Mind & Body

Trash Talk Makes You Work Harder — but There's a Cost

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If you're playing a game against a friend, would you feel more motivated if he said, "May the best man win!" or "You're going down, sucker"? We're willing to bet that the trash-talk would make you work a lot harder to win. Science agrees: according to a 2017 study from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, targets of trash talk are more motivated to succeed. There's a considerable downside, though.

You Mad?

As a perfect example of trash-talk, the study recounted the moment at the turn of the 21st century when British Airways sponsored the production of the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel (er, cantilevered observation wheel) on the River Thames. In the final stage of construction, crews were hoisting the then-horizontal wheel to its final vertical position when a cable came loose and the wheel refused to lift. In response, Richard Branson, founder of the British–Airways rival Virgin Atlantic, flew a blimp over the London Eye bearing the words "BA can't get it up!"

According to Wharton researchers Jeremy Yip and Maurice E. Schweitzer, this kind of trash talk is commonplace in big organizations. 57 percent of employees at Fortune 500 companies reported to them that trash-talking happens at least monthly. That's a lot, and the team wanted to know what kind of effect this had on workers.

In six experiments, researchers paired about 1,000 participants with a partner — secretly, this was just another researcher — and had them compete with the person on a variety of tasks for money. Before they began, they were told to chat with their partner online. There, the partner sent the participant either a series of neutral messages (something like "Hey, it looks like we will be competing against each other in the next task") or trash-talking messages ("I know a loser when I see one. I'm going to beat you like a rented mule").

To measure persistence, the participants were asked to move 50 sliders from a point marked 0 to a specific target number indicated next to each one. To measure their creativity, the participants then tried their luck at the classic candle problem, which you can try yourself here. To measure cheating, the participants had to unscramble a series of anagrams, then score their own work without any oversight. In another experiment, the participants were asked to work in cooperation with their partner to compete against other teams.

It's So On

The researchers found that when participants received trash-talk messages, they performed better on any task that required effort. Why? They think it's because trash-talking turns someone who's just a competitor into a bitter rival, and you're motivated to punish your rivals. But there's another side to that coin: trash-talking targets also were more likely to cheat, since they so desperately wanted to rub their win in their rival's face that they were more likely to cut corners.

And when it comes to creativity, trash talk is nothing but bad news. As motivating as trash talk can be, it's also distracting, and that can throw a wrench into the free flow of creative ideas. In the study, about half of the people with a neutral opponent did well on the candle task compared to only a third of the people with a trash-talking opponent.

So, to trash talk or not to trash talk? It all depends on your goals. If you're out to throw them off their game, especially if that game requires careful, creative though, go ahead. But be aware that you could make them hungry for a win, too. As Yip and Schweitzer write, when it comes to companies trash-talking a competitor, "there are potential benefits. In addition to potentially disrupting their focus, the act of trash-talking a competitor may help you bond with your team, as you face off against a common enemy." So give it a try. What, are you chicken?

The Science Of Motivation

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Written by Ashley Hamer December 20, 2017

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