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Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali were legendary for it. Taylor Swift and Katy Perry do it to each other constantly. Richard Branson does it–and even most of the Fortune 500 CEOs do it, too: They trash talk their competitors and opponents, hoping to throw them off their game.

But does it work? Actually, no, it doesn’t, according to a new study out of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, it achieves the exact opposite result, the study says, delivering extra motivation to the target of your trash talk to do whatever it takes to defeat you.

Here’s the story of the Wharton research, along with the interpretations of the professors who led it, plus a guide to how you can use trash talk to your advantage–despite its surprising, often-unintended effects.

Trash talk: A definition

The Wharton study had to start out by coming up with an actual definition of trash talk. They settled on, “boastful comments about the self, or insulting remarks about competitors, that are delivered by a competitor, typically before or during a competition.”

But let’s make sure we understand more fully–besides, the specific examples are fun.

Cited in the study for example, is the time when Richard Branson wanted to publicly shame British Airways, after it sponsored the London Eye ferris wheel but ran into construction problems. Branson flew a blimp over the site with a giant banner that read, ‘BA can’t get it up!!‘”

Trash-talking is probably more classic and better known in the world of sports–for example, Muhammad Ali’s comments about Sonny Liston:

“After the fight I’m gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. Liston even smells like a bear. I’m gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him.”

For a few other, more recent examples (some of which are hilarious), check out here or here. Interestingly, in a separate pilot study, study and his team found that 57 percent of Fortune 500 employees engage in or are targets of trash talk, at least monthly.

The six experiments

The Wharton researchers, led by Jeremy Yip, a Georgetown University professor who is currently a visiting professor at Wharton, ran a series of six experiments involving about a thousand volunteers to test different scenarios involving trash talking.

In each case, the volunteers were told that they would be be paired with other volunteers, and had to work together or compete at various projects–mostly games and mundane tasks. However, the “other volunteers” were actually working with the researchers–and they were coached either to reach out to the true volunteers with either neutral messages or trash-talking messages.

For example, the neutral “other volunteers” were instructed to send this message:

“Whoever does the task better gets the prize. Let’s see what happens!”

Meantime, the “other volunteers” who were supposed to send trash-talking messages were told to send this message::

“Just to let you know, that prize is mine. … I’m totally going to crush you in this task. I’m going to send you home crying to your mommy … sucker!”

The researchers expected trash-talking might have various levels of effectiveness, but they didn’t expect it to backfire in most cases. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened.

The results

This study sounds like it was a lot of fun to conduct, but it has some serious results. Yip and his colleagues, Maurice Schweitzer and Samir Murmohamed of Wharton, say they came up with three main conclusions, stemming from the fact that in most of the studies, the targets of trash-talking messages actually performed better than the volunteers who were receiving neutral messages.

First, trash talking motivated the targets, not the trash-talkers.

Motivation led to greater effort, and ultimately a greater likelihood of success for targets of trash-talking in almost all tasks. It did the exact opposite of what most trash-talkers in real life would hope.

“When people are the targets … they become much more motivated. They increase their effort and the performance goes up,” Yip said.

Second, ethics and morals went out the window, as targets decided to do whatever they needed to beat the trash-talkers.

The targets’ anger and dislike for trash-talkers grew extreme, to the point that they were often willing to cut corners to ensure that the trash-talkers didn’t win, even if it might require ethical short cuts or potentially even disqualify themselves from winning.

“What people care about is outperforming this person who’s trash-talking them,” Yip continued. “They’re willing to both expend constructive effort but also engage in unethical behavior to make sure they outperform their competitor.”

Finally however, creativity took a hit–because targets got distracted and potentially were psyched out.

Even though trash-talking normally motivated targets to win, and gave them a strong advantages where their tasks involved hard work and a clear path, there was one case where it was effective in hurting their efforts: when the task required creativity n coming up with solutions to put into action.

In these cases, the targets were more likely to be blinded by anger or simply distracted by the trash talk, and underperform.

“When we looked at a creative task, we found that trash-talking is actually disruptive,” Yip said. “Targets of trash-talking were less successful completing a creative task than were people who weren’t targets.”

The takeaways

Interestingly, the recommendations that come out of this study aren’t simply to avoid trash-talk–but instead to be more cognizant of its effects.

First, if you’re a manager or a leader, Yip and his team recommend that you “deliberately and strategically expose trash-talking to employees.” As an example, if a competitor trash talks you, it might make sense to ensure your team is aware of it–perhaps make a big deal of reading the insults and rallying your troops to fight back hard.

Second, of course, they carve out an exception to the idea of sharing trash-talking if your team’s work will require creativity, since that was the one category of tasks where trash-talking actually impeded the target’s performance. Similarly, it might make sense especially to engage in trash talk with a competitor when you think it might affect their ability to come up with creative solutions.

Finally, they suggested avoiding anything that could be considered “internal trash-talk,” for example making sure employees won’t be teamed up together with people they’d be disappointed to work with–since they might be more likely to express their disappointment to each other. That kind of “internal trash talk” hurt their performances at every task.



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