In spite of the fact that we think sore losers are pouty, tantrum-throwing children trapped in the bodies of adults, there’s evidence that being a complaining loser still works out — if you’re a Supreme Court judge who happens to be in the vocal minority. A new study finds that even when judges are alone in their bad opinions, they can still end up being more influential than someone who politely disagrees by sheer virtue of being witty and loud.
Researchers looked at Supreme Court judges who went out of their way to dissent on cases, even at great social cost, and found that at least 17 percent of their opinions between 1937 and 2014 still ended up being cited in majority opinions later. Is this a reason for sore losers to rejoice and keep on losing badly? Sorta.
In cases where conservative minority opinion judges like Antonin Scalia were later remembered well, they had to employ razor-sharp, distinctive language people would notice, report on and share in a way that would go down in the history books.
Another instance where you can get away with being a sore loser at no real cost to your success is if you’re generally a winner. This is perhaps no truer than in sports, where a number of admired, high-performing athletes are also very bad at losing. There’s even a vaunted quote from former coach Vince Lombardi that’s well circulated justifying being bad at losing: “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”
That quote is used rampantly in football in particular. In 2016, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton quoted it when he explained his sulky posture at a press conference after losing the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos. “I’m on record as being a sore loser,” he said. “I hate losing. You show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
The general manager of the Panthers, Dave Gettleman, backed this Lombardi-ism up. “I want players that hate to lose,” he said in response. So did Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, who said that while he “wished Cam would’ve handled it differently,” that’s also “who he is. He hates to lose.”
This makes it sound like hating losing is part and parcel of actually winning a lot. It’s not, but this point of view isn’t entirely wrong: In a piece looking at what happens in the brain when we lose badly, author Geert Maarse notes that in gamblers there’s often a big winning streak at the outset of the gambling that leads the loser to think they ought to be able to keep getting a winning outcome, thus making the sore losing seem appropriate, or at least more likely.
Newton’s response also makes it seem like people who are bad at losing care more than the rest of us about winning, because after all, caring that much makes it impossible to accept having lost, which you’d need to do to act graciously.
Maarse notes that this isn’t really backed up by science, either. What makes bad losers bad is not that they care more about winning, but that they are more sensitive to changes in status. In apes, for instance, the ape with the highest status and the lowest status both have the lowest levels of cortisol (a stress indicator), while the mid-level apes have the highest, because they have the most to win or lose. In other words, lower status (but not the lowest status) means you are more likely to freak out when you don’t win.
They are also less able to regulate their emotions. But instead of this always being seen as a deficiency, it’s sometimes reframed by the loser (and others) as proof that they care more. In other words, being a sore loser is the top indication you’re a driven, competitive, exacting athlete or competitor who just wants the truth. Critics of Newton’s use of the phrase called bullshit on this implication, too. Just because some people accept the loss and lose graciously, doesn’t mean they won’t beat themselves up over it privately and still vow to do better.
What’s also worth noting is that sore losers tend to also be sore winners. Think Donald Trump, who hates to lose, but also gloats or acts abusively and derisively toward others when he wins.
Then again, everyone who lost against Trump in 2016 has been called a sore loser, too. And sometimes that’s a sexist assertion, particularly when the losing might actually be unfair or the result of a rigged game. Whistleblowers aren’t losers, they’re correct.
What’s more, similar to the judges whose minority opinions held sway later on, sometimes sore losers take over the entire conversation, and it can backfire or work out. When Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMA’s it backfired, leading to Barack Obama calling him a jackass and Lady Gaga canceling their tour. But when he almost did it again as a joke at the 2015 Grammys to argue that Beyonce was robbed of the Album of the Year award by Beck, many agreed with him.
So what’s a regular sore loser to take away from this? It’s not really a defense of sore losing, but rather an acknowledgement that being bad at losing doesn’t always work against you, if you’re a successful, winning type of person, usually a man (women, Maarse notes, tend to lose more graciously as a rule, because they’re taught to). Sometimes, as unfair as it might be, you might get more out of being rude than being polite, so long as you do so in a way that people remember as clever or prescient.
When losing badly, always remember to “be more caustic, witty, and personally involved on things you care about,” the researchers wrote about Supreme Court judges. That way, you’ll definitely seem like an asshole, but you’ll also seem like an asshole who was kinda right, which is, at the very least, all any sore loser ever really wants.