The Art And Science Of Trash Talk

7:07 minutes

A 49ers helmet and KC Chiefs helmet with little cartoon bodies drawn on them, in a heated argument
Credit: Shutterstock and photo artwork by Emma Gometz

As frivolous as it may sound, the use of trash talk has a long, hilarious history that dates back to the Bible and the Homeric poems. Fundamentally, this insult-slinging is the presentation of a challenge, and it’s found its way into sports, politics, and even cutthroat family board game nights.

But there’s a science to trash talk that explains why it’s stuck around all these millennia, the psychology behind it, and how it can either rev up or fluster an opponent.

Just in time for the 2024 Super Bowl, guest host John Dankosky talks with Rafi Kohan, author of Trash Talk: The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals That Isn’t Total Garbage.

Read an excerpt from Trash Talk.

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Segment Guests

Rafi Kohan

Rafi Kohan is author of Trash Talk: The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals That Isn’t Total Garbage. He’s based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Segment Transcript

KATHLEEN DAVIS: This is Science Friday. I’m Kathleen Davis.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And I’m John Dankosky. Kathleen, it’s Super Bowl weekend, and it looks like your Detroit Lions aren’t going to be there again.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: It really stings. We really did a good job, but there’s always next year, and John, remind me, your beloved Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t make it either. They actually kind of stink. Remind me, when was the last time that the Steelers won a playoff game?

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, it’s been a few years, Kathleen. But hold it. Wait, when was the last time the Lions actually played in the Super Bowl?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: OK, minor details. We don’t need to get into that. Hold it. Hold it. We’re friends, John. We’re on public radio. Why are we trash talking on a science show?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, it turns out there’s actually some science behind the well-placed insult. And just in time for the Super Bowl, we’ve got a smack-talk primer with the author who wrote a book about it. Rafi Kohan is author of Trash Talk– The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals that Isn’t Total Garbage. He’s based in Atlanta, Georgia. Rafi, welcome to Science Friday.

RAFI KOHAN: Thanks for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Scientifically speaking, Rafi, what exactly is it?

RAFI KOHAN: So on the most basic level, trash talk is the presentation of a challenge. And with that test, with that presentation of a challenge, it puts more pressure on a competitor’s performance. It raises the stakes of the competition.

And then the follow-up question to that is, can you handle it? Can you handle these raised stakes? And when we talk about putting more pressure on a player’s performance, we’re talking quite literally in terms of the anxiety levels, the arousal levels that a performer may be experiencing. This will inform whether or not that person is in a peak performance state or not, whether they’re below it, they’re in it, or above it.

JOHN DANKOSKY: But it’s important to note here that there’s different ways in which it can be used. You can use it to try to get an opponent off their game by insulting them, but it’s often used, I’m thinking about in sports but also in the military, to try to get a teammate, someone you’re working with, to do a better job. So don’t you kind of need to know how that person is going to respond physiologically before you, I don’t know, try to trash talk them?

RAFI KOHAN: Absolutely, and I think it’s important to recognize that there are various pathways by which trash talk can actually work. What’s underneath that is this idea of the individual zones of optimal functioning.

It’s a model in sports psychology, also known as IZOF, and it speaks to this idea that every single person has a optimal level of anxiety to perform at their best. And contrary to previous belief, which was sort of defined by the Yerkes-Dodson law, which stated that everybody needs a like moderate level of anxiety. You want the Goldilocks of anxiety. In the IZOF model, what happens is that some folks may thrive when they’re really worked up, when they’re really on edge and they’re just in an absolute frenzy whereas someone else may need to be more calm, more relaxed to be at their best.

JOHN DANKOSKY: What you’re talking about sounds an awful lot to me like this idea of bulletin board material. Somebody says something negative about the other team, trying to get them off their game. But what actually happens is that team puts it on the bulletin board in the locker room and says, look at how they think about us. Doesn’t that get you fired up to go beat them?

RAFI KOHAN: Yes, and there was a study of trash talk that actually looked at trash talk in the workplace a few years ago. And one of the things that they found within this study is what they describe as a failed mental model. And the idea was that the folks who they asked to send trash talk messages to their rivals within this experiment, they then asked them to describe what kind of effect they thought they would have on the target’s motivation.

And invariably, they thought that it would decrease the motivation levels of their opponents. But in fact, what happened is that the targets of trash talk increased their motivation levels. They became more motivated to see their opponents lose. It speaks to a level of pettiness that may be at play as well. But this idea is that when you are the target of trash talk, you are going to be more motivated to win because that will necessitate the loss of your rival.

JOHN DANKOSKY: If someone’s on the receiving end of trash talk, what are some of the biological responses that they might have?

RAFI KOHAN: So if somebody is on the receiving end of trash talk, they may notice that their heart is beating faster, or that their palms are starting to sweat, or that their breathing is increasing. These are physiological arousals that speak to a heightened level of anxiety. And that can come from, one, feeling more pressure and feeling more stress, or it could come from being distracted because, when we are distracted, that also causes arousal.

But also what can happen is if someone is experiencing an elevated level of arousal and they go too far over their zone of optimal functioning, they can enter what’s known as a threat state. And in a threat state, basically our pulmonary vasculature constricts, and it sends all of the blood that, fast-pumping blood, back to our body’s internal organs. And what’s essentially happening in that moment is that our body is preparing for damage because our brains don’t distinguish between social and physical stressors. And as you might imagine, when we’re in a threat state like that, it’s not so great for performance.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Since we’re essentially talking about using words to elicit some sort of a physiological response, in all of the research that you’ve done, have you learned anything about how best to brush trash talk off? If, indeed, what the opponent is trying to do is to get you all worked up, to get your heart rate at the wrong level, how do you brush it off?

RAFI KOHAN: Yeah, the answer to trash talk– the response to trash talk is mental toughness. And when we say mental toughness, that basically means the ability to do what’s required in spite of possible distractions or the perceived pressures. The ingredients of mental toughness are mental skills, like self awareness and self regulation.

So you have to recognize when you’ve become distracted. You have to recognize when your heart rate is starting to beat a little bit too fast, when your palms are starting to sweat. And then you also have to be aware of whether or not this is useful for you. Then you can use this to enter your optimal zone of functioning. But if you’re not, then it’s important to self regulate and bring your arousal levels, your anxieties, back down.

So more important than whatever somebody says to you is one’s response to it. And the foundation for that is understanding what is right for me in this moment, what is best for my own performance, and how can I get there, regardless of what someone else might be saying to you.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Thanks so much for joining us, and happy Super Bowl weekend to you.

RAFI KOHAN: Thanks for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Rafi Kohan is author of Trash Talk– The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals that Isn’t Total Garbage. Read an excerpt of the book at sciencefriday.com/trashtalk.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

About John Dankosky

John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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