The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

The Body Language of Victory

An athlete’s primal reaction to victory is often a dominance threat display.

A new study from San Francisco State University (SFSU) has found that milliseconds after victory, an athlete's instinctive reaction to winning is often a nonverbal display of dominance over his or her opponent. The new study titled “Dominance Threat Display for Victory and Achievement in Competition Context” was published January 10, 2014 in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

The body language of victory—known as a "dominance threat display" and labeled as "triumph" in other studies—was analyzed in winners of Olympic and Paralympic judo matches. "We see these behaviors occur, like the chest out, torso pushed out, the head titled back, arms raised above the shoulders, a hand in fist, a punching motion, and the face either grimacing or showing aggression and anger," said David Matsumoto SFSU Professor of Psychology, who co-authored the study with Hyisung Hwang.

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The researchers believe that from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, the reflex of dominance threat display stems from a biological drive to establish order, hierarchy, and status in society. Such bodily reactions are also common among animals, but they have never been studied in humans until now, Matsumoto said.

To study dominance threat display in humans, Hwang and Matsumoto looked at the first body motion made by an athlete upon learning he or she was victorious, determined whether that action was among those considered to constitute "triumph," and 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, suggesting the behavior is biologically innate.

Who’s the Boss Around Here?

"Many animals seem to have a dominant threat display that involves making their body look larger," Matsumoto said. "The alpha male goes to fight the other in a group and kills the other; the alpha male then shows that victory by enlarging the body and giving a roar, signalling, 'Don’t screw with me.'"

While dozens of different behaviors were coded in judo competitors right at the moment of winning or losing a match, a consistent behavior among the victors was the displaying of an enlarged body with aggressive facial contortions, Matsumoto said. "It's like saying, 'Who's the boss?'"

Previous studies observed blind athletes and discovered identical nonverbal displays of triumph and dominance threat display moments after victory. Matsumoto—who coached the 1996 and 2000 U.S. Olympic judo teams—references a specific study of congenitally blind judo players from the 2004 Paralympics that  showed the same innate dominance threat displays.

"They're also producing the same facial expressions, even though they've never been able to see from birth," he added. "They didn't learn that from watching others, so it's got to be something ingrained in all of us." Amy Cuddy talks about this study in her TED lecture “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” along with many valuable insights on the power of changing your body language to change your mindset and outcomes in your life.

Matsumoto also observed that the intensity of the aggressive displays from athletic champions appeared to differ across cultures. One theory is that the expressions of triumph might depend on the "power distance" of a person's cultural background or nationality. Power Distance Index (or PDI) is part of Geert Hofstede's "Cultural Dimensions Theory" and is a measurement that represents the degree to which a culture encourages or discourages power, status or hierarchy.

Dominance Threat Displays from Wimbledon to The Masters 

Over decades of athletic competition, I have seen many various dominance threat displays at the finish line of races and on tennis courts. The shorter and more anaerobic the distance—or the more intense the adrenaline and testosterone—the more likely it seems that there will be a dominant threat display. It’s interesting to note that regardless of how ‘gentlemanly’ or sportsmanlike a competitor consciously aspires to be, there are going to be primal dominance threat displays whether it’s on The Masters golf course in Augusta, or on the grass courts at Wimbledon.

Christopher Bergland Winning a Triple Ironman
After reading this study, I looked at this picture of my own body language crossing the finish line to win a Triple Ironman (7.2-mile swim, 336-mile bike, 78.6-mile run) through a different lens. It’s embarrassing to admit... but even though I had been going non-stop for 38 hours and was totally wiped out—it’s clear to me that at the finish line I am purposely doing a ‘proud peacock’ pose by flexing my fists to accentuate my deltoids and pushing out my chest trying to make my body look bigger. Even though I'm smiling, this is a cliché nonverbal posturing of dominance threat display, triumph, and pride.

In a separate study published in November 2013, Hwang and Matsumoto found that an athlete's culture affects the intensity with which he or she displays this body language. "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 Matsumoto and Hwang's previous research, observers labeled the body language of athletes seen in victorious poses as "triumph" and established triumph as potentially being a separate expression from pride, which requires more cognitive thinking and reflection. The new study, however, is the first to ask whether expressions of triumph are the immediate reaction of an athlete following victory.

Dominance Threat Display and Power Distance

"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.

Matsumoto believes that these statistics make sense given the need to display dominance in order to establish status in countries that place a greater emphasis on hierarchy or have a greater need for body language that helps establish power and status. But he agrees that the power of body language and nonverbal communication is universal and influences everyone from all different groups.

"Other researchers have created a way to measure how different cultures are status-oriented versus egalitarian. We took their data for different countries and correlated it with our data," Matsumoto said. "Nations on the higher end of the PD spectrum may have a greater need for people to exhibit body language showing power and status," he added.

According to the researchers, countries with highest power display include Malaysia, Slovakia and Romania, while countries lower on the PDI include Israel, Austria and Finland. The United States and United Kingdom fall in the middle of the PDI, along with countries such as Hungary, Iran and Italy.

Conclusion: The Pros and Cons of Dominance Threat Display

During almost every speech we see politicians using body language, hand gestures and facial expressions to rally a crowd and try to win elections. The most effective politicians are masters of nonverbal communication and persuading voters with body language and using triump gestures and dominance threat display tactfully.

Matsumoto said, "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 concludes, "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." I have to slightly disagree with Matsumoto's conclusion that people who yell or are stern will automatically be seen as the leader in a group. Losing your temper is always a recipe for disaster. 

As Amy Cuddy points out in her TED lecture, the ideal leader has high testosterone and low cortisol which leads to a combination of confidence, low stress, and grace under pressure. I believe that the key to successful leadership lies in being able to maintain what I call “ferocious equanimity.” By this I mean not being a doormat or pushover, but remaining even-keel and calm as you steadily manage and lead your team through both smooth waters and tempests.

Additional research is needed to see if these results can be replicated across other contexts. Matsumoto concludes that, “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.”

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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