What do ninth century Iceland and Boston Red Sox games have in common? According to a recent study by Fiery Cushman, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the two have more in common than one might think. The cultures of both ancient Iceland and baseball exhibit vicarious punishment, a form of revenge in which the victim is not personally responsible for the transgression.
“In many cultures, historically, if someone kills your brother, it is legitimate for you to kill their brother,” Cushman said. “It was taken as an acceptable practice to kill the brother if you couldn’t get at the original killer.”
Vicarious punishment exists today in baseball through the phenomenon of beanballs. A beanball is when a player intentionally throws the ball at a player on the opposing team. Often, the first beanball may be an accident or an attempt to put an arrogant player in his place, but the second beanball is what Cushman and his team are interested in. The second, or retaliatory, beanball is interesting because it is punishing players for something that they did not do, Cushman said.
Cushman worked with A.J. Durwin from Hofstra University and Chaz Lively from Boston University, according to a University press release. The three spent last summer trying to understand vicarious punishment. But since vicarious punishment is no longer acceptable in the majority of Western cultures, the researchers decided to examine the microcosm of baseball. “The hope is there is enough of an analogy there to learn something useful,” Cushman said.
The three went to various baseball stadiums to survey fans about their views on revenge in baseball. They ran four different studies with approximately 250-300 people total, Cushman said. When fans were asked two questions, one after the other – first, is the retaliatory beanball morally acceptable? And second, is the target responsible for the original crime? – the consensus was that beanballs are acceptable but their targets are not responsible.
“This is the fascinating phenomenon,” Cushman said. “There is good evidence from this study that the endorsement of vicarious punishment increases with the degree to which you are baseball fan. Bigger fans endorse vicarious punishment.”
Adam Hoffman ’14, a pitcher for the men’s varsity baseball team, gave an explanation for why fans tolerate this kind of revenge. “Being a fan, you are subscribing to that community and the team. You suffer from the failures and rejoice in the successes of the team and when a player of a team that you are a fan of is hit, you feel part of that group,” he said. “It’s an eye for an eye type thing.”
But despite the prevalence of revenge and beanballs at the professional level, Hoffman said retaliation is extremely rare at the college level. “In my two years, I haven’t seen any retaliation. The (National Collegiate Athletic Association) really makes an effort to talk about sportsmanlike conduct.”
But why would vicarious punishment be acceptable in baseball when it is not acceptable in today’s culture? “We are lucky enough, living in a well-regulated society with a government, and we don’t have to worry about seeking our own justice,” Cushman said.
But in baseball, there is a culture that endorses vicarious punishment. So even if it does not coincide with one’s morals, “if you don’t do it, you’re out of luck,” he said.
Cushman acknowledges that studying vicarious punishment in sports and games may be limited and said he would like to do follow-up studies of gang and mafia culture. “Vicarious punishment is integral to the sense of justice that operates in gangs,” he said.