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When Anger Is a Strategy

Research suggests that anger is a tactic used by the loser to turn the tables.

Max Winkler / Unsplash
Source: Max Winkler / Unsplash

A new study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience suggests that the aggressive "sore loser" is actually a creature of strategy rather than emotion. This sports-based study offers us some wisdom on how to keep cool in highly competitive environments.

“I used to play soccer on an amateur team myself and I observed that certain players would commit ugly, unnecessary fouls when defeat seemed certain,” explains psychologist Macià Buades-Rotger of the University of Barcelona and co-author of the new research. “Even more intriguingly, some people who did this were not excessively hot-headed outside the pitch.”

Buades-Rotger’s research measured aggression elicited by being out-competed and found consistent results: Low competitive status (i.e., a lower rank due to losing more often) is linked with higher aggression. “Put bluntly, losers are more aggressive than winners on average,” he clarifies. “And that makes sense: If your rival outperforms you, you must resort to aggression to try and stop them.”

According to Buades-Rotger, these results are not just relevant theoretically but may also offer clues on how to best prevent and address aggression in sports. These results also break the stereotype of the dirty-playing winner.

“You often hear sports coaches and commentators say that winning teams are aggressive and tough,” he explains. “Our results directly contradict this narrative.” He offers the example of the 2021-22 Golden State Warriors, who not only won the NBA championship, but did it while being among the least penalized teams in the league.

Buades-Rotger highlights that the most common reason for aggression in sports is actually strategic in nature. This means that the anger and foul play exhibited by the losing side is meant to make up for their lack of skill. “Specifically, our data suggest that people use aggression as a competitive resource rather than out of spite. This implies that individuals do not simply act out against their opponent due to frustration,” he explains. “Instead, aggression seems to be a more deliberate strategy to compensate for the skill differential.”

In contrast, superior performers with higher competitive status remain composed and win with the sheer force of skill.

Buades-Rotger also suggests that we can cautiously extrapolate these findings to a general competitive environment like a cut-throat workplace or even to people who might be dealing with anger management issues.

“The study could be of interest to developmental or sports psychologists dealing with aggressive individuals,” he explains. “For both these people and the average person, our results may allow for one simple piece of advice: If you are losing, watch yourself, keep your cool, and play fair.”


Buades-Rotger, Macià. This is one reason why many people tend to be sore losers., July 27, 2022.

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