Being Human 2012

The Science of Human Experience

Palace of Fine Arts / San Francisco, CA March 24, 2012 9am - 5:30pm

Winners Revel in the Defeat of Opponents

Posted on Thursday, March 1, 2012 at 4:11PM

To the victor the spoils, and do they ever love rubbing it in. A new study finds that winners of a competition are more likely to behave aggressively toward the losers than the losers are to behave toward the winners. Though the researchers had theorized that losers might be more aggressive out of a sense of revenge for having lost, they instead found that the sense of power than comes from victory is accompanied by a desire to revel in the defeat of a foe.

Researchers conducted three studies on the subject of aggression and competition using a variety of tasks. In the first two studies, they began by testing study participants' pattern recognition skills in one large test and then tested their reaction time in a series of 25 trials; the winner of each of the individual reaction time trials could choose to blast a loud sound through the loser's headphones. Both studies found that those who had won the pattern recognition test earlier were more likely to blast the loser during the reaction time trials when given the chance, while those who had lost during the first test did not.

The third study measured aggression in a different way:

In an earlier part of the study, the participants filled out a "Food Preference Form" which was shared with their supposed partner, reportedly as part of a study on how people form impressions of others. Participants were then told they were randomly assigned to drink a sweet beverage and their partner was assigned to drink a tomato juice beverage. Participants were told they could add Tabasco sauce and salt to their partner's beverage -- which they knew their partner strongly disliked from the food preference form. Results showed that participants who were winners in the first task added more Tabasco sauce and salt to their partner's drink than losers did.

Not only do winners enjoy winning, but they love rubbing it in the face of the defeated, it seems. This unsportsmanlike reaction could be the byproduct of a survival drive urging those with the upper hand to take advantage while they can. Psychologist Steven Pinker has noted that much of the violence perpetrated by hunter-gatherer groups is done in order to forestall acts of revenge; that is, in order to save their group from violent retribution by a beaten rival, many contemporary hunter-gatherers are known to kill that rival and his family. Could our urge to revel in the defeat of others be a relic from our evolutionary past?

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