The Psychology of Fighting, Digested: 9 Fascinating Findings Involving Boxing and Other Combat Sports

By Christian Jarrett

Ahead of the world heavyweight boxing championship reunification fight on March 31, 2018, featuring Great Britain’s Anthony Joshua versus Joseph Parker from New Zealand – the first time that two undefeated heavyweight world champions competed in the UK – we trawled the psychology literature looking for intriguing findings involving boxers and other sporting fighters. From the curse of the pre-match smile, to the cognitive biases that sway your choice of greatest ever boxer, here’s the psychology of fighting, digested:

You can judge a lot from a fighter’s face

When Joshua and Parker stood face to face for the customary stare down earlier this week, there were no smiles to be seen. Perhaps the fighters heard about a study we covered five years ago involving competitors from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which showed that those who smiled more intensely at the pre-match face-off were more likely to lose that upcoming fight. The researchers’ theory is that smiles are an involuntary signal of submission and lack of aggression, just as teeth baring is in the animal kingdom.

Another line of research, also involving UFC fighters, found that those with faces that are wide relative to their length are more formidable fighters. The same paper showed how we pick up on this cue instinctively, judging fighters with wider faces as more deadly. One theory is that face-width is correlated with testosterone levels – men with higher basal testosterone have wider faces, as well as greater strength and aggression.

Yet another study found that people could predict, at better than chance levels, the winners of mixed martial arts fights purely from looking at the faces of any two competitors. The participants seemed to be picking up on facial cues linked to masculinity, strength and aggressiveness.

A beard doesn’t offer any protection

At this week’s pre-match press conference Joshua Parker appeared clean-shaven, having previously sported a fulsome beard. Given the research on the facial cues linked with fighting success, boxers could be forgiven for wanting to wear a thick beard as a way to appear more intimidating and masculine. But if they are hoping it might also offer some protection, they are mistaken, according to a recent study of 395 UFC fighters that found those with beards were just as vulnerable to being knocked out, and were no more likely to win. “We suggest that beards represent dishonest signals of formidability,” the researchers concluded. However, Parker may wish to take note of another finding from the study – fighters with a longer reach were more likely to win (Joshua has a longer reach than Parker by 10cm).

Pre-match mind games are an important part of the sport

Early in the media build up to the Joshua–Parker fight, Parker’s camp released a video featuring all the times that Joshua has previously been “dropped” – a clear attempt to get under his skin. These kind of mind games are an important part of the contest, of which Mohammed Ali was arguably the master.  Despite their importance, these games have been little studied by psychologists. A recent interview-based study of four elite male amateur boxers from Manchester is a rare exception. The boxers described their mind game tactics during the pre-match weigh-in (including exuding confidence by tensing their muscles, and flashing a smile at their opponent – perhaps a mistake, see above); at the warm up immediately prior to a fight (e.g. switching stances deliberately to confuse their opponent); and during the ring entrance (e.g. making prolonged eye contact, and wearing a robe with badges implying prior success).

The challenge of “making the weight” has costs and benefits

In boxing and other combat sports that have weight divisions, competitors often go to extreme lengths to lose weight prior to a pre-match weigh-in, and then they rehydrate and refuel in the short time they have left before the fight. This is not such an issue for Joshua and Parker because as super heavy-weights, they do not need to make a particular weight limit for the fight. However research suggests that the practice of drastically cutting weight prior to weigh-ins may be harmful to fighters in many ways – for instance, a recent study of amateur boxers found that it led to “higher scores on anger, fatigue, and tension with reduced vigour” and that the boxers performed worse on a circuit training task after weight loss.

Perhaps more surprising is how cutting weight seems to also have a positive psychological component. Elite Swedish competitors in wrestling, judo and taekwondo described how making the weight led them to feel more like “real athletes”. Others told how it signals power and control and gave them a mental advantage: “You feel a bit like that Rocky Balboa character, in the scene when he is running up those stairs. You know, the preparations, because you have to give yourself a decent chance.”

Southpaws have an advantage

Left-handers have an advantage in many sports because of the simple fact that they are used to competing against right-handers, whereas right-handers are far less accustomed to competing against left-handers. This left-hand advantage applies in boxing where left-handed fighters are called southpaws (right-handers may also switch to a southpaw stance, leading with their right hand). For instance, an analysis of nearly 2,500 professional boxers’ records from 1924 to 2012 found that southpaws had a better win-lose ratio, on average. A much smaller study involving semi-professional Turkish boxers came to the same conclusion. Indeed, one explanation for the persistence of left-handedness at a similar rate through human history is the so-called “fighting hypothesis“, which is that idea that being left-handed confers a fighting advantage. Joshua and Parker are both orthodox right-handed fighters so they need not concern themselves too much with this research.

Boxing and martial arts train your brain

Blows to the head are profoundly harmful to the human brain – make no mistake. There is a wealth of research on the neurological toll of being a boxer, including at an amateur level.

While the head-impacts in combat sport cause neurological harm, conversely the training of reflexes and reactions that are an integral part of boxing and related sports have been shown to have a beneficial effect on cognition. For instance, a recent brain-wave study of boxers and fencers responding to go and stop commands found that both groups showed enhanced preparatory brain activity and faster response times than controls (fencers showed the greater advantage because their responses were faster and more accurate).

Another study compared the ability of young and old martial artists and controls to detect dots in their visual periphery as fast as possible: the participants who practised judo or karate were faster, and older participants who practised a martial art competitively when they were young showed less age-related slowing in their reactions.

Which combat sport is associated with the greatest cognitive enhancement? There’s an argument that Kung Fu is king, at least based on tests of sustained attention and impulse control among Judo, Taekwondo and Kung-fu athletes. The last group showed “better inhibition ability (indicated by fewer commission errors) and less response time variability and performance decrement” than the others. The researchers attributed this to “the greater dedication demanded by kung-fu training as well as the martial art’s promotion of discipline, self-control and meditation”.

Martial arts reduce aggression and aid emotional intelligence

Advocates of boxing and martial arts often argue that, while the sports undeniably involve aggression, they also teach self-control and restraint, thereby encouraging better behaviour outside of the ring or dojo. This seems to be backed up by research, at least among children and teenagers. For instance, a recent meta-analysis of 12 prior studies found that participating in martial arts reduced child and teen aggression, including lowering their physical aggression, verbal and physical bullying, theft and vandalism. One recent paper even suggested that boxing can boost “emotional intelligence”. Comparing boxers, judokas and controls, the researchers found that both combat groups scored higher on appraising others’ emotions, while the boxers scored highest on using and controlling their emotions, and they scored lowest on trait neuroticism.

Sparring is very different from the real thing

They say that one secret to becoming a sporting champion is learning to perform under pressure with the same freedom and composure as you do when training. Key to developing this ability, though, is making sure that training is as realistic as possible, which is arguably a greater challenge in boxing and  martial arts than in non-combat sports. This dilemma was highlighted in an impressive recent paper that took fighting and psychological metrics during taekwondo sparring and compared them with same metrics during a competitive fight. There were many significant differences, both in terms of performance (for instance, when sparring, the fighters were less attacking and kept a greater distance) and psychologically (for example, the fighters were less anxious and felt less mentally challenged during sparring). “This study showed that fighting in training does not adequately simulate the affective and cognitive demands of fighting in competition,” the researchers concluded.

The psychology behind who you think is the greatest ever boxer

Whatever the sport, if you play the game of “Who was the greatest?” your judgment will probably be swayed by the “availability heuristic” (we judge as more important those examples that we can bring more easily to mind) and the “reminiscence bump” (we find it easier to recall memories from our teens and early twenties). So if you are in your youth today, it is quite likely, in years to come, that you will tell your children that Anthony Joshua was the greatest ever boxer, though this may of course depend on the outcome of Saturday’s match, and whether he can also defeat Deontay Wilder, if that fight ever happens!

Researchers showed the reminiscence bump effect in an online survey of people’s beliefs about the “greatest ever footballer” – participants overwhelming tended to name players whose career mid-point coincided with participants’ teens and early twenties (for instance, Johan Cruijff was most often selected by participants who were aged 9 to 18 when he was at his career midpoint; Pelé was most often selected by participants who were aged between 12 and 21 years when he was mid-career).

A similar phenomenon was observed for judgments about the “greatest boxers of all time” by noted boxing historians for Ring magazine in 1998. In compiling their top 20, the judges, all of whom were born after 1939, showed a clear bias against fighters from the pre-1939 era. Writing in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, the researchers said their analysis “does not support the magazine’s contention that ‘history has been served’.”

Good luck on Saturday, AJ.

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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