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Pride and shame displays “universal”

Aug. 11, 2008
Courtesy PNAS
and World Science staff

Blind ath­letes who have nev­er seen a vic­to­ry celebra­t­ion raise their arms in tri­umph when they win and slump their shoul­ders when they lose, much like sight­ed ath­letes, re­search­ers have found.

The dis­cov­ery, they add, sug­gests both pride and shame and their ex­pres­sions are bi­o­log­ic­ally hard-wired “u­ni­ver­sals.”

An athlete blind since birth shows a “pride” res­ponse. (Image cour­tesy Jes­sica Tracy/PNAS)


“Both are as­so­ci­at­ed with dis­tinct, cross-cul­tur­ally rec­og­nized non­ver­bal ex­pres­sions, which re­sem­ble the dom­i­nance and sub­mis­sion dis­plays shown by non­hu­man pri­mates,” the sci­en­tists wrote in re­port­ing their find­ings. 

The stu­dy, to ap­pear in this week’s early on­line edi­tion of the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tio­n­al Aca­de­my of Sci­en­ces, is by Jes­si­ca L. Tra­cy of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia, Can­a­da and Da­vid Mat­sumoto of San Fran­cis­co State Uni­ver­s­ity in Cal­i­for­nia.

The pair an­a­lyzed im­ages tak­en dur­ing ju­do com­pe­ti­tion in the 2004 Olym­pic and Par­a­lym­pic Games. The Par­a­lym­pics are a version of the Olym­pics for dis­abled ath­letes. 

The researchers watched wheth­er win­ners in­dulged in tri­umphant be­hav­iors like tilt­ing the head back, rais­ing the arms, or ex­pand­ing the chest—and wheth­er the de­feated, con­verse­ly, hid the face or nar­rowed the chest. 

The re­search­ers al­so con­sid­ered how the ath­letes’ re­ac­tions var­ied with their na­tional­ities. This anal­y­sis in­clud­ed es­tima­t­ions of where their coun­try stood on three “ax­es” of cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence: col­lec­tiv­ism vs. in­di­vid­u­al­ism, tra­di­tion­al vs. secular-ra­t­ional val­ues, and sub­sist­ence vs. self-ex­pres­sion.

In vic­to­ry, blind and sight­ed acted alike, the re­search­ers wrote. But in de­feat, a dif­fer­ence ap­peared: sight­ed ath­letes from West­ern coun­tries that es­pouse in­di­vid­u­al­ism, such as the Un­ited States, were less likely to show shame. The psy­chol­o­gists sug­gest blind ath­letes across all cul­tures showed the shame re­sponse af­ter a loss. But West­ern ath­letes, they added, held back its dis­play be­cause of cul­tur­al norms that stig­ma­tize shame in fa­vor of self-as­ser­tive­ness.


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Blind athletes who have never seen a victory celebration raise their arms in triumph when they win and slump their shoulders when they lose similarly to sighted athletes, researchers have found. The discovery, they add, suggests that both pride and shame, along with their expressions are biologically hard-wired, “universals.” “Both are associated with distinct, cross-culturally recognized nonverbal expressions, which resemble the dominance and submission displays shown by nonhuman primates,” the scientists wrote in reporting their findings. The study, to appear in this week’s early online edition of the research journal pnas, is by Jessica L. Tracy of the University of British Columbia, Canada and David Matsumoto of San Francisco State University in California. The pair analyzed images taken during judo competition in the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The objective: to see whether winners indulged in triumphant behaviors like tilting the head back, raising the arms, or expanding the chest—and whether the defeated, conversely, hid the face or narrowed the chest. The researchers also considered how the athlete’s reactions varied with the nationality of the athletes. This analysis included estimations of where their country stood on three “axes” of cultural difference: collectivism vs. individualism, traditional vs. secular-rational values, and subsistence vs. self-expression. In victory, blind and sighted acted alike, vigorously demonstrating their feelings, the researchers wrote. But in defeat, a difference appeared: sighted athletes from Western countries that espouse individualism, such as the United States, were less likely to show shame. The psychologists suggest blind athletes across all cultures showed the shame response after a loss. But Western athletes, they added, held back its display because of cultural norms that stigmatize shame in favor of self-assertiveness.