Olympic-Level Emotions

(L-R) Silver medalist US Chris Mazdzer, gold medalist Austria’s David Gleirscher, and bronze medalist Germany’s Johannes Ludwig pose on the podium during the victory ceremony in the men’s luge singles during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, at the Olympic Sliding Centre on February 11, 2018 in Pyeongchang. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Can the Olympics teach us anything about reading people?

Most of these blogs have been devoted to reading people’s emotions when they are being actively concealed, such as during efforts to detect deception. However, the Winter Olympics give us an opportunity to read people exhibiting unfiltered, raw emotions. With emotions as high as they are during the Games, few people would attempt to conceal their emotions, even if they weren’t so physically exhausted!

Instead of having to work to decipher microexpressions, Dr. David Matsumoto’s experience as an Olympic coach has given him unique insight into the way Olympians express emotions. Of course, because microexpressions are really just shorter macroexpressions, these blatant cases give us something to look for in more fleeting situations.

For example, after examining photos from top competitors in the 2004 Olympic Games, Dr. Matsumoto observed that the winners almost all sported pronounced, genuine smiles. He referred to these as the Duchenne smile, and the genuine nature of the setting showcases these as truly prototypical expressions of happiness.

These involved: “smiles that involve not only the smiling muscle that pulls the lip corners up but also the muscle around the eyes, which lifts the cheeks, narrow the eyelids and produces crow’s feet wrinkles.”

Similarly, this same investigation looked at the microexpressions present in athletes just following the end of the match. Immediately after victory, an athlete would show a fleeting expression of pure, unadulterated triumph, regardless of what culture they were from. Similarly, a defeated athlete exhibited consistently sad microexpressions.

The prevalence and universality of these expressions helped establish the universal nature of these emotions. However, they are not necessarily innate expressions. How could Dr. Matsumoto rule out the possibility that this behavior is simply learned from watching other athletes?

The answer to this question came when he decided to examine a series of blind judo athletes during the 2004 Paralympic Games. Certainly athletes that are blind from birth could not have learned a purely visual emotional cue!

In fact, their facial expressions were indistinguishable from the respectively triumphant or defeated expressions of sighted athletes. This was also the case for their genuine, Duchenne, smiles upon receipt of medals. These results suggest that victory or defeat in the Olympic games brings out our innate and universal expressions, and these are the same sort of basic expressions that we have delved into throughout this blog.

You might find all this interesting but still aren’t sure how this is relevant to anything. Well, all of these expressions, both in macro or micro form, are keys to effectively reading people. By looking at situations where the expression is as blatant as after an Olympic match, you can better learn how to read those expressions during more subtle and deception-based situations.

Also, with this knowledge in hand, go out and watch the Olympics! Can you spot these expressions? Trying actual applications like this can make you a better people reader, and we are excited to offer some more observations in next week’s blog!

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