Why We Don't Pick the Right Baseball All-Stars

This week is baseball's All-Star Game, the annual summer ritual that honors the best sluggers, fielders, and hurlers in the game. The fans choose the starters by ballot, and the chosen stand to reap valuable publicity and fame—and, of course, money. So it's important to fans and athletes alike.

But are these really the best players who get to show their stuff in the Midsummer Classic? The voting has always been hotly disputed among fans, of course, and many dismiss it as a popularity contest. Now social scientists are getting drawn into the debate. Some—economists in particular—insist that stardom is a plain and simple meritocracy: stars become and remain stars because of their superior quality, their performance. But a growing number of psychologists are questioning this dynamic, arguing that it is much more psychologically complex. Indeed, the All-Star selection process may have less to do with skill and performance than it does with humans' fundamental need to connect with others—to find common cultural ground.

Here's how this psychological dynamic might play out at, say, a summer barbecue: You're standing around making small talk with both friends and strangers, and the conversation turns to baseball. You're not a diehard fan, but you do look at the sports page every morning. How do you best connect with the group? Do you bring up Derek Jeter, the Yankee veteran and future Hall of Famer, a player whom everyone at the barbecue will have heard of? Or do you name-drop, say, Jason Bartlett, the Tampa Bay Rays' hot shortstop? Bartlett is an up-and-comer and, really, a fresher topic of conversation—but he could also be a conversation stopper. What if no one knows him, despite his talent? It's probably safer to chat about what's familiar.

That's the theory anyway, as put forth by Stanford University psychologist Nathanael Fast and his colleagues. Everyday conversation is an important tool of social bonding; we all want to connect with others, even strangers, so we search for common ground, little bits of experience we can share. Over time, these private conversations accumulate, adding up to the "buzz" that determines who's a cultural icon. According to Fast, this dynamic heavily favors familiar icons over (possibly more) deserving new talent.

The psychologists tested this idea in a couple of experiments on baseball fans and stardom. The theory could apply to any cultural domain, but the researchers chose baseball because the game's very detailed record-keeping makes it possible to objectively measure and compare players' performances on the field. In the first experiment, volunteers were given a list of current players; half were familiar but no longer on top of their game, while the others were relatively unknown players having great years. The volunteers were told to initiate an online conversation with a stranger; some were told that the stranger was a knowledgeable fan while others were told he was not. Similarly, some of the volunteers were themselves knowledgeable baseball fans, others not.

The findings were striking. The volunteers chose to chat about well-established players almost twice as often as they chatted about the lesser-known players having better years. Even more interesting, the self-identified experts talked about the obscure up-and-comers when they were talking to other knowledgeable fans, but talked about the already famous when talking to the less informed. Think about that: they were equally familiar with all the players and could have talked with confidence about any of them, but still talked about the old-timers in general conversation. The very people who might shift the cultural conversation to a new talent chose not to. They opted instead to use known cultural icons as a social lubricant.

The psychologists double-checked these findings in a second study, this one focused specifically on the selection of All-Stars. In this experiment, they examined actual Internet conversations about a large group of All-Star contenders, some famous and some known mostly to baseball insiders. Some of the conversations were on a Google group for avid baseball fans, while others were among more casual sports fans. They used a well-known formula to measure all the players' offensive performances, adding together hits and steals and RBIs and so forth, and then finally looked at the actual All-Star voting. The idea was to see if performance or social conversation was the better predictor of All-Star status.

The results were even more robust than in the first study. As reported in the journal Psychological Science, the already famous players were mentioned in conversation much more often than the lesser-known ones, regardless of either lifetime or current season performance, and these conversations appeared to shape the All-Star voting. That is, players' reputations determined how often their names popped up in casual sports chitchat, which in turn determined who was selected for the prestigious All-Star rosters. Ironically, it was the conversations among the least-informed fans that were most influential in the All-Star polling.

What we call "conversation" is rapidly changing today. With the ubiquity of the Internet and social networking, conversation has less to do with lazy backyard barbecues and more to do with the viral and instantaneous exchange of electrons. Presumably, baseball's All-Stars initially became icons because of their talent and performance, but that's less clear in the broader culture, where any idea or fashion or practice seems to have the power to take on a life of its own.