Are the actions of throwing our arms in the air when we win and slumping our shoulders when we lose innate or learned by watching others?

Researchers took photos of 108 athletes winning and losing judo matches during the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, and the subsequent Paralympic Games. Judokas were divided in three groups: sighted, born blind, and acquired blind.

They found that the sighted and sightless athletes behaved in almost exactly the same ways. The winners tilted their heads up, smiled, lifted their arms, clenched their fists and puffed out their chests, while slumped shoulders and narrowed chests were the hallmarks of losers.

The stances were also remarkably consistent between men and women, and between contestants from every part of the world. The athletes’ culture has only a very small effect on their body language.

The only small difference was that sighted athletes from the paragons of individualism – Europe and North America – showed weaker responses to failure. They chests still narrowed and their shoulders still slumped but to a lesser extent. Their blind peers showed slightly stronger shame behaviours while those that were always blind were even more apparent.

That strongly suggests that the sighted fighters were masking their shame in accordance with their national values. Western culture, with its emphasis on self-assertion, tends to frown on public displays of shame, while more collectivist nations like Japan or China view shame as an appropriate and socially valued response. Their respective athletes behaved accordingly.

The authors believe physical expressions of pride may have evolved as a way of signalling the winner’s success to the rest of society, thereby boosting social status. Similarly, the response to shame would show an aggressor that the loser accepts their inferiority, helping to avoid further conflict. The researchers also point out that such displays closely resemble dominance and submission displays in primates.

“The ability to signal these kinds of behaviours reinforces hierarchies and social networks.”

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