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The Seduction of March Madness

NewsdayReposted from Newsday, McClatchy-Tribune News Service


A modern mania is about to descend upon us: March Madness. Sixty-eight colleges and universities will send their basketball teams into a tournament that will end with one team recognized as national champion. And the other 67? All fails, but not major fails: This tournament is such a big deal that just qualifying gets you bragging rights.

March Madness undoubtedly will lead to a loss of rationality for some fans. People will watch, which is fine unless they are supposed to be doing something else – driving trains, directing traffic, wiring a GFI circuit, proofing a million-dollar contract or running those budget numbers for the coming staff meeting.

Each year, Corporate America wonders at the tournament’s cost in productivity, as ever-diligent personnel are seduced into all kinds of distracting diversions: streaming the games, checking scores, wagering in office brackets, celebrating victories with too much relish (and libation) and meshing their Facebook statuses with their favorite team’s fortunes on the floor. (Challenger Gray & Christmas estimates 50 million Americans will participate in an office pool and that companies could lose $1.2 billion per hour in productivity the first week of the NCAA tournament.) That’s a lot of money, no doubt, but as the efficiency experts of the old days of organizational charts and stop watches discovered, there is more to workplace productivity than time at task.

The gains March Madness yields, in terms of strengthened social and psychological relationships, might overshadow the minor losses of a few hours spent in the shared enjoyment of the tournament. The event is replete with rituals and traditions – collective acknowledgement of victory, celebration of the underdog, recognition of the fair play and competition – and when these rituals spill into the workplace they align the group, turning the parts into a whole. Such rituals are strangely satisfying, for they strengthen interpersonal bonds and heighten camaraderie. March Madness can boost cohesion in the workplace, providing for free what those teambuilding junkets so often promise but can’t deliver.

March Madness also ramps up workplace energy. Napoleon said it was not the skill of his troops, but their emotional intensity that counted most in battle. Famed sociologist Durkheim called it collective effervescence: the emotional flow that helps people who are working together pursue their tasks with vigor.

But it’s March: Will winter ever end? Why can’t we go on spring break like we did in college? How long has it been since we got a long holiday? The NCAA tournament is exciting, dramatic, compelling; it might provide just the push needed to get that difficult job done or wrap up that one last detail on a long, painful project. Whatever the “loss” in productivity, is it too much to pay to push back the doldrums of March with a bit of collective effervescence?

There are dangers associated with March Madness that shouldn’t be minimized, and these problems are more likely if people get carried away by the experience. The tournament can bring out the fanatic in the sports fan. People who show excessive emotional investment in a team’s outcome allow themselves to become too closely connected to teams and pay a psychological cost. If the office runs a pool, it might be illegal depending on the locale – for example, betting on the game is banned in all federal agencies. Some have even suggested that the simple office pool can be a gateway to more serious forms of gambling addiction. Sometimes, too, rivalries between teams can create rivalries and conflicts between fans. Duke fans and North Carolina fans, for example, rarely keep their preferences to themselves in March.

But even with these costs, March Madness promises to give more than it takes. The NCAA Tournament is a grand spectacle that creates excitement without violence, a sense of community without outcasts, and disagreements that do not devolve into conflicts.

If workplace success depends only on how many hours are logged at the task, then it makes sense to block those game feeds and ban those office bracket pools.

But if success is linked to such interpersonal processes as cohesion, positive collective emotions and efficacy, and honest communication, then there might be a method to this March Madness after all.

Black Friday

November 28, 2013 Leave a comment

RTDGloucestershire, England, has its annual cheese roll contest, when hundreds of men and women chase a 9-pound round of cheese down a hill so steep that nearly all tumble, fall and crash into one another along the way.

In the fields of Zacatecas, Mexico, families and friends gather in late August to hold a mock battle, La Morisma, to commemorate an ancient battle between Spain’s Christian troops and the Turks.

In Paris, about the time of the summer solstice, hundreds of couples dressed all in white set up tables in public parks and dine alfresco by the light of the moon.

And what does the United States have? Black Friday.

On the day after Thanksgiving, shoppers assemble outside malls, big box stores and outlets so they can get a jump on their holiday shopping. And this year, Black Friday is blackening Thursday as many retailers open on Thanksgiving Day to satisfy the impatient masses.

Black Friday’s climb from marketing ploy to popular craze resists easy explanation. A day of sleeping late, leftover turkey and trimmings and football seems to easily outgun one spent battling strangers to save a few bucks on this year’s cool new toy or gizmo, but last year nearly a quarter of a billion Americans chose the check-out line and not the couch. Why?

Perhaps it’s the economics of it all. People are seeking to maximize the value of their spending dollar, and so are search for high-quality goods priced below market value. Their choice is a rational one: Forgo a bit of holiday relaxation to buy the season’s most popular and so most sought-after products. As many Americans continue to struggle financially, Black Friday makes even more sense since the sale offers them their best chance to purchase the most popular products at reduced prices. Economists explain Black Friday investments are value added for they generate excess return given the capital invested, but regular folks just say “it’s a bargain.”

But if milling about in a mob risking life and limb for a new Xbox doesn’t seem all that rational, how about a more psychological explanation that traces Black Friday back to the quirks of a consumer-oriented mindset? In American society, success is defined not only by the strength of familial bonds (celebrated the day before Black Friday), but also one’s level of consumption of high-priced goods. By joining in Black Friday’s celebration of wanton consumption, people communicate their acceptance of, and relative stature in, a culture that prizes the new over the old and luxury over penury.

Does an anthropological angle offer insights into this Black Friday ritual? Could it be that Black Friday is a modern version of the sharing of communal goods that occurred in earlier times just before the onset of winter? Thanksgiving is a celebration of abundance, where the family commemorates the winter harvest with a massive feast. But it also marks the approach of winter and serves as a warning to lay in the supplies that will be needed during the difficult days ahead. Black Friday then is a modern manifestation of an ancient impulse: Having dramatically depleted our reserves, we feel compelled to rush out and get some more.

Or, maybe it’s a form of entertainment. Black Friday transforms the mall into a consumer’s amusement park: Both are expensive, require waiting in long lines and promote prolonged contact with people you would prefer not to associate with. And many shoppers speak of the excitement of the chase for that elusive bargain, the pleasure they take when planning their shopping excursion and the joy of returning home having bagged their quarry. Yet when social scientists take up observation posts in the parking lots outside the doors of stores early in the morning of Black Friday, the people they study don’t seem happy, jubilant or excited. Anxiety, irritability, frustration and aggravation are plentiful, but not too much boisterous exuberance. Each year the stories of overcrowding, long lines, short tempers and even stampedes and injuries cast considerable doubt on the “it’s so much fun” hypothesis.

So, perhaps Black Friday is just one of those mysteries of social life. Humans are the most unpredictable species on the planet, for just when we think we know how they will act, think and feel, they instead head off in a direction that is entirely without precedent.

We can say with confidence that most people — most of the time — flee far from the madding crowd. Except on the day after Thanksgiving. Then they hasten to join it. Go figure.

Reposted from the Richmond-Times Dispatch, November 28, 2013.