Similar to the children’s book “Sally Sore Loser: A Story about winning and losing”, we can learn a lot about how not to lose from Donald Trump’s reaction to his presidential defeat. In the last week or so we have seen him ask for a recount in certain states, file lawsuits against states to stop the counting of votes, claim that some postal votes were not legitimate due to arriving after election day, refused to meet Joe Biden and concede defeat. Frankly, he has demonstrated a less than gracious fall and one that none of us should repeat but why has he reacted so poorly?
It is not just politicians that can be sore losers; it is also seen on the big screen at elite level of sport. Footballers, for instance, can be seen responding to referee or linemen decisions badly - you frequently see players arguing with an official if they do not agree with a decision. It has also been seen in tennis, for instance Serena Williams, in the 2018 US Open, argued with the chair umpire and smashed her racket on the floor, after being pulled up for her coach making hand signals to her. This was not the first time either. Back in 2009, after several line judgments she did not agree with, she told the line judge that she would “shove the ball down your throat”. Furthermore, in a sport, that is supposedly a gentleman’s sport, England’s rugby team refused to show unison and wear their medals in the World Cup final when they lost against South Africa. Nevertheless, apart from the few isolated incidents described here, the majority of athletes lose gracefully. So, what can sport psychology teach us about losing?
One explanation that may explain Trump’s response is the Aggression-Frustration hypothesis (Dollard et al, 1939). This theory states that frustration can lead to aggression. One potential source of frustration is when a competitor is blocked from reaching their goal such as losing in competition against another, this can trigger an aversive emotional response, such as aggression. This is similar to what we have seen with Trump. He was blocked from achieving his goal of winning in the election which then led to the behaviour that followed. Although Trump’s response to the loss is being depicted as negative by the press and media, this may not be the case. According to the Attribution Theory (Weiner, 1972) that explores the reasons we give for success and failure, he is attributing the loss to factors outside of his control, which is typically how a high-achiever attributes loses. Furthermore, high achievers tend to attribute wins to internal factors such as their own ability - Trump is definitely not shy in attributing his success to his own achievements. This is known as the self-serving bias, whereby individuals are more likely to take credit for wins but blame others for failures. In doing this, it shields us from the negative responses of losing that we may not want to face (i.e. feelings of shame and disappointment), reduction to our self-esteem or psychological harm. Individuals with self-serving attributions tend to be happier, more positive and have a better well-being. Additionally, they are more likely to try again and not give up.
Nevertheless, more recent research has found that external attributions for losses have an initial positive effect on mood and self-esteem but following this, the athletes suffer from poor mood states such as anger, depression and tension, especially as they have no solution to stop it for happening again in the future. Consequently, researchers are recommending that we should attribute some failures to internal factors and take responsibility for our setbacks, so we can be more solution-orientated. For instance, if the athlete attributes failure to an internal, unstable but controllable factor such as effort, they are more motivated to change this and try harder next time. An unstable external factor (such as a referee’s decision-making or Trump attributing the loss to the notion the voting system is flawed) can promote negative emotions such as anger, as these factors are uncontrollable, and the individual cannot alter them. However, we can change the way we attribute wins/losses through attribute retraining, which many sport psychologists use with athletes who make unhelpful attributions (Weiner, 1986). Ultimately the way we attribute the loss is important but also the way we then cope with it is just as vital.
In Sport psychology, Lazarus (1993) came up with three coping mechanisms, problem-focused, emotion-focused and avoidance-focused coping for stresses such as losses. Problem-focused coping is where we develop strategies and plan to prevent it from happening again. Emotion-focused coping is when we seek emotional support; we do not try to solve the problem, just the emotional stress from it. Finally, avoidance-focused coping strategies is where we try to avoid dealing with the situation, so we distract and preoccupy ourselves. In terms of what we have seen with Trump, his behaviour is somewhat avoidance focused as he visits the golf course but refuses to meet Biden to concede defeat, therefore avoiding his inevitable end. The more favourable coping strategy to have in the face of loss is problem focused as you put the strategies and plans in place to try and succeed next time, it has also been linked to positive affect and wellbeing.
So, Trump’s fall is less than graceful but with some attribution retraining his loss may have been handled better (Weiner, 1986). He then may have taken some responsibility for his loss instead of making excuses and accusations, and really had demonstrated to the world how to lose well. Having such a presence in the world, you would have hoped he would have set an example for everyone to follow, unfortunately the moral of this story is to do quite the opposite of Trump when you don’t succeed.