Baseball's Brand of Revenge Models Ancient Blood Feuds

04/26/2012 04:18 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2012

Revenge is an unwritten rule in baseball. When a batter is hit by a pitch, retaliation is to be expected. It might take a few innings, or even wait until a later game, but sooner or later a teammate of the pitcher is likely to pay the price by being hit at the plate.

To players, it's part of the game; to media and fans, it's a source of endless argument and discussion. I study the psychology of punishment and morality, and to me it looked like an interesting case study.

What caught the attention of my research team was a curious corollary of this practice: the retaliatory pitch is typically targeted at a player who had done no harm. Because pitchers do not come up to bat in many games, direct revenge against the offending pitcher is often difficult. Instead, another batter on the perpetrator's team is "beaned" in his place.

Targeting one person for another's crime -- sometimes called "vicarious punishment" -- turns out to have deep roots in human history. From 9th century Iceland to 19th century Montenegro, from Bedouins to Eskimos to the Hatfields and McCoys, many cultures have practiced vicarious punishment in the context of blood feuds between rival family clans. The murderous logic of such disputes is simple enough: If you kill my brother, I kill your brother. It's a form of eye-for-an-eye justice where the eyes are considered interchangeable between kin.

But what reasoning do people employ to justify it?

Murdering one person for another's misdeeds can be hard to imagine, especially given the emphasis on personal responsibility in modern legal systems. Do practitioners of vicarious punishment apply a different set of moral standards? In particular, do they hold the vicarious victim of revenge to be somehow responsible for the original transgression, as if moral culpability flowed through family bloodlines (or team colors)? This is a hard question to address scientifically because the culture of the blood feud seems, thankfully, to be going extinct.

We can approximate the answer by turning to America's Pastime. Although there are limits to the analogy, exploring the psychology behind retaliatory fastballs affords some insight into more extreme cases of vicarious punishment such as genuine blood feuds. Exploiting this connection, Anthony Durwin of Hofstra University Law School, and Chaz Lively of Boston University Law School and I probed the moral judgments of hundreds of baseball fans -- nearly all of them surveyed by Durwin and Lively outside Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium on game nights.

As reported in a study to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we found that fans widely endorsed vicarious retaliation although not universally so. Among those fans who consider it acceptable to engage in direct retaliation (hitting the pitcher who threw the original beanball), slightly more than half also consider it acceptable to engage in vicarious retaliation (hitting the pitcher's teammate instead). Not surprisingly, endorsement of retaliation climbs even higher when one's own home team is victimized.

Finally, we turned to the critical question: Do the fans who endorse vicarious retaliation have a distinct "group" concept of moral responsibility, according to which each member of a team is responsible for the actions of every teammate? Surveying over 100 fans on this question, the answer came back an unambiguous no -- fans do not consider the victim of a retaliatory beanball to be responsible for the original transgression.

In other words, fans endorse revenge without responsibility -- a rather remarkable moral code, if you take a moment to think about it. Why might this be? In the case of baseball, an obvious answer is that it is often difficult to obtain revenge against the original pitcher. Vicarious punishment is the 'something' that can be done to protect the team from further aggression. At a practical level, striking back against a vicarious target can accomplish the goal of deterring future beanballs. It is as if the vicariously targeted batter bears the burden of a necessary evil: to seek revenge directly if possible, but vicariously when necessary.

This practical approach works in part because teammates share a common fate: an injury to a star batter matters deeply to his pitcher. Thus, although the pitcher is not physically harmed himself, he will feel the pain of retaliation against his teammate via their shared fate. Of course, this same element of shared fate is present in the close-knit family clans that have often practiced blood feuding across history.

It appears that when group safety is on the line, revenge becomes an imperative and morality is treated as a luxury. Or, in the words of Will Mundy, played by Clint Eastwood in the cowboy classic Unforgiven, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it."