Universal Expressions Of Pride And Shame
Christopher Philip

Arms thrust upwards is a sign of dominance and victory.

Arms thrust upwards is a sign of dominance and victory.

Researchers Tracy and Matsumoto out of Vancouver BC and San Francisco CA did some interesting research into nonverbal expressions. They wanted to know if the expression of pride and shame are biologically innate or are learned behaviours – behaviours we acquire in our lifetimes by observing others. In other words, the researchers wanted to know if we are somehow born with the nonverbal cue.

The research studied sighted, blind, and congenitally blind (blind from birth) individuals across various cultures. They wanted to know if each set of people would spontaneously display pride and shame with respect to success and failure, victory and defeat, at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. If the blind-from-birth set of athletes display similar non-verbal signals during pride and shame, they provide evidence for the universal nature of the nonverbal expressions. According to the hypothesis, congenially blind athletes wouldn’t be able to absorb the body language from others throughout their development, thus indicating the universal root of the body language.

Pride is present in children as young as 4 as well as adults in various cultures around the world. We demonstrate pride by various “inflated” or “expansive” displays such as tilting the head back, chest beating, and strutting. This is common to other animals such as chimpanzees, mountain gorillas and monkeys. Shame, on the other hand, is demonstrated through head titled downward, slumped shoulders, narrowed chest. These are “lowered” or “narrowed” postures and they indicate submission. Shame has been found in chimpanzees, macaques, baboons, rats, rabbits, crayfish, wolves, elephants, seals, and salamanders.

The researchers note that the nonverbal expression of pride in response to success likely has roots in boosting status. Taking on expansive postures such as outstretching the arms serves to assert dominance by appearing larger and also to attract attention. The corollary of course, is that attracting attention can also become perilous to the sender be bringing unwanted attention – an invitation to attack. However, this too strengthens the dominance assertion in light of potential competitors – it’s and “in your face” kind of challenge.

In contrast, submission places people beneath them and in their control which could also invite attack. However, submission is an admittance of defeat indicating that the challenge no longer present. Therefore, submission is a form of appeasement to onlookers and that a person no longer wishes to vie for power.

In the study, sighted, blind, and congenitally blind athletes from 37 nations were observed during the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Results showed that sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals from over 30 nations displayed the behaviors associated with pride and shame in response to success and failure respectively.

Interestingly, shame was suppressed in North American cultures likely as a result of cultural conditioning. It’s likely that certain cultures encourage people to refrain from overt expressions of emotion.

The researchers concluded that the nonverbal expression of shame and pride are likely biologically innate.

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Jessica L. Tracy and David Matsumoto. The Spontaneous Expression Of Pride And Shame: Evidence For Biologically Innate Nonverbal Displays. 2008; 105 (33) 11655-11660.

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