Bad-Mouthing Opponents Likely Spurs Them On To Win, Research Shows Researchers say that trash-talking can motivate people to outperform their opponents. This happens for tasks that involve effort, but not creativity.

Bad-Mouthing Opponents Likely Spurs Them On To Win, Research Shows

Bad-Mouthing Opponents Likely Spurs Them On To Win, Research Shows

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Researchers say that trash-talking can motivate people to outperform their opponents. This happens for tasks that involve effort, but not creativity.

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DETROIT, MI - MARCH 03: Republican presidential candidates (Lto R) Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Donald Trump participate in a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. Voters in Michigan will go to the polls March 8 for the State&#039;s primary. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Now we have some trash talk. Bad-mouthing opponents - you know, like in a competition. Researchers have asked this question - if you trash-talk your opponent, does it affect their behavior? Let's try to find out by asking NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: Social science, huh?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Is that, like, where a bunch of scientists have a party? What is that?

VEDANTAM: I just think NPR hosts are not very good at trash-talking, Steve. They're just too nice.

INSKEEP: No, no, maybe not. I suppose not. Loser.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Anyway, go on.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Trash-talking comes in two flavors, Steve. One is what you might call friendly and humorous. I'm thinking about an example from the business world. The CEO of T-Mobile once said, I saw more honesty on a ad than AT&T's coverage maps.

INSKEEP: Brutal business rivalry takedown. OK.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter). But, sometimes, trash-talking also has a sharper edge to it, Steve. I was talking to Jeremy Yip. He's at Georgetown University. He told me that, sometimes, the most polite people on the planet can suddenly turn foulmouthed.

JEREMY YIP: I grew up in Canada. And Canadians are known for being very polite and adhering to social norms of civility. What I noticed was that when Canadians go into a hockey game, all of a sudden, all that civility goes out the window.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I can imagine that. All right.

VEDANTAM: Now, of course, the master of malicious trash talk in our current day, Steve, is Donald Trump. You know, he's called former presidential candidate Jeb Bush low-energy Jeb. He's called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un little rocket man.

INSKEEP: Little Bob Corker the other day...

VEDANTAM: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...Referring to the Tennessee senator.

VEDANTAM: Former FBI director is a showboat. And here he is on another opponent, former Texas Governor Rick Perry.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He put glasses on so people will think he's smart. And it just doesn't work.

INSKEEP: OK. So it's a memorable line. It seemed to work for him politically. But what is the effect on the individual that you're targeting this way?

VEDANTAM: Here's where the research gets interesting, Steve. Along with Maurice Schweitzer and Samir Nurmohamed, Jeremy Yip has conducted a series of experiments. And he finds that trash-talking usually doesn't diminish your opponents. It boosts them. People compete harder, and they become more motivated to defeat you.

YIP: The mechanism here is rivalry. So when we're targets of trash-talking, we're more likely to perceive our opponents as rivals. And this increases the psychological stakes such that we become more motivated to perform better.

INSKEEP: People in sports know this. If you're about to play the New York Yankees, and you call them a bunch of overpaid bums, they're going to take that quote and put it up in the clubhouse.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And, in fact, Yip and his colleagues find that when you trash-talk someone, they, in fact, become less interested in winning and more interested in just defeating you. In other words, people are willing to go down if they can take you with them. The researchers also find a very important boundary condition, Steve. Trash talk seems to boost performance in competitive settings. But it seems to undermine creativity. So...

INSKEEP: Undermine creativity.

VEDANTAM: That's right. So if you're a coach who wants to use trash talk as a motivator, be careful about when and how you use it.

INSKEEP: Oh, because it just gets you so mad, you might compete harder. But it's hard for you, really, to think or find new ways to do things.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And maybe this is why Donald Trump was affected when it came to political combat. When he trash-talked his opponents, it made them angry but not more creative in being able to come back at him with another one-liner.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam, our social science correspondent, who's excellent, of course, and also the host of the podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called Hidden Brain.


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