The Body Language of Victory

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

Posted Jan 12, 2014

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.

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?

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?'"

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

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.

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.

"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

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. 

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:

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