Billi Gordon Ph.D.

Obesely Speaking


America's Infatuation with Jim Harbaugh

What it says about him, our selves, and our brains

Posted Aug 16, 2015

Free Usage / Photoshop by Billi Gordon
Source: Free Usage / Photoshop by Billi Gordon

Why was the media more interested in Jim Harbaugh choosing Michigan over the NFL than Ohio State winning the first college football playoff with a third string quarterback? There are many reasons for this infatuation with Jim Harbaugh. They tell us a lot about him but they reveal much more about who we are.

From Rush Limbaugh to Nicki Minaj – Judge Judy to the U.S. Supreme Court – the word on the street is: Jim Harbaugh rocks. However, it is not because he was a star NFL quarterback, or made Stanford relevant. It’s not even because he coached the 49ers to the  NFC championship in his first year, which was supposedly a building season. That just raised his coaching currency. The nation’s love affair with Jim Harbaugh began when the question arose whether he would leave the NFL and return to his alma mater and resurrect Michigan football. This was seen as a long shot, thus making Michigan the underdog. However, people love a long shot and an underdog even more [1] because the chance that the underdog might win against all odds intensifies variable reinforcement. The brain likes variable reinforcement because of the neurochemical rewards.[2-4]

Understanding Variable Reinforcement

Shutterstock (Purchased by UCLA)
Source: Shutterstock (Purchased by UCLA)

To understand variable reinforcement, we must first understand dopamine – the brain’s happy dance drug. The brain uses dopamine to get us to do the necessary things that promote human survival, such as breeding, feeding and social bonding. Hence, the brain releases more dopamine on the anticipation of reward than the reward itself because once we do what it wants us to do –  game over. [5-14] 

With fixed reinforcement you do 2x and you get 2y – not much anticipation or dopamine in that.[15-17]  Conversely, variable reinforcement gives random rewards to specific behaviors – you do 2x and you might get 2y, 0y, or 4y. Variable reinforcement yields lots of dopamine and adrenaline in the anticipation and unpredictability of a big payoff.[2-4, 18-24] Adrenaline is a stimulant. Stimulants are addictive. In terms of neurochemicals, we can think of dopamine as a shot of JD, adrenaline as a blast of cocaine taken immediately after the shot of Jack, and the brain as someone that is not quite back from Woodstock yet. That is why we love an underdog and a long shot (and the longer the better) because underdogs produce larger neurochemical rewards.[25-31] Harbaugh coming to Michigan was a mother lode of variable reinforcement, rich with dopamine and adrenaline for the brain.  

When Harbaugh chose Michigan, like any gambler that has won big once, America couldn’t leave the table because we were waiting on the next big payoff.[29, 31-34] Will Harbaugh take Michigan to the National Championship or the Who Cares Bowl?  However, it goes beyond variable reinforcement and the story of the prodigal son returning from the big city to save the farm. There is another evolutionary component. 

Permission Chad Kinsey
Source: Permission Chad Kinsey

The human brain consolidates and simplifies information.  For example, fight-or-flight is the simplifying and consolidating of years of lessons in conflict resolution..[35] Humans are hunters and gatherers.  The best things are rare and hard to get, is a consolidation and simplification of years of lessons in hunting and gathering.[36-41] That is why we are drawn to rare things. We equate them with greater value.  A heavily sought after NFL coach “going back” to coach college and taking on a difficult task for less money to do a great thing is as rare as it gets, which made Jim Harbaugh even more appealing to our hunter-gatherer instincts.  Plus, his behavior epitomizes courage, high moral standards, solid work ethics and virtue.[42][43-50] We are drawn to these traits because evolution and history has taught us that humans would not survive without people who possess these characteristics - more appeal to our basic instincts. [44, 49, 51, 52]  

We are also drawn to Harbaugh because we are a social species, and instinctually we know that we are only as strong as our weakest, as healthy as our sickest, as wealthy as our poorest – though we’ve lost sight of that.[53-61] Hence, his many humanitarian deeds add yet another level of subconscious appeal.  I asked several top Michigan related Internet social media groups, such as Michigan Football HQ, The University of Michigan M Club, Michigan Proud and True, and Big Ten Talk  why they liked Jim Harbaugh. U of M alumnus, Bruce Laing, encapsulates the majority opinion: He will instill toughness and accountability in the athletes, posted Laing in the University of Michigan M Club.  Our children's futures are vital, so we embrace the importance of education, accountability and toughness because they galvanize that future; yet  another reason America is instinctually drawn to Harbaugh.

Permission Jay Harbaugh
Source: Permission Jay Harbaugh

In addition, family is the fundamental currency of humanity. Our crumbling family unit is disturbing to the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) of the brain, which monitors social connectivity and other vital human needs. [62-74] Jim Harbaugh has strong familial bonds and obviously understands the importance of family. For example, when first arriving at the airport in Detroit, he had his child in his arms as reporters and fans barraged him. However, he was impervious to them and totally focused on making sure his child was safely bundled up.  “I think I’ll color this man father,” as the Winstons sang.  Witnessing strong father figures causes dopamine release in the VTA region of the brain’s reward circuitry, because such behaviors satisfy vital human needs.[57, 63-65, 72, 75-80]

Permission University of Michigan M Club
Source: Permission University of Michigan M Club

Finally, in witnessing his persona and values, we are reminded of who we are. For example, after his Alabama camp, he and the Michigan assistant coaches walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of the Bloody Sunday Civil Rights Massacre of the 1960's.  In listenening to the history and praying with the people, he unintentionally stole the hearts of Black Americans, while reminding all Americans that we are not Europe, Africa, Asia, Canada, Australia, Central or South America – we are all of them. That means we can do anything that is worldly possible, and anticipating that has huge neurochemical benefits: Do 2 million X get 4 billion Y. Back up the dopamine and adrenaline trucks and let her rip.  And that is why America loves Jim Harbaugh.  He is an inspiring, natural, high - at a time when there are way too many low people in high places pushing quick fixes for ills that can only be healed by persistence, fortitude, family and integrity.    Hail! -Remain fabulous and phenomenal! 

Permission University of Michigan M Club
Michael Jordan the latest to jump on the Harbaugh Express
Source: Permission University of Michigan M Club

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