Winners Win an Ugly Temperament

Aggression common amongst those winning competitive tasks, not losing

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

A competitive heart and entrepreneurial spirit were paramount to the creation of our country, continuing to drive us in many facets of life. But could a passion for competition cause us to be unjust? 

The authors of a new study into competition believe so, opening up their piece quoting pop-singer Beck’s lyrics, “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?”  While the American-born performer’s suggests competitive successors win with vengeance, research proves it. 

In the first study to analyze aggression between winners and losers, researchers demonstrate that the result of competition causes one of the two parties to turn sour, and it’s not the “sore losers.” Winners—or those who hail victory in competitive feats—act more aggressive against their competitors than those who either lose or draw.

Ohio State professor Brad Bushman, Ph.D., explains, “It seems people have a tendency to stomp down on those they have defeated. Losers, on the other hand, don’t really act more aggressively than normal against those who defeated them.”

Dr. Bushman didn’t know what results they’d uncover, as he thought either side could’ve turned angry. While losers could feel ashamed and incompetent, causing an outrage, winners could feel powerful and let it get to their head.

Nonetheless, three studies were used to test the direction of unwarranted competitive aggression, and the results suggested it only went one way.

Is it “sore winners” or “sore losers?”

One-hundred-and-three American college students participated in the first study, competing against “a partner” who, in actuality, didn’t exist. Each participant was given two tasks.

First, simple shapes popped up on a computer screen for a fraction of a second and the student had to decipher whether or not a dollar sign was present amongst the shapes. Eighty sets of shapes later, half of the players were told they won while the other half were informed of their loss.

Next up, to measure the inner-workings of their recent victory or defeat, a second task gauging reaction time allowed the winner to haze the loser with a sound blast. In this round, everyone won and thereby got to choose what volume and duration of noise would be ignited into the ears of their competition.

Still unaware that their partner didn’t exist, the students who “won” the first round blasted their opponents significantly longer and louder than those who “lost.”

In other words, winners showed more outright aggression toward their opponent than losers… or did they? Dr. Bushman wasn’t convinced. He wondered whether winners simply acted normal and losers held back, afraid their opponent would rally and retaliate with revenge blasts back.

Intrigued but not quite sold, the researchers designed another experiment, controlling for possible fear.

Is it really “sore winners” or are losers just afraid?

Traveling across the Atlantic, the second study involved French college students repeating the same experiment with one difference: each of the thirty-four participants was informed, before testing, that the two tasks tested very different cognitive capacities. Therefore, doing well on test one did not suggest any additional success for test two.

Unfortunately, the results were the same for the second test regardless, and winners continued to out blast their losing counterparts. The results from this framework led Bushman to believe, “People were more aggressive when they were better off than they were worse off than others.”

Nonetheless, the divide between “winners” and “losers” did not conclusively demonstrate that winning increased aggression, but rather that a difference exists. In order to control for this, Bushman decided to go forward with one more experiment.

Is it really “sore winners” or are losers just disheartened?

The third study threw question to the wind by adding a control. Still in France, seventy-two university students participated, following the same first round activity with the addition of a neutral party. While some won and some lost, some were told a computer error prevented calculation and were moved onto the next task.

This time, however, a new measure of aggression was added. Before the first task, in an effort to get to know their “partner,” the participants were asked to fill out a form depicting the foods they liked to taste and those that caused them distaste. While the real person gave their form to experimenters, a fake form was given back to him or her indicating that their partner strongly disliked spicy and salty foods.

Before meeting their partner, the students were further asked to write an essay describing a very nice day in their life, which they thought their competitor would read in order to get to know them better. Researchers performed this activity in an effort to further “anger participants” and elicit some form of a response to follow.

For up next, the students were given a sweet drink concoction, allegedly mixed by their counterpart. To return the favor, they were given ingredients including spicy Tabasco sauce, salty salt, and regular tomato juice.

Despite the fact that there was nothing particularly wrong with their drink, despite prior knowledge that their counterpart disliked spicy and salty foods, and despite being told they had a choice whether or not to include Tabasco or salt, winners began to show their true colors loading up the drink with both, substantially more than controls and losers alike.

In fact, many of those losing the competition, as well as the controls, did not put Tabasco or salt in at all.  

Authors explain in their report: “Study three included a control condition that confirmed that participants were particularly aggressive against downward comparison targets and not particularly nonaggressive against upward comparison targets.  Second, we obtained similar results using a different aggression measure, which increases the generalizability of our findings.

“Sore winners” exist and losers should watch out.  

It seems that people succeeding in everyday competitions take the phrase “winner takes all” to heart a bit too seriously, bringing us back to Beck and hit pop-song “Loser,” now taking on a whole new meaning.

Authors agree, writing: “In his song, Beck even suggests that people behave in an aggressive and violent way against losers. These three studies show that Beck’s intuition might be right.

“Watch out when you are the loser.”

The full report is available through the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. The authors received no financial support for the study and declare no conflicts of interest in regards to their research, authorship, or publication.

Review Date: 
March 1, 2012