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Science

Psychology Hacks for Resisting Trash Talk

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Trash-talking—the act of slinging insults—is perhaps most pervasive in sports, where athletes deploy their best taunting tactics in an attempt to deflate their opponent and gain an advantage. But in Trash Talk: The Only Book about Destroying Your Rivals That Isn’t Total Garbage (PublicAffairs, 2023), author Rafi Kohan explains that trash talk is far more than just “verbal static.”

At its most basic level, Kohan says, trash talk is a language of competition. It’s a ubiquitous human behavior that spans cultures, countries and centuries—a stealthy psychological tool deployed by politicians, comedians and business leaders alike. Today Donald Trump’s normalization of trash talk has been correlated with spikes in hate crimes and the number of threats to sitting members of Congress in both parties.

Trash talk doesn’t have a reputation for being a particularly respectable form of communication. But Kohan thinks that landing a well-timed and expertly calculated “your mama” joke is an art form—and one that deserves a more scientific look into how it functions. Scientific American spoke to Kohan about what is behind the science of trash talk, why trash talk works on some people and not others and what it can teach us about resilience in the face of stress and anxiety.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What do experts think might be the evolutionary roots of trash talk?

When you look at the role trash talk plays in creating tribal bonds, it has very clear applications in creating a sense of us versus them. When you talk crap about a rival, you’re reinforcing a sense of identity. You’re reinforcing who we are and who they are. One theory about why trash talk works to throw people off their game is that it leverages a fear of social isolation, of ostracization, of being kicked out of the tribe. It’s taking advantage of that deeply seeded, primal fear that we’re going to be left on our own, and we’re going to die. To bring it to a biological level, trash talk is suggesting you do not have the resources to survive.

Why do verbal insults cause some people to underperform?

When you experience stress, there are two divergent physiological responses you can have: a challenge response or a threat response. In a challenge response, your heart is pumping blood to your extremities so you can take action, and your performance improves. In a threat response, your body is preparing you for a violent attack—your pulmonary vasculature constricts; your blood is sent back to your core organs—and your performance deteriorates dramatically.

So trash talk leans on these fears to try to elicit the same kind of biological response that flips people into a threat state. There’s a model in sports known as individual zones of optimal functioning (IZOF). It says that everybody has a certain amount of anxiety at which they will perform at their best. This is their optimal zone of functioning, and it’s different for everybody. So for certain folks who cannot handle trash talk, maybe it gives them too much anxiety, and they’re exploding through the ceiling of their IZOF threshold. And when you’re overwhelmed by anxiety, there’s a dramatic decline in performance.

I’m tickled by the concept of polite trash talk, which is basically just saying nice things to your opponent. Why does this work?

Polite trash talk is effective simply because it is so surprising. Attention is critical to performance, and one terrific way to steal someone’s attention is to do something unexpected. Something like polite trash talk or weird trash talk or even someone getting on all fours and barking like a dog, as [former National Basketball Association star] Kevin Garnett has done on the basketball court, forces our mind to slow down to process the information, and that is inherently distracting.

Complimenting someone on their shot or their serve or just congratulating them on a good play or being generally charming and asking them how their offseason has been—these things can also cause people to downregulate and relax. Former [National Football League] offensive lineman Mark Schlereth described this as pouring honey on your opponent: you compliment them and hope they get stuck in sticky honey—[in] a state in which they’re not trying as hard.

Trash talk can be detrimental to performance, but at the same time, some coaches say trash talk among players is a sign of a healthy locker room because it is a bonding mechanism. Some players seem to get a boost from it.

Intimacy can masquerade as incivility. Trash talk can be a sign that you feel comfortable around the people you’re talking trash to. It can really be a prosocial, bonding endeavor. [The late] Kobe Bryant famously would talk vicious trash to his teammates. One theory posited to me by a former [Los Angeles] Lakers staffer was that he was doing it because he wanted you to push back. He needed to see that you were not just going to fold. At its core, trash talk is a kind of test. It’s a way to negotiate social status and to negotiate roles on a team.

Trash talk doesn’t work on everyone. What can we learn from the people who manage to let even the most personal insults roll off their back?

Even if you’re having a lot of anxiety, there’s a way to train yourself to bring anxiety levels down. Self-awareness and self-regulation are the foundations of developing mental toughness and staying in your zone, and a lot of it comes down to just breathing. It sounds so basic, but when you take a breath in, your arousal goes up. When you exhale, your arousal goes down. When you see a basketball player go to a free throw line or a baseball player about to throw a pitch or a tennis player about to serve the ball, and you see them take that big inhale and that even bigger exhale, they’re lowering their arousal. They’re lowering the anxiety in their body to get to the proper level so they can perform at their best.

Another self-regulation strategy is acceptance. You accept that someone said something mean about your dead dog or whatever it is, and you decide whether that’s a useful thing for you to hold on to. Will holding on to this make me focus? Will it make me enter my zone of optimal functioning? Or is it dysfunctional for me—in which case I’m going to discard it? You’re not ignoring it. You’re accepting it. You say, “I’m mad,” and by acknowledging it, the emotion dissipates. Breathe out, and it goes away. Acceptance is a big one.

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