Team Celebration and Performance

Small acts of celebration have large effects on team performance.

Posted Dec 23, 2010

Come on, come on, come on,
Come on now, touch me babe.
Can't you see that I am not afraid?
- The Doors (1969)



I encounter many difficult choices in my life. For example, should I work on my current research project or watch a basketball game on television? The basketball game often wins out, to the detriment of my professional career. But I just read a fascinating study by researchers at Berkeley showing that this particular dilemma can be resolved by having it both ways: Watch the game in order to do the research!

Psychologists Michael Kraus, Cassy Huang, and Dacher Keltner (2010) were interested in trust and cooperation among group members and the effects on group performance. That a group high on trust and cooperation would perform better, all things being equal, than a group low seems obvious (cf. the United States Congress), but what made this research notable is that Kraus and colleagues drew on ethology to investigate a possible determinant of trust and cooperation: the extent to which group members deliberately touched one another. Our nonhuman primate cousins may spend up to 20% of their waking hours grooming one another, and grooming leads to many benefits for the group, including trust and cooperation. Is something similar at work among humans?

Most of us do not groom or even touch our colleagues at work, at least not if we want to keep our jobs, but sports are an exception. Players in games like basketball often celebrate with various forms of touching, many well-known enough to have earned their own names: e.g., fist bumps, high fives, chest bumps, leaping shoulder bumps, chest punches, head slaps, head grabs, low fives, high tens, half hugs, and team huddles.

Players and teams differ in the extent to which they touch in these ways, and the Berkeley researchers watched National Basketball Association games from early in the 2008-2009 season and coded the extent of touch between and among teammates*. These codes were then related to how well the players cooperated with one another during games from later in the season by coding such cooperation indices as talking to teammates, pointing or gesturing, passing the ball, helping out on defense, and setting screens. Cooperation was then related to individual and team performance, assessed objectively by scoring and victories.

The research was meticulously done, with different groups of coders assessing touching and cooperating. Reading between the lines, I suspect that the coders had a lot of fun doing the research. I know I would have.

Results were clean and clear. Even taking into account possible confounds, such as player status (i.e., salary), preseason expectations for the team, and early season performance by the team, early-season touching robustly predicted later-season cooperation, which in turn robustly predicted later-season performance.

As the researchers concluded, even small acts of celebration, as they accumulate, can have large effects on team performance. The take-home message is simple: Celebrate with those in your family or class or neighborhood or workplace, in whatever ways make sense within your group. Good things may result.

There is no "I" in touch.

* Players particularly high in touch included many of the most acclaimed players in the National Basketball Association: Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Shane Battier, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce. (Thanks to Michael Kraus for providing this information.)


Kraus, M. W., Huang, C., & Keltner, D. (2010). Tactile communication, cooperation, and performance: An ethological study of the NBA. Emotion, 10, 745-749.