Pro Wrestling Gets Brainy: 'Kayfabe' Considered A Scientific Concept

"I don't know Pro Wrestling terminology and I think I'm probably a lot more informed because of it" - Luke Thomas

We all know the world of Professional Wrestling is low brow and can appeal to the lowest common denominator. Each time Wrasslin' gets brought up in discussing MMA I can almost hear Luke Thomas doing his best mocking yokel impression while chastising people for making continual connections between the two before feeling the need to inform us of his penchant for The Classics as his preferred means of recreational entertainment. Something like that.

So it may come as some surprise that a clear cut example of Pro Wrestling terminology finds itself the centre of a recently published scientific essay. In this instance I'm referring to the term 'Kayfabe' which coincidentally enough I used in the headline of a recent article.

Now, for those unfamiliar with the term here's a basic explanation from Wikipedia:

In professional wrestling, kayfabe (pronounced /ˈkeɪfeɪb/) is the portrayal of events within the industry as "real". That is, the portrayal of professional wrestling as being genuine or not worked.

In other words when performers stay in character when off the TV screen and are visible in the public eye in order to maintain a continuity of attempted realism, most notably that of a fake (worked) injury caused by a rival 'enemy' or just generally the sense of holding a grudge while feuding with another character. Breaking Kayfabe is when this principle is forgotten and would be akin to Batman and The Joker going bowling after clocking off for the day (as amusing as that might be it disrupts the perceived relationship of Hero and Villain, something Pro Wrestling worked hard to maintain in order to help sell a confrontational match up to a paying audience).

With that out of the way, here's the Science part. Edge Foundation, Inc. is a non-profit virtual think tank and claims its informal membership to include "some of the most interesting minds of the world" and has been featured and referenced by the likes of American Scientist, New Scientist, The BBC, The Times, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Wired. Each year Edge poses a question in an attempt to get various thinkers from various backgrounds around the world to chime in with their own answers and interpretations. Questions have varied from philosophical ("What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" 2005), technological ("What is the most important invention in the last two thousand years ... and why?" - 1999) and cultural ("How is the Internet changing the way you think?" - 2010).

This year's question is psychological with "What Scientific Concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"

Edge elaborates:

The term 'scientific"is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A "scientific concept" may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or "in a phrase") but has broad application to understanding the world.

And as I alluded to, 'Kayfabe' formed the basis of one of the responses.

Eric Weinstein - Mathematician and Economist (PhD Mathematics at Harvard) and Principal of the Natron Group in Manhattan - writes:

The sophisticated "scientific concept" with the greatest potential to enhance human understanding may be argued to come not from the halls of academe, but rather from the unlikely research environment of professional wrestling.

Evolutionary biologists Richard Alexander and Robert Trivers have recently emphasized that it is deception rather than information that often plays the decisive role in systems of selective pressures. Yet most of our thinking continues to treat deception as something of a perturbation on the exchange of pure information, leaving us unprepared to contemplate a world in which fakery may reliably crowd out the genuine. In particular, humanity's future selective pressures appear likely to remain tied to economic theory which currently uses as its central construct a market model based on assumptions of perfect information.

If we are to take selection more seriously within humans, we may fairly ask what rigorous system would be capable of tying together an altered reality of layered falsehoods in which absolutely nothing can be assumed to be as it appears. Such a system, in continuous development for more than a century, is known to exist and now supports an intricate multi-billion dollar business empire of pure hokum. It is known to wrestling's insiders as "Kayfabe".

Because professional wrestling is a simulated sport, all competitors who face each other in the ring are actually close collaborators who must form a closed system (called "a promotion") sealed against outsiders. With external competitors generally excluded, antagonists are chosen from within the promotion and their ritualized battles are largely negotiated, choreographed, and rehearsed at a significantly decreased risk of injury or death. With outcomes predetermined under Kayfabe, betrayal in wrestling comes not from engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct, but by the surprise appearance of actual sporting behavior. Such unwelcome sportsmanship which "breaks Kayfabe" is called "shooting" to distinguish it from the expected scripted deception called "working".

The whole essay is worth reading and is relatively short.

I've often thought elements of Kayfabe have their place or have even been utilised in the promotion of MMA, most notably The Ultimate Fighter TV show and how selective editing such as the famous Koscheck vs Male Nurse confrontation can be used to manipulate the audience to produce the desired emotional response despite not knowing the full circumstances which a Spike TV web clip ended up revealing. A little Kayfabe for fight hype most agree is a good thing as long as it doesn't go beyond that, but the amount of times we end up seeing heated rivals customarily embrace at the end of a fight in a contrived attempt to show we're athletes not animals often times feels irritating instead of sporting.

Who knew Pro Wrestling had the potential to be intellectually stimulating?

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