What’s involved in being a sore loser? Most of us have felt the urge during a game of Ludo: to swipe the board off the table and storm out of the room. And we know that some people are more susceptible to this impulse than others. But to understand what being a poor sport means, we first need to understand what it means to lose.
Neuroscientist Maarten van Boksem (RSM) asked subjects to play games in the laboratory and mapped out their brain activity with the aid of an MRI scanner and an EEG cap. The readings show that when you lose, your brain activity is remarkably similar to that of someone who is in serious pain. In other words: neurologically speaking, losing a game has the same effect as banging your head against a doorpost at full speed. You feel horrible, you get a stress response and your brain tells your body: this is a situation we need to avoid from now on.
The key role in this process is played by the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that is involved in functions like reward anticipation, decision-making and identifying errors. In this light, losing is a crucial part of the learning process. Just like children learn to walk by falling and picking themselves up again, you can learn to make the right decisions by avoiding defeats (pain) and maximising victories (reward). Of course, the question remains: why are some people good sports, while others aren’t? This has to do with to which extent you can control your emotions, and how sensitive you are to status.
I’m the one shoving the board off the table – each time round. Why?
Some people are more sensitive to a loss of status than others. Research in ape colonies shows that the strong alpha male – who is more of less assured of his position in the group – generally has very low cortisol levels (which we can use to gauge stress levels). The same applies to apes at the very bottom of the colony’s hierarchy. The animals in the middle echelons exhibit the strongest stress response: they’re the ones who stand to win or lose the most.
In the words of the cultural philosopher Johan Huizinga, the author of Homo Ludens (1938): we make the game bigger than it actually is. As a rule, people with a lower social status tend to be sore losers. Incidentally, this is not a causal relation, but rather a correlation. What’s more, social psychology offers further evidence of the importance of status: if A and B both lose 10 euros, A has far less of a problem with this happening than when A loses his 10 euros to B. Losing is relative, not subjective.
And the fact that we’re not in it for the money but for the game is also borne out by Maarten Boksem’s lab experiment. Everyone who took part – the winners and the losers – received 50 euros. So it clearly wasn’t about the jackpot. But the subjects who lost were nevertheless really pissed off. They felt embarrassed about their defeat, even vis-à-vis the researchers.
Is something wrong with me if I can’t stand losing?
Most people would say there is. But if you were to ask an evolutionary biologist, he or she would be able to explain the purpose of this ‘condition’ to you in great detail. Because losing doesn’t just get some people riled up, but it also makes us reckless and risk-seeking. And this can be useful. It’s simple. Imagine: you go out hunting. And you just miss out on catching that chicken/ gazelle/hare. This means that the next time round, you’ll have to push a little bit further. And if you’re still unsuccessful, take it up another notch after that. By nature, people avoid risks, but after a humiliating defeat, we tend to go all the way. After all, losing out on the steppes can equal death. In this sense, being a sore loser is crucial to our survival.
What can you do about it?
→ Learn how to lose Try to get a realistic idea of your chances of success. And accept that sometimes losing is simply ‘part of the game’.
→ Keep yourself under control If you can’t avoid responding very strongly to a defeat: do your best to get your stress levels down and get a grip on your emotions.
→ Avoid certain games Games of chance in particular trigger a sense of injustice among sore losers. In other words, stay clear of Ludo or Risk (in which the roll of the dice plays a key role) and opt for games that are more geared towards skill or knowledge.
→ Choose your opponents wisely It is smarter to play Memory with your grandmother than with a five year-old infant. If you want to win.
But sometimes it’s just not fair, is it?
It depends on how you would define ‘not fair’. But above all: how you deal with it. Because regardless of how strongly you feel the urge to throw a chair through the room, after a certain age, we’re expected to hold that kind of impulse in check. And a good thing too, according to developmental psychologist Jacqueline Schenk (Faculty of Social Sciences).
A decent application of the concept of fairness has been measured in children as young as three. In fact: research shows that babies who are only a year old already know that something isn’t right when a handful of sweets are divided unequally between two dolls. Biologists often refer to the clip of the capuchin monkey who freaks out when he notices that his neighbour is rewarded with a grape, while all he gets is a measly piece of cucumber.
But as we know, one is eventually cured of these hysterics. Five-year-old children are already able to independently dial down this form of arousal – the biological fight, flight or freeze response – to acceptable levels. This is a social process. A teenager who is unable to control him or herself after a game is disciplined by his or her environment, or anticipates the situation and controls himself. So if you’re still a sore loser as an adult, this means you weren’t corrected enough growing up. Or you’re simply a very childish person.
My father has the same issue. Is it hereditary?
Whether you’re a sore loser depends on the extent to which you can assess your chances of success. And this is something you can learn. Someone who structurally overestimates his or her chances will often fly into a rage when he or she does not achieve the expected results. And this is something you learn from role models, so yes: you could say it runs in the family.
But occasionally, something else entirely is going on. Research conducted among gambling addicts shows that a large share of them enjoyed a big win at some early stage in their career (as a result of which they constantly expect to repeat this). Which goes a long way to explaining why fanatical gamblers (and professional athletes too, by the way) engage in all sorts of practices to control the outcome of the game – even when this is patently illusory, as is the case with games of chance. Superstition to the point of absurdity.
One of the best examples would have to be the gambler who always betted two-dollar bills (because he believed they brought him luck). Until he went to the toilet, and his wife took over and without thinking put in a dollar and won the jackpot. However, when the man came back, rather than being happy, he blew his top. After all, according to his line of reasoning, if his wife had stuck to his routine, they would have won twice as much on the next spin.
Are women more gracious losers than men?
The answer is simple: yes. Besides the fact that from a sociobiological perspective boys can generally be expected to be more competitive, boys are also less skilled in controlling their emotions and suppressing impulses. Boys are more at risk of developing a lot of conditions as it is. Premature death, autism, an extremely low or high IQ: these are all far more prevalent among boys than girls. On top of that, one thing that really bugs boys who are sore losers is being beat by a girl. This has to do with the ability to estimate one’s chances of success. Generally speaking, boys assume they can win from a girl. While girls are demonstrably better in games that involve communication, sharing and collaboration.
Is being a sore loser bad for your health?
The main bad news for an organism is the impact of losing. The fact that you have to go hungry, or get kicked down the ladder in terms of status. But in principle, one’s response to losing isn’t unhealthy per se – even when it leads to a short period of arousal. It’s a different story when this arousal becomes a permanent state. Long-term stress can result in depression and burn-outs, as well as increases in your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. But what may well be even worse is the damage that being a poor sport does to your social life. Because after all: how many people want to stay friends with someone who goes berserk every time he (or she) doesn’t have it his way?
This article was possible in part thanks to the cooperation of Dr Maarten Boksem (neuroscientist, Rotterdam School of Management) and Dr Jacqueline Schenk (developmental psychologist, Faculty of Social Sciences).