Body Language of Defeat

The evolution of the body language of sports disappointment.A recent article in Slate by Daniel Engber looked at the body language of college-basketball athletes, particularly in moments of victory and defeat. Engber noticed certain consistent gestures: such as arms outstretched in victory and hands on heads in defeat. But what are the reasons for these gestures and are they learned or innate?

He says, “I deferred to body-language experts. David Matsumoto, a San Francisco State University professor of psychology and director of a nonverbal-behavior training company called Humintell, has studied gesture in athletics. For a 2008 paper, he and Jessica Tracy, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, studied photos of athletes at both the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games. They focused on the sport of judo, and the expressions made by winners and losers drawn from 37 different countries. Some of the athletes were blind.

Tracy and Matsumoto guessed that certain gestures would be fundamental—that they would show up in athletes from all around the world, whether they could see or not. Indeed, many of the winners seemed to make the same response: Heads tilted back, torso pushed out and arms raised high. That’s reminiscent of the “inflated display” that you might see in dominant chimpanzees, among other nonhuman species. The same gestures can be identified as prideful by 4-year-old children, and by people in preliterate societies throughout the world. That is to say, it seems to be innate.

The authors say that corresponding, innate gestures of shame—head tilting downwards, slumped shoulders and narrowed chest—are also seen in human groups around the world, and related cringing or lowering behaviors have been observed in chimps, baboons, macaques, rats, rabbits, wolves, elephants, seals, salamanders, and even crayfish. Judo practitioners sometimes showed this response to losing, but the effect was most pronounced among the blind athletes.

Tracy and Matsumoto propose that a learned response to shame can override or cover up more natural gestures. According to Matsumoto, you can spot the innate response within the first half-second of an emotional event. After that, a more self-conscious or culturally determined display kicks in. He thinks that some college basketball players’ gestures are more a product of evolution, such as their tendency to hide their faces, as seen in the montage below”

To learn more about the “face cover”, take a look at this past blog post!

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