Some people believe that spitting among baseball players is simply traditional--a leftover from the days when players chewed tobacco and needed to spit it out. But there's something about the deliberate and unconstrained spitting itself. Perhaps the practice of spitting by baseball players can be understood if we consider how this action conveys an emotion to the observer, and also incites their emotional response.
Emotions serve a purpose. They provide us with information, convey information to others, and they are adaptive and protective in that they help us to make decisions and take action. When you experience a certain emotion you might protect yourself in a variety of ways. One of the means you have at your disposal for self-protection is to evoke an emotion in another person, such as fear, anxiety, shame, disgust, or even amusement. Evoking an emotion in someone else, in the interest of self-protection, can be used to disguise an uncomfortable emotion in oneself. For example, as mentioned in a previous blog, bullies often evoke the emotion of shame in their victims. But what emotion does a spitting athlete evoke in the observer and why would they do it?
If you take a look at various internet sites where the spitting behavior of baseball players is discussed, descriptions include adjectives such as gross, revolting, vulgar, crude, dirty, unsanitary, or unnecessary. Thus, spitting can incite a disgust response in viewers. However, a spitting baseball player may also evoke a response of amusement in an observer, since disgust combined with surprise or shock can be amusing when an observer shares it with another person. In any case, disgust responses are triggered from observing the expulsion of saliva, and usually result in a corresponding facial expression where the observer's nose twists up, mouth turns down, and eyes squint. Disgust makes you respond in that way, and also causes you to turn away.
At a basic level, disgust is a rejection response to something that tastes or smells bad. But people can be disgusted by things that don't have anything to do with rotten food that can make you sick--including bodily products. Disgust causes you to experience something as distasteful, revolting, or repulsive. Such emotional responses protect you by making you want to distance your senses from whatever is offensive. Likewise, the act of being disgusting can push others away.
If spitting can protect a person by evoking disgust in the observer, then, given the consequences, it might be considered as an aggressive or contemptuous display. Evoking disgust in another person can be a way to cope with, or disguise, one's own anxiety. It expresses a fearless attitude of disdain, condescension, or disregard.
Admiration by little league baseball players of the big guys in baseball often leads them to mimic certain behaviors. I've seen them imitate the spitting. There is so much to admire about major league players, aside from the courage, skill, and ability to cope in stressful situations that it takes to stay in the game. If only they could refrain from making spitting part of their identity.
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