You're Going Down

Menacing words can drive competitors to come out on top, but the type of competition matters.

By Micaela Heck, published November 2, 2017 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018

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From pre-fight press conferences to pick-up basketball games, trash talk and competition go hand-in-hand. But do the verbal salvos have the intended effects on their targets? Do they distract and intimidate, or do they serve as motivation to outdo a taunting opponent? According to a paper in Organizational Behavior and Decision Processes, the answer may be "all of the above."

In one test of trash talk's influence, study participants were seated at computers and tasked with moving as many sliders to their designated spots as they could within two minutes. But first, participants were sent either a taunting chat message (such as "I'm smarter and faster than you") or a neutral one ("Let's see what happens") by an unseen "competitor." Researchers found that recipients of the negative messages performed better overall.

"Trash talking, or a mere aggressive turn of phrase, can trigger a rivalry instantly," says Jeremy Yip, an organizational behavior researcher at Georgetown University and co-author of the study. "It's like flipping a switch: That person now views you, the trash talker, as a rival, and that enhances the motivation to outperform you." In competitions based largely on effort, that shift could help push the targets of trash talk to victory.

But on a task that required creativity, recipients of jeering messages tended to perform worse, researchers found, possibly because thinking about them tied up cognitive resources. And in another challenge, such participants were more likely to cheat. "What we're saying is not that trash talk is good or bad," Yip says, "but that it can have constructive and destructive consequences."

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