Why Winning Makes People more Aggressive toward the Defeated

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"Why Winning Makes People more Aggressive toward the Defeated"
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Some people feel that everything in life is a zero-sum game. They feel that for every winner there must be a loser. The venerable and often quoted online reference site Wikipedia explains this game theory by using the image of the cutting of a piece of cake. If some greedy (but no doubt hungry) lout takes an inordinately large piece of cake, it reduces the amount of cake for the rest of the party-goers. This is a zero-sum game if all party-goers value each piece of cake equally.

The idea that everything in life is a zero-sum game is very persuasive, especially among competitive people who tend to be successful and, in turn, get to write the history books. However, while some pursuits may seem to have this quality, cooler heads may see them differently.

Analysis of artistic expression and success therein is an interesting area to contemplate. Is every painter, writer, musician and singer competing against every other artist for fame and fortune? Some would say yes and others disagree. If art is a zero-sum game, this assumes that there is a limited amount of appreciation available. How about business? Does one’s success in business somehow diminish that of others?

In any contest, the participants are involved in a zero-sum game, whether they like it or not. There is a winner and a group of other contestants who did not win and are called losers. Some recent research suggests disturbing tendencies in the ways winners of this zero-sum game treat the losers.

A Study in Aggressiveness

According to Brad Bushman, a professor of communications and psychology at Ohio State University, winners act more aggressively against the people that they beat than the losers did against the victors. The results, which are published in the online journal “Social Psychological and Personality Science” in February 2012, represent several rounds of tests with American and French college students.

The first study involved 103 American students who were told that they would be paired with a partner against whom they would be competing on task. This was a clinical ruse, in that there was no partner. These students were given tests and at their conclusion, half were told that they did better than their partner and half told that they were losers in the tests. This was followed by a test to measure aggression among the “winners” and the “losers.” It was found that those who thought they were winners acted more aggressively than those who thought they were losers.

Another test involved 34 French students. In this test the experiment was repeated except that the participants were told that the two tasks tested different capacities. The results were the same. Winners were more aggressive towards those perceived to be losers.

A final experiment was formulated to determine whether the winners were really more aggressive against loser or if the losers were just less aggressive than normal against winners. Among 72 French students there was added a control group in this round of tests and the researchers used a different measure of aggressiveness – food preferences. The winners added more Tobasco sauce and salt to their partner’s drink than the losers did. Plus, the losers acted in the same manner (i.e. not aggressively) as those in the control group, who were not told whether they were winners or losers.

Two Countries and the Same Results

Professor Bushman and his French colleagues Dominique Muller and Emmanuelle Ceaux of Pierre Mendes-France University in Grenoble and Baptise Subra of University Paris Descartes were quoted in several scientific media as being surprised by the level of aggressiveness found in this study. In an article published by Science Daily, Bushman said, “There were reasons to believe either side could have been more in a fighting mood. Losers might be bigger aggressors because they would be angry against those who prevented them from feeling competent. However, (this) research suggests that people are more aggressive when they feel powerful, as they may when they win a competition.”

The researchers chose to conduct the study over two different countries in order to determine if culture has any effect on this tendency for winners to be aggressive towards losers. The researchers were convinced that this tendency is universal.

But When You Lose

The practical application of this research is yet to be fully understood. Although, it can be seen to have ramifications in dealing with bullies on the schoolyard, governmental affairs and even product marketing. More research will be required in order to find ways to counteract this psychological trait or if it is even possible to ameliorate.

Under any circumstances, the results of this research strongly suggest the truth of a song written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones and made famous by singer Linda Ronstadt entitled, Everybody Loves a Winner.” The final stanza serves as a cautionary coda to this study: “But when you lose, you lose alone.”  

More about this author: Art Young

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