New study of trash talking in sport highlights that it is more than a physical contest

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BERLIN – JULY 06: Zinedine Zidane (L) of France exchanges words with Andrea Pirlo of Italy, after headbutting Marco Materazzi of Italy in the chest during the FIFA World Cup Final in Germany. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

By Christian Jarrett

Alongside the physical jostle, thrust and tug of sport there is a parallel contest involving words. Although this trash talking between players before, during and after games is well known, it is surprisingly unstudied by psychologists. Yet these exchanges play a major role, arguably swinging the outcome of games. Consider an infamous example: the 2006 football world cup final in which Italy’s Marco Materazzi insulted the sister or mother (depending on whose account you believe) of France’s star player Zinadine Zidane, who in turn responded by head butting Materazzi. Zidane was then sent off, with Italy going on to win the game on penalties.

Is trash talking more prevalent in some sports than others? What does trash talk tend to be about? A new exploratory paper in Human Nature is among the first systematic investigations of trash talking in sport, and certainly the first to examine the phenomenon through an evolutionary lens.

Kevin Kniffin and Dylan Palacio at Cornell University surveyed 291 undergrad student athletes (including 141 men) who represented their university at the top level in various sports including gymnastics, ice hockey, lacrosse, rowing, soccer, squash, swimming, diving, track and field, volleyball, and wrestling, among others.

The students’ task was to indicate how frequently they had ever trash talked against opponents on a number of topics, including those directly relevant to the sport, such as  playing ability, and those less directly relevant to the game, but arguably having evolutionary significance around competing for mates, such as physical appearance, sexual behaviour and slighting opponents’ partners. The students also made the same judgments about how much trash talking they had witnessed by others.

According to the students’ reports, trash talking was relatively frequent, and mostly focused on sporting issues, such as physical ability and athleticism. However, they said there was also significant trash talking off-topic, especially about opponents’ physical appearance, relationships and sexual behaviour.

Taken together with the fact that trash talking was reported to be notably more common among male players than female players, and also among competitors in contact sports, the researchers said their findings are consistent with the idea that trash talking is a form of verbal aggression – perhaps originating as a form of intra-sexual competition between males – that has survived as a competitive convention because it brings advantages to the trash talker.

An extra detail is that there was no evidence that trash talking was more frequent among combat sport competitors who wear masks, suggesting anonymity makes no difference in this context (unlike, say, online).

Kniffin and Palacio stressed that this was an exploratory study on a little studied topic, and they also caveated their main finding of a gender difference, noting that trash talking may vary with masculinity as a trait, or even with physical size or formidability, rather than maleness per se.

The pair hope their study will provide a foundation for future research, which could address this question of masculinity, as well as others, such as whether trash talking varies with age and superstar status; how it affects the recipient; and whether some people are more resilient to trash talking than others. On this last point, the researchers speculated that “in light of research suggesting that sports participation, by men at least, is a form of courtship display, it might be that the same people who are most likely to trash talk are also most likely to be responsive to it”.

Trash-Talking and Trolling

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

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