersonians were contentious. Remember when Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel? Hamilton had been the Federalist treasury secretary; Burr was, like Jefferson, an anti-Federalist — although, to be fair, he was a bit anti-Jefferson as well.

MANSFIELD: The Jeffersonians didn’t believe in a two-party system. They believed in their party. That’s always a paradox of party government. There’s nobody who is a partisan of the two-party system. Everybody wants one of them and not the other. 

The Federalists eventually faded away, and by the presidency of James Monroe, which began in 1817, there was a respite from partisan rancor. This came to be known as “the Era of Good Feelings.” It didn’t last: in 1828, Andrew Jackson was elected President and was strongly opposed by the Whig party. By 1856, with the country bitterly split over the expansion of slavery, the electoral scene was dominated by the Democrats and the Republicans.

MANSFIELD: And after that, it became convenient to maintain the two parties. And I think it still is. 

A strong two-party system — a duopoly, if you will — is essentially built to create partisanship. Most of us, these days, think of that as a flaw. But not Harvey Mansfield.

MANSFIELD: I think partisanship is a good thing. Partisanship, especially when it’s two parties, because that means each party wants to gain a majority and to gain a majority, you can’t just follow your most extreme or most favorite ideas. You need to appeal to people in the middle or even people on the other side. So, I think it’s good, but it certainly does go too far right now. 

And what have been the drivers of this increased partisanship? There are perhaps too many to count — but Jay Van Bavel, the N.Y.U. psychology professor, offers up three particularly compelling arguments.

VAN BAVEL: Yeah, one of them was that the politics became more 50:50 in the U.S. So there’s a long time I think where the Democrats controlled the House. And so Republican presidents had to cooperate with them. And it got to a point where it’d switch back and forth all the time, and so at that point, it became maybe more strategic not to cooperate with the other party, but just to wait ‘til you got in power and then push your agenda. 

So that’s one argument.

VAN BAVEL: Another argument, and the data tracks this pretty closely, is inequality is very tightly at least correlated — I don’t know if it’s causal — but correlated with polarization. And economic inequality and social inequality are very high right now in the U.S.

And the third argument?

VAN BAVEL: Another argument I’ve seen by a lot of historians is we can go back to L.B.J. and the civil rights movement. There’s a lot of backlash around the civil rights movement and that actually realigned to the parties in a pretty dramatic way. 

DUBNER: Let me propose maybe theory 3B, I’m just curious to know what you think about it. So economists like to talk about this issue called the principal- agent problem, which is like when it seems as though two parties would be sharing an incentive — let’s say a police officer and the police captain — but in fact, the captain gives a rule that the police officer might feel compelled to ignore, because it’s better for him. So even though we think of, quote, “the police” as having a homogenous instinct, in this case, it’s actually split. I do wonder whether in politics that might be an active component as well, in that a lot of the voters and even the candidates themselves, and the candidates’ staffs, and all the people who do actual governing and the people who are voting for them to do governing are, in fact — you know, they think that they are aligned with the political system itself, but in fact, the political system is an industry, right? There are these two parties and they perpetuate themselves by doing all the things that you write about in this paper —“othering” and “aversion” and “moralizing.” So do you think in a sense that we’re all just victims of an industry that succeeds by driving us apart and that the participants themselves, even, and the voters are much less to blame? 

VAN BAVEL: I think there’s a reasonable case to be made for that. I think a lot of politicians have realized they can maintain power as long as they maintain loyalty among their political party or they keep fund-raising. And so what you have — I’ll give you an example of this. There was an analysis I looked at, I looked at just the amount of followers different senators had on Twitter. The people who had the most followers are the people who are the most ideologically extreme in terms of their voting record. Having an extreme position can be monetizable for them. It can gain them a huge following, it can gain them political clout and leverage, it can help enormously with fund-raising. So that’s the system that they’re operating in. 

In the episode we ran a few years ago on the political duopoly, Katherine Gehl discussed some possible reforms. One of them — which you may be familiar with, depending on where you live — is called ranked-choice voting:

GEHL: Here’s how ranked-choice voting works. You’ll now have four candidates that made it out of the top-four primary. Those four candidates will all be listed on the general election ballot, and you vote for them in order of preference. So it’s easy. “This is my first choice.” “This candidate is my second choice.” “This is my third choice.” “This is my fourth choice.” When the votes are tabulated, if no candidate has received over 50 percent, then whoever came in last is dropped, and votes for that candidate are then reallocated to those voters’ second choice, and the count is run again until one candidate reaches over 50 percent.

The theory is that in a ranked-choice system, candidates won’t try to appeal to just to their hardcore fans; they’ll have to appeal to everyone. In the past few years, Alaska and Maine have installed ranked-choice voting across all elections; more than 50 U.S. cities or states use it in some elections; it’s also used in Ireland and Australia, with more countries coming on-board. But partisanship is not declining, at least not yet. Some people argue ranked-choice voting will in fact make it worse. Among those people are Harvey Mansfield, the professor of government at Harvard.

MANSFIELD: Ranked-choice voting encourages people to vote for their favorite views and not so much for the common good. In other words, to vote for what they would like best, their dream candidate. And that puts them in the wrong sort of spirit. The spirit that you want is to elect a government that can govern the country with a majority, and therefore, legitimately, without people feeling offended or rebellious.

In other words, you want people to vote for their view of the common good but to not get upset if their particular candidate loses. Is that even possible? Jay Van Bavel thinks there is a useful lesson to be learned from some research on sports fandom.

VAN BAVEL: So this study was done with Manchester United soccer fans. 

Manchester United, or Man U., is one of the top soccer clubs in England, and the study was led by the psychologist Mark Levine at Lancaster University. The study consisted of two experiments. In the first, Levine had the fans answer survey questions about why they were Man U fans, how long they’d supported the team, how they felt when the team succeeded versus when they failed, things like that. They were then instructed to go to a nearby facility to complete the study by watching some game video. But on the way, a nearby jogger slipped down a grassy bank, fell to the ground, and cried out in pain. Now in reality, the jogger wasn’t hurt at all; he was a confederate of the researchers.

VAN BAVEL: And the researchers were watching to see how many of them helped the person in distress. And what they found is that if the person distressed was wearing a Liverpool jersey, which is the archrival of Manchester, very few Manchester fans stopped to help. Whereas if it was just a random person wearing no jersey whatsoever, most people would stop to help. 

Now the researchers ran a second experiment.

VAN BAVEL: So these were still Manchester United fans, but they were primed or reminded that they are actually soccer fans. 

How did this priming happen? This time, the researchers recruited some Man U fans but had them answer a different set of survey questions — not about their Man U fandom but rather about their love of soccer generally, things like when they first became a fan, what being a fan meant to them, and what they had in common with other soccer fans. Then, once again, they were sent outside where they came across what appeared to be an injured jogger.

VAN BAVEL: And when they were walking down that same pathway and they saw this person injured, if they were thinking of themselves as soccer fans and not just as Manchester United fans, they helped everybody almost equally. And so suddenly they were willing to help the Liverpool fan because they shared a common identity as soccer fans just as much as they were willing to help the stranger. 

So what does Van Bavel think this finding may have to say about American politics?

VAN BAVEL: So right now in America, a lot of people think of themselves as a Democrat or Republican, but you can think of yourselves in a more inclusive identity in terms of American. And that means treating everybody fairly no matter what party they voted for. It also means trying to develop policies that are helpful to as many people as possible. And this happens all around the world, that people can have strong national identities, especially during times of threat. And you could imagine this could be even greater if there is an alien invasion. If you’ve ever watched Independence Day, for example, you suddenly start cheering for people in other countries to help solve the problem. And so really, we have these flexible identities. If you look back through the long lens of human history, the evolutionary lens of humans growing up small communities on the African savanna, they didn’t have a lot of options for identities. Now you have a whole buffet that you can just log on and pick any one and join any group. In fact, you can do a little exercise and just say, “I am: blank,” and list all the ways you describe yourself. So I am a father. I am an N.Y.U. faculty member. I am a Canadian. I am an Edmonton Oilers fan. All of those are different types of group identities. And when I’m thinking about myself in those lenses, it makes me act differently. So when I go home and pick up my kids, I’m not thinking about work at all or sports. I’m thinking about how do I get dinner on the table? And then when I walk into work the next morning, I’m thinking about myself as a professor, what my responsibilities are to my students and teaching and all that. It’s not just we contain all these identities now, but we shift back and forth between them. And that changes how we think about the world, and act.

LEVEY: Formula 1 for me lives in this little box. It is so far removed from the rest of my day, and interests, and routine.

And that, again, is Morgan Levey. Who is also flexible in her identities, as both a nature-loving environmentalist and a Formula 1 fan.

LEVEY: On a normal basis, I can just watch Formula 1 T.V. and then I can watch a race early in the morning. But it really doesn’t impact my day to day life.

DUBNER: So you’ve mentioned the word “obsession” a couple of times. How do you see the relationship between obsession and fandom?

LEVEY: I think there’s this quality to an obsession that’s very emotional, like does it excite you? Will you, unfiltered, just continue to think and talk and consume media about it? And there are moments when I feel that way. We have some very close friends who like Formula 1, and when my husband and I are with them, often the conversation naturally gravitates towards Formula 1. Thinking about it from different angles, talking about some of the drama in the background, or even planning a trip to a race. My husband and I like to travel a lot and I could see us — you know, how fun would it be to go to Japan and, “Oh, by the way, there’s a Formula 1 race in Japan.”

DUBNER: So should we assume that the next big trip that you plan will be in conjunction with an F1 race in that place? 

LEVEY: Probably. Oh, my God. I can’t even believe that. I can’t even believe I’m willing to admit that. But, yeah, probably.

DUBNER: Hearing you speak about your relationship with F1, it sounds like it’s almost a living fantasy, like it takes you to a different place, so different from your normal world. And I’ve read over the years that the word “fan” is probably a shortening of “fanatic,” someone who’s fanatical about something. But now I’m wondering if maybe it should be short for “fantasy.” It brings you to a different place, it sounds like. Yeah?  

LEVEY: It does. I do have this, like, almost guilty pleasure, to think about traveling to a race because I don’t know if that’s actually going to be a priority in my life. But like, how fun would it be? It is so posh. It is so, so different than my day-to-day realm that it’s fun to let my mind play in that realm for a little bit.

DUBNER: Are you suggesting that being a producer for the Freakonomics Radio Network does not fill your life with posh and thrilling experiences on a daily basis?

LEVEY: You know, sometimes it does.

DUBNER: Let me take some notes for your performance review next year. “Seeks more excitement outside of the work realm.”

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Neal CarruthGabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Rebecca Lee DouglasMorgan Levey, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Katherine Moncure, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Jeremy Johnston, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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  • Katherine Gehl, former president and C.E.O. of Gehl Foods.
  • Morgan Levey, senior producer of People I (Mostly) Admire, producer of Freakonomics Radio, and fan of Formula 1.
  • Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard University.
  • Jay Van Bavel, professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University.



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