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San Diego Researcher Explains Why We Trash-Talk Opponents

Researchers led by UC San Diego behavioral economist Uri Gneezy have shown that competitors tend to deliberately anger their opponents when it will give them an advantage.

Written by David Wagner/KPBS

When I was in high school, my friends were obsessed with this video game called Counter-Strike. Their arena of battle was a local Internet cafe, Cyber World. Stationed at the rows of networked PCs, they'd spend countless hours shooting each other to bits, always gunning for a fatal head shot.

I was terrible at Counter-Strike. But I kept following my friends back to Cyber World just to witness the game's alarming effect on these people I thought I knew so well. Under the influence of Counter-Strike, my (mostly) well-mannered friends transformed into unbelievably vicious trash-talkers, hurling at each other the most creatively brutal verbal abuse I'd ever heard outside a Quentin Tarantino movie. So many ways to repurpose one four-letter word!

I guess I kept tagging along because I wanted to learn why my friends enjoyed this so much. Never very competitive myself, I wondered why they got such a kick out of deliberately getting under each other's skin.

There's a fascinating paper in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that might have given me my answer finally. Researchers led by UC San Diego behavioral economist Uri Gneezy have shown that competitors tend to deliberately anger their opponents when it will give them an advantage. Maybe my friends didn't like making each other angry as much as they just liked winning.

To study how people manipulate each other's emotions in order to win, Gneezy brought 260 male undergraduates into the lab and ran them through a few experiments using anger as the key variable. The first experiment was a simple, mano-a-mano strength test: whoever could squeeze a handle harder won. But the competitors were not on equal footing. One was allowed to anger the other before the squeeze-off. How? By making him do boring administrative work. And the longer they required their minion to perform this mind-numbing data entry, the more money they got to keep for themselves. Imagine the menial worker's rage!

The catch is, angry people tend to be stronger people. Wisely, most contestants in Gneezy's strength experiment wisely chose not to anger their opponent by assigning them the maximum amount of menial labor. Those who did provoke their opponents as much as possible were much more likely to lose.

But Gneezy's second experiment required brains, not brawn — and the incentives flipped. The contestants squared off in a computer game. It sounds a lot less exciting than Counter-Strike, but there's still gunplay. Taking turns, opponents could choose either to step closer to their enemy or fire a shot. The closer they were, the greater their accuracy. But every step also gave the opponent an opening to fire their bullet.

In strategic games like this, taunting your opponent turned out to be very smart. When their emotions flared up, opponents were more likely to make rash, trigger-happy decisions. And the taunters were more likely to actually make the shot. Just as Gneezy predicted, this time the majority of participants chose to make their opponent do tons of aggravating data entry. And they were more likely to best their irate opponents.

Which brings us back to my friends and their Counter-Strike trash talk. At first, I thought the game was a pretty mindless shoot 'em up. But after a few rounds, I realized survival took a great deal of skill, teamwork, and strategy. Considering Gneezy's research, I now totally get why my friends were provoking members of the opposite team with such cruelty. They intuitively knew that an angry opponent would be easier to take down.

Trash-talk in video games isn't pretty. Sexualized trash-talk can make women feel unwelcome in the gaming world. And when taken outside the game, the most unhinged forms can even put gamers in jail. But as awful as it can be, the incentives for my friends were clear: trash-talking wasn't irrational at all. Flustering the adversary got them that much closer to the elusive rush of landing the headshot.

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