Blind Olympic athletes show the universal nature of pride and shame

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTune into the Olympic coverage over the next few weeks, and you will see many an athlete proudly raise their arms and head in victory, while a much larger number slump their shoulders and necks in defeat. We've all shown  the same body language ourselves, and a new study reveals why - they are innate and universal behaviours, performed by humans all over the world in response to success and failure.

i-cd551ceb4f4491e373371ec071505d5c-Judo.jpgThe discovery comes from Jessica Tracy from the University of British Columbia and David Matsumoto from San Francisco State University, who wanted to see how people across different cultures express feelings of pride and shame. In particular, they wanted to know whether these expressions are instinctive, or whether they are cultural oddities that we learn through observation.

But how to find out? We humans are very good at picking up behaviours from each other, which makes it very hard for a researcher to tell if an action is learned or innate. What Tracy and Matusmoto needed was a large group of people from all over the world, who they could watch as they went through the motions of success and failure. And it was critically important that some of these subjects had never seen other people reacting to success or failure before - if they had, it would be impossible to confirm if the actions are inborn. Where could such a group of people be found?

The answer was Athens, during the 2004 Olympic Games. Its sister competition - the Paralympics - included many athletes who were born blind, and could not possibly have witnessed how their peers reacted to winning and losing.

Blind pride

Working with a professional photographer (who wasn't briefed on the experiment's goals), Tracy and Matsumoto compared the body language of 108 judo competitors, 41 of whom had lost their sight, and 12 of whom were blind from birth. The Olympics being an international tournament, the fighters hailed from 37 nations across the world, from  North Korea to Algeria to the United States.

The photographer repeatedly snapped the athletes after their bouts, and the researchers painstakingly noted down the positions of their head, arms and bodies. 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 results provide strong evidence that these actions are indeed inborn. Men and women who have never seen other people behave in these ways still make exactly the same movements. And while it's possible that parents may have taught their blind children some of these behaviours (like raising their hands over their heads during play), it's very unlikely that they could have imparted the full set in this way, particularly the expansion or narrowing of the chest.  

Cultural shame

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. For example, everyone showed the same pride and shame responses, regardless of whether they hailed form 'individualist' cultures that value the needs of the individual, or 'collectivist' cultures where the needs of the group take priority.

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. Did they feel less shame, or were they simply hiding it? Their blind peers provide a clue - those who had lost their sight 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.


Nevertheless, the results do show that behaviours associated with shame and pride are universal, and Tracy and Matsumoto argue that these emotions deserve a place along other primary emotions, such as happiness, fear, anger, surprise, sadness and disgust. Like these other sentiments, pride and shame are innate behaviours that transcend human cultures and are accompanied by their own distinct sets of actions.

They even have equivalents in our closest relatives. The tilted heads and expanded chests of proud humans are reminiscent of the chest-thumping displays of mountain gorillas, and the 'inflation displays' of dominant chimps. Meanwhile, sagging, shameful shoulders seem to mirror the cringing, lowered postures showed by a myriad of submissive animals, from chimps to elephants to salamanders.

Tracy and Matsumoto suggest that pride and shame have their evolutionary origins in social signalling. For example, they speculate that by responding to success with behaviours that expand the body, individuals can better advertise their status to other onlookers.

The duo also hope that their study will galvanise other researchers who study the origins of emotion to pay greater attention to the body. At the moment, it's the face, with its complex array of smiles, frowns and other expressions, that commands the lion's share of research attention. But watch this year's Olympic athletes and you're bound to see the body play just as important a role in vividly expressing emotion.

Reference: PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.0802686105

Images: courtesy of researchers

More like this

Darwin's spirit lives on in everything from the Human Genome Project to medicine to conservation biology--the three topics I covered in my post on Friday. It also lives on in brain scans. While Darwin is best known for The Origin of Species, he also wrote a lot of books in later years, most of…
Take a look at this photo: What emotion would you say I'm expressing here? Let's make this one a poll (make sure you answer before you read any farther): In 1872, Charles Darwin argued that facial expressions must have evolved just as surely as eyes or noses (you can read an excerpt from his work…
For humans, our culture is a massive part of our identity, from the way we dress, speak and cook, to the social norms that govern how we interact with our peers. Our culture stems from our ability to pick up new behaviours through imitation, and we are so innately good at this that we often take…
Hollywood cavemen typically communicate with grunts and snorts, reflecting a belief that human language originated like this and slowly evolved into the rich and sophisticated tongues we use today. But researchers from Emory University, Atlanta have found evidence that the origins of human…

while more collectivist nations like Japan or China view shame as an appropriate and socially valued response.

I wonder if in those cultures the reverse is true - that is, sighted competitors tend to have a more prominent shame response than blind ones?