March 2, 2012

Aggressive Wins

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Joseph V. Madia, MD By:

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Winners act more aggressively toward those they have beaten

(dailyRx News) When people are more successful or better off than others, you might think it would make them more considerate. In fact, it seems that winning has the opposite effect.

When people outperform others on competitive tasks, they act more aggressively toward those they beat. On the other hand, losers do not seem to act more aggressively toward the winners.

"Teach your kids about fair play."

At Ohio State University, Brad Bushman led a study on this relationship between winning and aggression. In collaboration with three French Scholars, the researchers conducted three related studies.

The first involved 103 American college students who were told that they would be competing against a partner on a shape identification test. Afterward the students were told their supposed scores (although in actuality they were not really competing against anyone). Half of the participants were told they did better than their competitor, and half were told they did worse.

The second part of the study consisted of a competitive reaction time task which is used to measure aggression. The students were told that they would again compete against the same partner, having to press a button as fast as possible. The slower responder would receive a blast of noise through headphones. In addition, the winner of the task would decide how loud and long the noise blast would be.

The participants who were told they had won in the first task, administered louder and longer blasts to their losing competitors than did the half who had been told they had the lower scores in the initial competition.

“It seems that people have a tendency to stomp down on those they have defeated, to really rub it in,” said Bushman. “Losers, on the other hand, don’t really act any more aggressively than normal against those who defeated them.” He added that this was the first study to examine whether losers or winners are more likely to act aggressively.

To test the results of the first study, a second experiment was conducted with 34 French college students. Because researchers were afraid that in the American study, the "losers" may have been less aggressive because they were afraid their partner would punish them with loud blasts, the French students were told that those who did well on the first task did not necessarily perform well on the second.

Results were the same, confirming that the winners acted more aggressively than the losers in either case. A third study of 72 French students added a control group that was told a computer error made it impossible to tell who the winners were, and used a different measure of aggression that allowed participants to deliver a strongly disliked food item to partners. Again, the winners administered more of the disliked food than did the losers - and those in the control group who didn't know if they had won or lost, acted no more aggressively than losers in other groups did.

Bushman said because the findings were repeated in three different studies, in two different countries, there really is something about winning that makes people more aggressive. A new study will be conducted to find out if winners act more aggressively toward everyone, or just toward people they defeat.

Findings were published in the February 2012 issue of the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science. 

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Reviewed by: 
Joseph V. Madia, MD
Review Date: 
March 2, 2012

Last Updated:
March 2, 2012