Athletes First Reaction To Triumph Is Body Language Dominance Display
Christopher Philip

Arms thrust upwards is a sign of dominance and victory.

Arms thrust upwards is a sign of dominance and victory.

David Matsumoto from San Francisco State University and co-author Hyisung Hwang, an adjunct faculty member in psychology at SF State have outlined the modern version of the victory strut. When athletes win in competition they throw their hands up in the air or pump their fists, puff out their chest and pull their head back. Depending on the intensity of the competition they might even throw out a guttural vocalization. A grin of self satisfaction often follows. The losers in the match never exhibited these reactions. Instead they bowed their heads and averted their gaze in a display of submission.

It was previously believed that this body language displayed pride, but Matsumoto, a psychology professor, thinks otherwise. “What I saw everyday in training and in competition had nothing to do with pride,” he says. “It’s all about just having clobbered somebody. It’s a sign or signal given to other members of the community who are watching.” Matsumoto began studying the nonverbal “triumph” display after noticing it during his years coaching the U.S. Olympic judo team.

In the research study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, Matsumoto observed more than 35 athletes from various countries including those who are congenitally blind (blind from birth). He was most curious about the very fist reactions after winning. “In any competition, once the competition starts, athletes are in the zone. In judo, all their thinking is about winning the match,” he says. “They are not thinking about their country, or how they overcame injuries or about their love for their brother or sister. Once it ends, a few seconds later, that stuff comes into play. But when you look at the first reaction, what you get are triumphant behaviors.”

An Olympic judo athlete shows a dominance threat display following victory 2The research was conducted by coding the first body motion made by an athlete upon learning he or she was victorious. This was rated on a five-point scale for intensity. Specifically, they watched for raising the arms above the shoulders, pushing the chest out, tilting the head back and smiling. Athletes from all countries exhibited the behaviour, even blind Paralympic athletes, suggesting that it is biologically driven.

“It appears to be innate and stems from an evolutionary need to establish order and hierarchy in society,” said Matsumoto. In earlier work, the researchers coded the behaviour as dominance rather than pride since it occurs immediately. Pride, which is more reflective, happens more gently and is more internally directed. In their analysis they found that triumph appeared on average 4 seconds after the match whereas pride appeared on average 16 seconds after the match.

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Similar behaviours are observed in animals. The victor struts, growls, and acts aggressively while the loser cowers, lowers or averts its gaze, and slinks away. “It is a very quick, immediate, universal expression that is produced by many different people, in many cultures, immediately after winning their combat,” Matsumoto said. “Many animals seem to have a dominant threat display that involves making their body look larger.”
Various cultures display different amplitudes to victory. “Cultures that are more status oriented have individuals who produce these behaviors more than individuals who come from cultures that are more egalitarian,” said Matsumoto.

In another study, Matsumoto and Hwang used a measure called the “power distance” or PD. This is a measurement of the degree to which a culture encourages or discourages power, status and hierarchy among groups. The results where not surprising. They found that cultures with high PD produced athletes with higher dominance displays than those with lower PD. High PD countries include Malaysia, Slovakia and Romania, while countries with low PD include Israel, Austria and Finland. The United States and United Kingdom fall in the middle of the PD spectrum, along with countries such as Hungary, Iran and Italy.

The natural conclusion to the research says that dominance displays are useful to establishing and maintaining hierarchy, and not just for its own sake. Rather, hierarchy is a way to organize groups and produce order so things operates smoothly. Those countries that require strong hierarchical order also require body language to maintain it.

“If you’re in a meeting, the person sitting in the ‘power chair’ is going to be more erect and look taller, they’re going to use a strong voice, they’re going to use hand gestures that signify dominance,” he said. “If there’s conflict, the person who yells the most or is the most stern will be seen as the leader. It establishes the hierarchy in that context.”

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David Matsumoto, Hyi Sung Hwang. Evidence For A Nonverbal Expression Of Triumph. Evolution and Human Behavior, 2012; 33 (5): 520-529.

Hyisung C. Hwang, David Matsumoto. Dominance threat display for victory and achievement in competition context. Motivation and Emotion, 2014.

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