A different kind of madness

If you’re a regular reader or viewer, you know that I write and talk about “madness” a lot.  Usually, it’s “madness” of the type often alleged to exist in someone like the serial murderer and avowed Al Qaeda affiliate who was shot to pieces yesterday (good riddance!) as he tried to escape from French authorities after going on an anti-Semitic, anti-Western shooting spree that spanned several days.  Or, it’s “madness” of the type alleged to exist in someone like the late singer Whitney Houston, who seemed to have had everything to live for, yet wasted a life away on drugs (we’re now hearing that she had plenty of cocaine in her system in addition to prescription anxiety medication and apparently also marijuana when she died last month — no surprise, but sad nonetheless).

Today, however, I’m writing about a different kind of “madness” — one that I actually know less about — “March” madness.  That’s right, I’m talking about people’s fanaticism surrounding the college basketball tournament held at this time each year.  I have to preface this by acknowledging that I’m not much of a sports fan.  Even though I teach a course at a major basketball school, I couldn’t tell you who’s on the team or much of anything about the program.  I’d virtually always rather be out running or kayaking or participating in a game myself than sitting indoors watching other people play a game (and in either case, I wouldn’t care much who won or lost, just that I had a fun social experience).  And if I were the President, I don’t think I’d be scheduling White House photo ops with championship sports teams — I’d figure they get enough attention as it is, so instead, I’d spend that time spotlighting unsung heroes like cops, firefighters, soldiers, teachers, trauma surgeons, etc.

So, if I can’t write about “March Madness” as a fan, then how can I write about it, you ask?  As a psychologist — specifically, in this instance, as a behaviorist.  Because I have friends who get caught up in “March Madness” at this time of year, I always end up watching a few games, and because I don’t care who wins or loses, my mind inevitably wanders to the psychology of it all — especially when a supposed “40 minutes” of play time can end up taking more like three hours, with the final “two minutes” of play time dragging out into a substantial portion of that third hour, as a succession of intentional “fouls” committed by the trailing team repeatedly stops the clock (allowing the leading team to shoot two “free throws,” worth one point each, for a maximum of two points, if both shots are good, after which possession of the ball reverts to the trailing team, giving that team a chance to shoot a two- or three-point shot and hopefully close the gap in the score).

I understand the intentional-foul strategy, but it irks me every time I sit through it, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m bored.  Admittedly, I generally want the games to hurry up and be over, but I think I’m also irked because I believe in the “rule of law” — that’s probably part of why I became a lawyer and a forensic psychologist.  I believe that people’s incentives should be to follow the law, but in basketball, there’s something that behaviorists sometimes call a “perverse incentive,” whereby there’s actually more of an incentive to break the law (i.e. the rules of the game), at least for a trailing team in the waning minutes of a close game.  If a particular act on the basketball court is really considered “foul” — i.e. undesirable, unacceptable, illegal, etc. — then every player’s incentive, at all times, should be to avoid committing that act.

Now, as you may know, I don’t usually present a problem without also proposing a solution, so even though basketball generally isn’t within the scope of my expertise, I still won’t let you down!  When I’m in charge, we’re going to change the rules of basketball to make “free throws” in the final two minutes of play worth three points each.  That way, if even one of the two is good, the leading team will get as many points as the trailing team could possibly get on its next possession, and if both “free throws” are good, the leading team will pull significantly farther ahead.  In other words, the leading team would have to miss both “free throws” in order for an intentional-foul strategy to pay off for the trailing team (which, as I understand it, is generally not a safe bet).  In that case, the incentive to intentionally foul would be effectively removed from the game, the game would embody respect for the rule of law, and “40 minutes” would take closer to two hours instead of three, which, I think, would be an improvement on multiple levels!

Have a great weekend, and enjoy the “madness” if you’re so inclined!

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