Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Sports Aggression

Gordon W. Russell is a Profess Emeritus at the University of Lethbring in Alberta where he taught social psychology and conducted research on sports aggression for over 32 years.  His book Aggression in the Sports World: A Social Psychological Perspective is an international and interdisciplinary presentation of the best and most recent findings in the study of sports aggression, and provides a series of proposals intended to prevent or minimize the severity of riots and panics. In the excerpt below Russell looks at the role of competition and aggression.

Competition is by far the most central and hallowed concept in the sports world. Most children are introduced to the notion of winning during their formative years. Thereafter, it pervades both individual and group interactions at all levels of play. Moreover, competition has taken root as the preferred means of conducting activities in the business world, education, and, possibly to a lesser extent, in scientific circles. One might assume that competition brings out the best in people, more so than say, cooperation.

Parenthetically, the common assumption that competition is superior to cooperation as a means for conducting human interactions is based more on a shared cultural truism (McGuire, 1964), certainly not on the empirical evidence. A cultural truism is a widespread, unquestioned belief that is rarely, if ever challenged. For example, when was the last time you heard someone take issue with the age-old advice to “brush your teeth after every meal?” In North America at least, competition is every bit as much a cultural truism as the importance of brushing after meals.

A review of 121 published studies comparing the effectiveness of competitive versus cooperatively structured tasks on performance and achievement was undertaken (Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson, Nelson, & Skon, 1981). Cooperation was found to be clearly superior across a variety of tasks, including motor tasks. In one analysis involving 109 findings, 8 favored competition and 65 favored cooperation, whereas 36 favored neither type of setting. We see further that in conjunction with an enjoyment of hard work and a preference for difficult and challenging tasks, low competitiveness is associated with higher salaries among businessmen and higher academic grades among male and female undergraduates (Helmreich & Spence, 1978; see also, Russell 1993, pp. 89–91).

Competition often fails us in other ways. That is, competitive situations are frequently found to breed hostility among participants. Part of the reason lies with the attitudes of competitors. If participants enter the competition with rivalrous attitudes, then hostilities are apt to develop. The association between rivalry and competition is learned in childhood. Rivalrous attitudes “appear in the form of personal intentions that go beyond merely doing well in competition and involve the goal of hurting the other person, perhaps going out of one’s way to do so” (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959, p. 228). Competition itself can be defined as “two or more units, either individuals or groups, engaged in pursuing the same rewards, with these rewards so defined that if they are attained by any one unit, there are fewer rewards for the other units in the situation” (Berkowitz, 1962, p. 178).

The tendency for competition to produce aggression has been well documented (e.g., Berkowitz, 1962, 1973; Deutsch, 1949; Diab, 1970; Sherif & Sherif, 1969). A classic field investigation by Sherif and Sherif (1969) will illustrate the differences between competition and cooperation in fostering hostility. The setting was a summer camp for young boys (11–12 years) in Oklahoma in what is called the Robber’s Cave experiment. The boys were carefully matched on skill level and physical stature. The boys were normal, well-adjusted youngsters who did not previously know one another. Upon their arrival at the camp in separate buses, they were assigned to either of two cabins, later named by the boys as the “Rattlers” and the “Eagles.” Strong bonds of friendship and group loyalty quickly developed within each group. Their cabins were located a considerable distance from each other, and no contact was made until the second stage of the experiment. During the week following their arrival, the youngsters engaged in a number of highly appealing activities, for example, camping out in the woods, improving a swimming hole as well as organized informal games. By week’s end, the two groups had developed stable group structures.

Shortly after, the groups were made aware of each other’s existence, strong “we” versus “they” perceptions of one another emerged. Brought together for a variety of competitions, for example, tug of war, touch football, baseball, and treasure hunt, the early expressions of good sportsmanship and mutual respect began to evaporate. In its stead verbal and physical hostilities began and escalate to the point of a full blown donnybrook in the mess hall. Name calling and throwing of food and then dinnerware brought the experiment to an abrupt halt. Several days of concerted effort by camp personnel were required to restore some semblance of peace between the Rattlers and the Eagles.

The investigators next arranged a series of tasks for the boys that required the cooperation of both cabins to succeed. They were superordinate goals or “goals that have a compelling appeal for members of each group, but that neither group an achieve without participation of the other” (Sherif & Sherif, 1969, p. 256). Several “emergencies” having potentially dire consequences for both cabins were created by the researchers. The camp truck that went for food mysteriously developed engine failure. It could only be started with both groups pulling together on their former tug of war rope. At another point the waterline broke down stopping the flow of water to the camp. The Rattlers and Eagles agreed to join forces to search for the break in the line. In both examples, it was clearly in their best interests to cooperate with one another, as in fact they did. The result was that intergroup hostility gradually diminished and a number of friendships even began to blossom between the cabins.

A similar field study was undertaken in Lebanon (Diab, 1970) and illustrates the ease with which competition can lead to ill will, if not outright aggression. Following similar procedures, the youngsters were “matched” and assigned to two groups in the camp. Interestingly, each group contained roughly equal numbers of Moslems and Christians. Friendships and camaraderie within each group developed during the early days of the camp. However, when competition was introduced, hostilities again erupted between the cabins. So intense was the animosity—a knife was brandished—that Diab was required to prematurely end the study. The battle lines were drawn between two temporary and artificially created groups. Surprisingly, the centuries-old divisions between Moslems and Christians played no part in the hostilities.

One might be forgiven for concluding from the Oklahoma boys camp study that the answer to increasing liking between two competing groups lies with having them cooperate in pursuit of a common goal. The answer is not quite that simple. Worchel, Andreoli, and Folger (1977) reasoned that two variables, the outcome of the cooperative endeavor and the nature of the groups’ past interaction, would determine the level of intergroup liking. In a nutshell, previously competing groups who failed in their combined effort experienced less attraction for one another. However, success resulted in increased liking. For previously cooperating groups, success and failure on the superordinate task resulted in increased liking between the groups.

Early writers have long contended that aggression is an inherent element in most competitions. Konrad Lorenz (1966) makes the point in noting that “sport indubitably contains aggressive motivation, demonstrably absent in most animal play” (p. 242). This conclusion is echoed by Caplow (1964) who observed that “In virtually all competitive situations some degree of hostility develops between the competitors” (p. 318). Certainly, the summer camp studies support such a conclusion. In addition, it was noted earlier that the trait of competitiveness is strongly related to the subscales and total scores on the Aggression Questionnaire (Buss & Perry, 1992). However, laboratory investigations testing the merits of a competition–aggression hypothesis have yielded mixed results. For example, members of a competitive group were less helpful and friendly and more verbally aggressive toward each other than were members of a cooperative group (Deutsch, 1949). A more direct test of the hypothesis was conducted using a two-person reaction time experiment in which electric shock for slow responses served as the measure of interpersonal aggression (Gaebelein & Taylor, 1971). Three levels of motivation were provided subjects: high competition, no shock for fastest response plus 5 cents; moderate competition, no shock; and no competition, shock predetermined. Support for a causal association between competition and aggression was not forthcoming. In the words of the researchers “competition had little influence on the expression of physical aggression” (p. 66).

A video game (Super Mario Brothers) provided the means for a further investigation of competition and its effects on aggression (Anderson & Morrow, 1995; see also, Bartholow, Sestir, & Davis, 2005). Specifically, pairs of male and female, university-aged participants were led through experimental instructions to adopt either a competitive or a cooperative frame of mind. A cooperative mind set was established for a pair by the experimenter stressing that their performances were to be combined and assessed together. For pairs in the competitive condition, they were told their performances would be compared at the end of the session. The goal for both groups then, was to avoid losing the life of the main character, that is, to advance as far as possible in each scenario.

The main characters are Mario and Luigi both of whom are controlled by the participants. Their task is to help the character avoid “cute but deadly creatures” as they navigate scenes. Participants can have their character deal with the creatures they encounter in either of two ways, killing or avoiding them. Jumping on top of a creature kills it as does hitting it with a fireball. Creatures can instead be avoided by the main character taking a different path or jumping over the creature.

The prediction that pairs assigned to the competitive condition would dispatch a greater number of creatures than those playing in the cooperative condition was confirmed. Competitive subjects had a 66% kill ratio in contrast to cooperative subjects who killed only 41%. Sex differences were not in evidence, that is, men and women had virtually the same kill ratios.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.