The Body Language of Winners: Dominance Threats and Triumph


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Winner's gestures reveal dominance. Image by Alvimann,.

Winner’s gestures reveal dominance. Image by Alvimann,.

What do winners look like?  Studies of primates indicate that body language conveys information about social status.  Researchers Hyisung C. Hwang and David Matusmoto of the San Francisco State University examined the body language of winners of Olympic judo matches, theorizing that at the moment of winning, the winner would express body language associated with dominance.  Their work further clarifies what a winner looks like.

Facial Features and Social Rank

Other research had identified physical facial features in primates that are connected with higher social rank, such as “”thinner lips, broad chins, receding hairline…closeness of eyes..” according to Hwang and Matusmoto.  Many of these features, Dr. Matusumoto noted, researchers assumed  to be genetic.  In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Matsumoto stated, “previous research has implied that genetics plays a large part in producing those facial characteristics associated with dominance.”

Rather than commenting on facial features, Hwang and Matsumoto sought to further refine what a winning bodily reaction looked like before the winner had a chance to think about the win.  What is the most immediate response?  What was the signal that someone was now dominant?

Winning and Dominance: The Research Design

Researchers watched recordings of the end judo matches from the matches which included 14 weight categories in the Olympic matches and 6 in the Paralympic matches.  The winner’s initial bodily reactions were coded, noting a presence or absence of fifteen “triumph expressions.”  Among the possible bodily reactions included items such as “arms raised above shoulder” and “grimace” to “mouth open,” “thumbs up” and “torso pushed out.”

The researchers coded the intensity of each action on a four point scale.  The researchers then grouped similar gestures together into categories termed “Expansion,” “Aggression,” or “Attention.”   Expansive body moves included raising the arms or pushing out the torso.  Aggressive moves included grimacing. punching motions, and shouts.  Moves labeled “Attention” included gazing directly. Together, these reactions were also termed “Triumph.”

Other bodily reactions were labeled “pride.”  Bodily expressions of pride are “more relaxed postures of the prototypical pride expressions.” One example, which was not seen in this study of immediate physical reactions was placing hands on the hips. Pride is described as “different and possibly appear later….the expression of pride signals satisfaction with the self and lacks the aggressive, taunting qualities of the intense signal of dominance threat.”

In the study, some results varied by gender. Women winners smiled more. Men scored higher on pushing out their torso and leaning back.

Winners have unique body language. Image by cenal1

Winners have unique body language. Image by cenal1

Winner Body Language: Results by Country

Since “there were limited numbers of players from each country, which impacted the country samples” researchers call for larger scale analysis.  Previous research by Dr. Motsumoto published in 2009 found that culture influences facial expressions.  In that study, “Athletes from relatively urban, individualistic cultures expressed their emotions more, whereas athletes from less urban, collectivistic cultures masked their emotions more.”  Since this research attempts to document the moment of dominance, it is possible that further research would not note such differences.

The Body Language of Triumph: Most Notable Finding

Dr. Matsumoso explains the importance of his research, “The discovery of triumph expressions in humans across many cultures and among blind individuals suggests the possibility universality of a new emotion, which has heretofore never been suggested. It links this reaction to those of other animals in agonistic encounters, and is certainly relevant to establishing status hierarchies in communities, which is important for any group.”

Why Judo?

There’s no reason to believe that expressions of triumph are unique to judo.  So why judo and not, say, boxing, or fencing?  Dr. Matsumoto explains, “I am the former US Olympic coach for judo in 1996 and 2000, and have many ties in the international judo world. We do have the source material now for many other sports and hope to do that study in the future.”  The revelation of a new, potentially universal, bodily signal is a triumph for everyone interested in understanding the nature of social groups.

Next time your friend beats you at a game, watch out for the body language of triumph.

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