This Is One Reason Why Many People Tend To Be Sore Losers

Psychologist Macia Buades explores the psyche of the aggressive loser.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 27, 2022

A new study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience explains that 'sore loser' behavior in sports is not really a reflection of frustration or spite in most cases, but a last resort strategy to win.

I recently spoke to psychologist Macià Buades-Rotger of the University of Barcelona to understand why a competitive setting brings out aggression in the calmest of people. Here is a summary of our conversation.

It is traditionally believed that competitiveness and aggressiveness are significantly associated. How do your findings compare to this widely held belief?

You often hear sports coaches and commentators say that winning teams are "aggressive" and "tough." Our results directly contradict this narrative. We show, both in real-world sports data and in the laboratory, that a low competitive status (i.e., a lower rank due to losing more often) is linked with higher aggression in healthy young men.

Put bluntly, losers are more aggressive than winners on average. And that makes sense: if your rival outperforms you, you must resort to aggression to try and stop them.

This need not always be the case, though. For instance, in NBA history you can find some examples of aggressive teams that won championships, such as the infamous 1988-1990 Detroit Pistons (nicknamed the "Bad Boys").

Yet, most successful competitors beat their opponents with sheer skill, so their rivals must deploy aggressive tactics against them.

The 2021-22 NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors, are an illustrative example of a team that did not need to play rough to win. Indeed, they were among the three least aggressive teams of the league during the regular season as measured by the number of personal fouls. They were simply fast and accurate with the ball, so their skill forced their rivals to commit fouls.

This is the most common pattern we observed in our data: losing generally elicits aggression in competition.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of competition and aggression?

I used to play soccer in an amateur team myself, and I observed that certain players would commit ugly, unnecessary fouls when defeat seemed certain. Even more intriguingly, some people who did this were not excessively hot-headed outside the pitch.

Therefore, I reasoned that there must be something special to a competitive setting for it to trigger this sort of aggression.

As an experimental psychologist, I reckoned it would be interesting to investigate whether, and how, losing elicits aggressive behavior in competition.

This is not just relevant theoretically but may also offer clues on how to best prevent and treat aggression in sports, so we decided to use some leftover grant money on this study.

Could you please tell us why low competition status elicits high aggression and high competition status elicits low aggression?

Though there are probably different reasons, the most common one is purely strategic in nature: if people cannot beat their opponents simply with skill, they are likely to employ other methods in their arsenal.

Reaction times and brain activity data from our neuroimaging experiment indirectly support this assumption.

Specifically, the data suggest that people use aggression as a competitive resource rather than out of spite. This implies that individuals do not simply act out against their opponent due to frustration.

Instead, aggression seems to be a more deliberate strategy to compensate for the skill differential.

Our results thus reflect a more general phenomenon that I also experienced (or, more precisely, suffered) when playing against higher-ranking teams: we could only stop their players by fouling them because they were faster and technically more skilled.

Our better-performing rivals, on the other hand, did not need to foul us to steal the ball and score.

I should however point out a major shortcoming of our study: namely, that we did not directly probe the exact reasons why people became aggressive when placed in a low-status position.

This should be kept in mind when interpreting our results, as low competitive status might induce aggression via different mechanisms in different people.

For instance, some individuals might indeed commit unsporting fouls in a fit of rage when they are about to lose a game, as I observed among some of my teammates. Then again, the data do seem to indicate that most fouls committed by lower-performing teams are predominantly strategic.

If we consider that life constantly holds a competitive aspect to it, how could we interpret your results on a general scale? (How does this affect the average person?)

In our study we observed a link between low competitive status and aggression in two laboratory studies and in real-world sports data across multiple leagues, which I believe lends some credibility to our findings.

Nevertheless, we must be careful when extrapolating results from any given study to other contexts and populations, for multiple reasons.

Keeping this caveat in mind, the study could be of interest to developmental or sports psychologists dealing with aggressive individuals. For both these people and the average person, our results may allow for one simple piece of advice: if you are losing, watch yourself, keep your cool, and play fair.

Extending our findings to other real-life competitive situations, I believe it makes sense that people would play dirty when they are being outperformed.

For instance, if an opponent is substantially better than you in a game of poker, you might try to cheat your way to victory, or even attack them physically if they wipe your pockets clean.

Our findings also suggest that aggressive tactics increase progressively as competitive status sinks. When competitors have comparable skills, they might try to beat each other fair and square using their skills to the limit.

An interesting study showed this in Formula 1 drivers a few years ago: racers with a similar competitive history were more likely to crash against each other. When, on the other hand, the rival is substantially better than you, aggression might be a sort of last resort to achieve victory.

Do you think that the relationship between low competition status and aggression has an evolutionary basis?

Disclaimer: I am not an evolutionary psychologist, so I am just conjecturing.

That being said, the results of our neuroimaging study offer some insights in this regard. We found that only two brain areas encoded competitive status.

  1. The first one is the anterior hippocampus, which has been linked with spatial navigation in rodents and is thought to generally support the formation of "cognitive maps" (knowing where an item lies relative to others).
  2. The other structure was the striatum, which is consistently activated when we punish those who wronged us and is sensitive to status differences in non-human primates.

Interestingly, participants showing a clearer distinction between opponents in the striatum were also more aggressive in a low-status position. Therefore, there might be some evolutionary continuity in the neurobiological mechanisms underlying status-dependent aggression, at least in mammals.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this go in the future?

I recently joined a new research group at the University of Barcelona, so I will probably switch gears to some extent in my research goals.

I would nevertheless like to do some follow-up research indeed in the future, though probably not with my own data. There is a big data set in the making, called the ABCD study, in which many researchers are following up thousands of kids from age 10 onwards to see how their brains change throughout adolescence and early adulthood.

This offers a unique opportunity to look at links between social status and aggression from a broader and more dynamic perspective.

Why do some low status (i.e., lonely) kids end up acting out aggressively, while others develop anxiety or depression? Is there something special in the social environment and/or the brains of those who can cope? What about children who are popular and aggressive? Are they better able to regulate their aggressive impulses, and use them in a socially convenient manner? These are all important and interesting questions that I would like to address in the future using these data.