Fans of the New York Yankees incorrectly perceive Fenway Park, home of the archrival Boston Red Sox, to be closer to New York City than is Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, a study by NYU psychologists has found. Their research shows how social categorization, collective identification, and identity threat work in concert to shape our representations of the physical world.
Fans of the New York Yankees incorrectly perceive Fenway Park, home of the archrival Boston Red Sox, to be closer to New York City than is Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, a study by New York University psychologists has found. Their research, which appears in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, shows how social categorization, collective identification, and identity threat work in concert to shape our representations of the physical world.
“Sun Tzu, the Chinese military general, philosopher, and author of what is arguably the most famous book on military strategy, reportedly coined the famous phrase ‘Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’,” wrote the study’s co-authors, NYU’s Jenny Xiao, a doctoral candidate, and Jay Van Bavel, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. “This phrase, which has been adopted by strategists from Niccolò Machiavelli to Michael Corleone, reflects the adaptive value of attending very closely to one’s enemies. In the same way, our participants appeared to be doing something quite similar—they reported that their ‘enemies’ were closer, but only when they posed a potential threat. Our research, then, suggests that we keep our enemies psychologically closer by changing our representation of the physical world, in this case, physical distance.”
Previous scholarship has shown that people categorize themselves on the basis of an individual identity, a collective identity, or both, depending on the social and motivational context—a process known as self-categorization. More specifically, earlier studies have shown that categorical labels make people exaggerate perceived distance between arbitrary categories. For example, people overestimate distance on a map between a domestic and a foreign location, relative to distance between two domestic locations or between two foreign locations. In other words, categorization enlarges estimations of between-group physical distance.
However, it’s not clear these perceptions hold when we see an entity as a threat. The NYU researchers sought to clarify our understanding of perceived distances, but through a different lens: how collective identities and threats to these identities may alter estimates of large-scale physical distances.
In doing so, they drew from existing scholarship in biology.
“Biologists have found that it is usually more adaptive for organisms to respond to potential threats as if they are truly threatening than to fail to respond,” wrote the study’s co-authors. “So, it’s possible that certain threats to people’s collective identities may trigger similar defensive reactions, such as reducing estimations of physical distance between the in-group and a threatening out-group—what we term the threat hypothesis.”
To test their theory, the researchers interviewed Yankee fans and non-Yankee fans outside of Yankee Stadium on June 18-19, 2010—prior to the start of games against the New York Mets. At the time of the interviews, the Yankees were in first place in the American League East, the Red Sox were in second place (one game behind the Yankees), and the Baltimore Orioles were in last place (23 games behind the Yankees). A series of questions identified participants as either Yankees fans who were threatened by the Red Sox or non-Yankee fans who felt no such threat.
Participants were then asked to estimate the distance from Yankee Stadium both to Fenway Park (actual distance =190 miles) and to the Orioles’ home stadium, Camden Yards (170 miles). Camden Yards was chosen as the control location because it is the home of a non-threatening group in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, and is a similar (albeit slightly shorter) distance from Yankee Stadium as Fenway Park. Participants’ distance estimations were assessed by either a written report in miles, or a map measure, in which they saw a map of the northeastern U.S., with a 500-mile-radius circle centered on Yankee Stadium, and then indicated the location of these two stadiums on two maps.
Their results, which also took into account participants’ geographical expertise, supported the researchers’ hypothesis: non-Yankees fans correctly estimated that Fenway Park was marginally farther than Camden Yards; in contrast, Yankees fans estimated that Fenway Park, the home stadium of a threatening group, was marginally closer than Camden Yards, the home stadium of a non-threatening group. Therefore, the relative difference in distance estimations to the two stadiums (Fenway Park and Camden Yards) differed as a function of the perceivers’ baseball identity—being a fan of the Yankees or not.
The researchers also considered whether or not the threat hypothesis could apply in other contexts. Specifically, they examined whether subjective feelings of threat from Mexican immigrants were associated with their distance estimations to Mexico City. Here, they also made distinctions between two types of threats: symbolic threats, which concern threats to the worldviews of an in-group, such as values, beliefs, morals, cultures, and attitudes, and realistic threats, which concern threats to the political and economic power of the in-group, as well as threats to the welfare of its members.
The researchers predicted that the effects of identity threat would be specific to distance estimation to Mexico City, but not to other, non-threatening cities in North America (e.g., Los Angeles and Vancouver). To measure perceived threat, participants were asked to what extent they agreed with statements such as “Immigration from Mexico is undermining American culture” (symbolic threat) and “Mexican immigration has increased tax burden on Americans” (realistic threat).
Participants then estimated the distance in a straight line from New York City to Mexico City, Mexico (actual distance =2086 miles), Los Angeles (actual distance =2443 miles), and Vancouver (actual distance =2425 miles). Participants were instructed to estimate these distances by indicating a number between zero and five thousand miles.
As the researchers hypothesized, perceived symbolic threat significantly predicted estimated distance to Mexico City—specifically, greater perceived symbolic threat from Mexican immigration was associated with shorter estimated distance to Mexico City (from New York City). However, contrary to the researchers’ expectations, this was not the case for participants who had perceived realistic threat or for those who perceived Mexican immigrants as a perceived symbolic and realistic threat. This distinction suggested that perceptions of distance to enemies are limited to symbolic threats.