HARTFORD, Conn. — From Muhammad Ali to Larry Bird to Deion Sanders to Michael Jordan, some of history’s greatest athletes have used trash talk to invade the minds of their opponents in hopes of gaining a competitive edge.
New research from UConn suggests they were likely on to something.
According to a study from Karen C.P. McDermott, competitors on the receiving end of trash talk experience anger and shame, leading to poor performance.
McDermott, who just completed her Ph. D. in communications, studied the effects of trash talk on about 200 hundred participants playing the racing video game Mario Kart. She then analyzed their reported emotions, noting the relationship between anger and shame.
“When we looked at how that connection was working, it was really them feeling shame, which is leading to the anger, which then detracts from their performance,” McDermott said.
As part of the study, McDermott recruited about 200 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 35 and randomly sorted them between a control group and a trash-talk group. She then hired UConn drama students to face the participants in Mario Kart and pepper them with lines such as, “You are awful at this game,” “Grab a straw because you suck!” and “My three-year old cousin plays better than you do.”
McDermott surveyed participants before and after they played the game and recorded their levels of cognitive distraction, anger and shame. While distraction did not seem to affect performance, anger and shame had a significant impact.
McDermott said her interest in trash talk began with then-Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, whose harassment of wide receiver Michael Crabtree during and after the 2014 NFC Championship Game made national news. As fans debated whether Sherman’s bravado made him a hero or a villain, McDermott began to think critically about how fans reacted to trash talk, what purpose trash talk can serve and, ultimately, whether trash talk actually works.
McDermott acknowledges that two strangers playing Mario Kart isn’t quite the same as two high-level athletes with a personal history and that her study might not translate perfectly to the pros. She said she hopes future research will build on her findings.
“There not being that much study on trash talk, there’s so much more that needs to be done yet,” she said. “As far a replication study, it would be interesting to see if you could get it to work for athletes as well.”
For several UConn football players, McDermott’s findings rang true.
“I’m a pretty outgoing guy, so trash talk definitely works for me,” Huskies linebacker Omar Fortt said. “Because I like competing, and I know that I’m not gonna let the dude in front of me beat me. So it definitely motivates me because your adrenaline is up and you’ve got to go play.”
As for the idea that trash talk provokes anger and shame from its victims …
“I definitely believe that,” Fortt said. “Especially if you can back that up. That’s when you got ’em.”
Not only can trash talk demoralize opponents, players said, it can also motivate the talker himself. A 2013 Florida State study found that video-gamers were markedly more confident when allowed to trash talk than when prohibited from doing so, which helped increase their performance.
“Trash talk is effective because if you trash talk and you don’t back it up, then why are you trash talking?” UConn running back Kevin Mensah said. “If you’re gonna trash talk, then you better be doing the work.”
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