Smack talk in professional wrestling (Tamborini et al., 2008)

This post is a part of series of study reviews written by professors whom I have an interest in joining as their grad student.

Ronald Tamborini and many other professors in the Communications department of Michigan State University are involved with new media research and many of them towards video games. Looking at the faculty page, I believe this department affords me the best flexibility in terms of research paths since there’s a wide variety of interests and specializations among the professors, in particular Joseph B. Walter who wrote extensively on computer-mediated communication, a key component in multiplayer video games research.

I hate professional wrestling (read as staged), it’s all fake and yet the crowds clamour for more, especially when kids are watching this. I prefer hockey than wrestling since elements of competition and tests of skill is more meaningful than the shallow “feuds” between wrestlers.

Why is it related to video games? It would serve as an impetus for video game smack talk study, some games like Unreal Tournament

Internet smack talk

Internet smack talk

series have some smack talk, some other immature “mature-rated” games or any multiplayer video games, like Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike also has some smack talk (depending on many factors), but I don’t know since there are no studies of such kind and I’m out of the loop by several years, I read about video games, but not necessarily play them, such is the poor life of an academician and an adult, mind you.


The current study presents the results of a content analysis of the verbal aggression found in 36 hours of televised professional wrestling. The coding scheme was adapted from the National Television Violence Study and past research on television verbal aggression. Results show that an abundance of verbal aggression occurs in televised professional wrestling, with swearing, competence attacks, and character attacks being the most common types. In addition, the primary motives for verbal aggression use are amusement and anger. Furthermore, verbal aggression tends to be communicated and received by White, male individuals with no clear dispositional characteristics. The results are discussed in terms of potential effects of exposure to the verbal aggression found in professional wrestling.

Once again, this is a type-content analysis study where the medium itself is analysed with no human experimentation or participants involved.

Let’s go over a few key words and definitions.

Smack talk is categorised as verbal aggression where the aggression is directed at another’s self-concept. The self-concept in the case for verbal aggression includes attacks on one’s physical appearance (“you’re fat and ugly!”), character or personality (“you’re a fag!”), competence (“you’re so stupid…”), background (your momma jokes and racist ones). Maledictions, teasing, ridicule, threats, swearing or nonverbal emblems are also defined as verbal aggression.

Why verbal aggression and not physical aggression in wrestling? Because physical aggression has been studied to death and its effects is well documented. Additionally, people consider verbal aggression as less violent than its physical counterpart. However, the authors argued that since it’s viewed as less violent, there are less inhibitions, so you might not think much about the consequences or you get a slap on the hand for swearing, but punching makes you think twice (unless you’re acting in the heat of the moment…) or it gets you a much serious punishment. The few studies on media verbal aggression have found similar results to physical aggression, more cognitive aggression and besides IMO a larger vocabulary of insults, higher state of hostility. So, they argued that verbal aggression in the media is a more likely (or stronger IMO) factor in aggression than physical aggression in the media.


Sample: 10 weeks worth of television episodes of WWE SmackDown and WWE Raw that were aired during the fall of 2002. Four hours per week were recorded, which totals to 40 hours. Due to technical problems, 36 hours of the episodes were included into analysis. My goodness, analysing 36 hours of wrestling can be very tiresome and time-consuming. Who knows how many man hours are spent analysing just one episode.

Content Analysis measure

Coders: 4 research assistant are tasked in coding them.

Definition of verbal aggression: swearing, rejection, dislike, sarcasm, competence attacks, character attacks, physical appearance attacks, threats, maledictions, demands and mocking.

With that in hand, they defined a single verbal aggression interaction needing a unique perpetrator committing a harmful act against a unique victim. If there’s a change in say, perpetrator, act or victim then it becomes another violent interaction. So if I insult a victim, and then shout another insult at the same target, it counts as two verbal aggressions interactions. If I shoot an insult at a crowd, it counts as one. If I insult someone, then the victim shoots back an insult, it counts as two. They added that a single interaction may contain multiple acts of verbal aggression, even though it indicates that it should be separate interaction, but this must be taken into account of the context. This got me confused.

Character attributes measure: Perpetrators and victims were identified according to sex, ethnicity, role, and long-standing disposition (?).

Interactions attributes: Kinds of verbal aggression are identified in each interaction. See definition above. They also include the reasons for aggression: personal gain, anger, protection of life, amusement, accident, combination, unknown, other or sanctioned as part of wrestling.


833 verbal aggression were observed for an average of over 30 verbal aggression interactions per hours, this takes commercials into account.

Character attributes: Perpetrators: mostly white (74%) men (92%) acting alone (96%).

Victims: Also white (71%) men (80%) acting alone (79%).

Perpetrator’s role: Commentators (53.1%) were the ones who did most of the cussing, followed by wrestlers (33.5%) and the rest are in the single digit range.

Victims’ role: Wrestlers (71.8%) gets most of the directed insults, the rest are within the single digit range.

Interaction attributes: The proportion of interaction types is as follows: Swearing takes the lead at 27.2%, competence attacks takes 20.6% of verbal aggression, finally character attacks takes third at 15.8%. Combination of two types takes 9.3%. The rest take below 5% of the percentages of verbal aggression. The first three are no surprise, but I was expecting physical appearance to be more common, I guess it depends on who uses it.

The reasons of aggressions were categorized into three: unsanctioned (amusement, anger, personal gain or combo) takes 89.8% of the reasons, sanctioned (mandated, protection of life, retaliation or combo) takes a measly 6.6% of all interactions.


To summarize two paragraphs in their discussion, television likes to bark more insults than throwing chairs at each other. 30+ verbal aggressions per hour versus 22 physical aggressions per hour seem like a good indicator of how foul mouthed these wrestlers are. It’s not just wrestling shows, the authors argued that even sitcoms have some verbal aggression (mainly competence and character attacks) minus physical aggression and swearing.

The authors argued quite well that kind of smack talk is suited in professional wrestling, since it’s not just fighting between complete strangers, since they decided to include storylines, humour (?) or creating characters (IMO, maybe to make the smack talk more or less justified). Second, swearing appeals very much to its target demographics, immature 13-year old boys. Third, verbal aggression for no justified reasons might be a cause for concern.

They warned that although audiences might find it funny, it undermines people’s thoughts about the effects of verbal aggression. Potential outcomes are imitation or repeating those catchphrases to others, integrating them into your day-to-day vocabulary and/or even thinking aggressively, all of this refers to cultivation theory.

Why is it important? Previous studies have found that verbal aggression is a contributing factor to relationship termination and interpersonal violence. IMO, who would like to converse with someone who’s very disrespectful or swears a lot? Not a good way to connect with others, it might lead to physical confrontations or worse. Or if you’re 25 years old, just listen to some teenagers in the suburbs and see how different they are from your teen years, it can be very disturbing…

Limitations? This is a content analysis study, it does not tell the effects of said topic, but provides a foundation for applied studies. Wrestling is only studied, so it can’t be generalized to other sports.

So why is this study in this blog? Serving as an impetus for multiplayer video game smack talk study (internet smack talk and teabagging) or perhaps a flame war study.

Tamborini, R., Chory, R. M., Lachlan, K., Westerman, D., & Skalski, P. (2008) Talking smack: Verbal aggression in professional wrestling. Communication Studies, 59 (3), 242-258.


One thought on “Smack talk in professional wrestling (Tamborini et al., 2008)

  1. I just wanted to leave a comment to let you know I was here and that I enjoyed your blog! Feel free to check mine out whenever you get the chance. If you are interested in promoting your blog, submit an article to my blog carnival! Thanks, Kate

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