In Athlete's, Triumphant Victory Gestures Are A Biological Need
    By News Staff | January 10th 2014 01:37 PM | 8 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    Everyone has seen what athletes do after a victory - footballers may take their shirts off and slide on their knees, baseball hitters may pump their fists. 

    That instinctive reaction that occurs is a biological imperative to display dominance over opponents rather than a sense of personal satisfaction, according to a paper in Motivation and Emotion.

    Psychologists have given this body language a name - "dominance threat display." We used to call that a simple triumphant gesture but San Francisco State University Professor of Psychology David Matsumoto and adjunct faculty member Hyisung Hwang observed winners of Olympic and Paralympic judo matches and believe those gestures are innate and stem from an evolutionary need to establish order and hierarchy in society.

    In a paper published in November, they found that an athlete's culture affects the intensity with which he or she displays this body language and said that this triumph is different than pride, which they say requires more cognitive thinking and reflection. 


    This judo player is apparently not happy about the successful throw, he is driven by an evolutionary imperative to establish order and hierarchy in society. Credit: SF State

    They wanted to know whether expressions of triumph are the immediate reaction of an athlete following victory so they looked at the first body motion made by an athlete upon learning he or she was victorious and determined whether that action was among those considered to constitute "triumph". Then they rated the intensity of the action on a five-point scale.

    Actions considered triumphant included raising the arms above the shoulders, pushing the chest out, tilting the head back and smiling. They were observed in winning athletes from all cultural backgrounds and even in blind Paralympic athletes, which suggests to psychologists that it is biologically innate. 

    "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."

    In their other study, Hwang and Matsumoto compared the intensity of an athlete's expressions of triumph with his or her culture's "power distance" (PD), a measurement that represents the degree to which a culture encourages or discourages power, status and hierarchical differences among groups. They found that athletes from cultures with high PD produced such body language more than those from cultures with low PD.

    An Olympic judo player expresses his evolutionary imperative while the judge wishes he were from a country with a different power distance. Credit: SF State

    Countries with high PD 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 results make sense, Matsumoto said, given the importance of displaying dominance to establishing status and hierarchy within a group so that the group operates efficiently. Countries that place a greater emphasis on hierarchy have a greater need for body language that helps establish power and status. But such actions can be seen in many different types of groups, he added.

    "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."

    Additional research is needed to see if the results can be replicated across other contexts, Matsumoto said. He is also hoping to further study when these types of behaviors occur and what triggers them, as well as collect additional data to bolster the theory that triumph is a separate expression from pride.


    The results of this study are a little obvious, but a fertile field on which to carry it forward is American Football. "Taunting" and "excessive celebration" are now punished, and there are those (my husband) who insist that the penalties are distributed along racial lines. While he agrees that there is a cultural element in terms of who is more or less repressed, he also insists that the punishments handed out are distributed in a biased fashion and that the whole concept that celebration should be punished in sports where there are more black players is racially biased. An example of the whole dynamic would be that "white" sports like baseball and hockey do not have similar penalties.

    People don't cut block, facemask or spear-helmet in baseball and if Latinos are now considered 'white' it is just sociology making stuff up again. And you think hockey does not have penalties? It has more penalties than any sport in the world.

    Your husband's unsubstantiated beliefs aside, there is no evidence that black men are punished more or differently in football. And it's a multi-hundred-billion industry so if someone could get evidence for racist penalties in football, or even get close enough to file a lawsuit and hope for a settlement, they would.
    Interesting. I said "similar penalties", i.e. penalties against gestures of dominance, not penalties in general, and I said someone should study it because my husband's suspicions are unsubstantiated. Maybe, it there were some data, he would be proven wrong. Personally, I made the post in hopes that the authors of this study would get the data and my husband might be out of a rant. And no one said anything about latinos being white; race in America isn't a black or white issue. KInda shows where your mind is.

    You're the person who made skin color the issue in penalties.
    No, I raised the question, it would be the officials who make skin color an issue in penalties, if they do, which they may not. No one knows until someone collects the data.

    Why do you think there are excessive celebration penalties in football and no where else? Really, I am wondering if you have an explanation.

    Because in baseball, if you do it, you get a 95 MPH fastball behind your ears. And in hockey you get slammed into the boards. Football would prefer high-paid players not break their hands on polycarbonate helmets so they prevent fighting by penalizing excessive celebration. It has zero to do with race.  Saying there needs to be data to show their isn't racism in celebration penalties is not how things work; it would be like if I told you to prove you are not an alien. Anything you said I could easily deflect, leaving you with the problem of defending yourself from charges of being an alien, despite the fact there is no evidence you are. 

    Do you see the problem?
    I see the problem, alright.

    I go a bit more indepth about this and all about how winning is done and what commitment means to atheletes if anyone's interested on