Since time immemorial, humans have competed against each other in activities that have real-life survival value, be that throwing a javelin, jousting, boxing or wrestling. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, as those who honed these skills were more likely to survive when faced with a real-world conflict. Watching combat sports such as boxing and wrestling is an extension of that habit, with all the thrill but none of the personal danger.
Of course, some of us find such thrills more appealing than others. A survey at Indiana University Bloomington, US, of hundreds of undergrads found that those with more risk-seeking personalities, who said they enjoyed feelings of fear, derived more pleasure from watching mixed martial arts (MMA) and chose to watch the sport more often.
However, it’s not necessarily the violence that many combat fans are attracted to. A survey of attendees at an amateur MMA event found that the drama of the occasion was a stronger pull. In many sports, the most the competitors have to lose is their pride, whereas fighters and pugilists are quite literally putting their bodies, and sometimes even their lives, on the line. From a spectator’s perspective, the greater the stakes, the more exciting the drama.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.