Apes and Olympians Celebrate the Same Way

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In a classic display of triumph, this nonverbal expression is universal across cultures.
Bob Willingham FRPS

THE GIST

- Olympian displays of pride and triumph, such as fist pumps, are universal and seen in all cultures.

- The displays have their roots in non-human primate visual communication.

- The movements affect both the individual and onlookers.

Fist pumps, hands in the air and jumping up and down, seen at every event at the Olympics, turn out to be the same across all cultures and likely have their roots in non-human primate displays.

When Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas and Usain Bolt celebrate their wins, they are displaying a declaration of success that could date back to the earliest human societies and beyond, according to a new study that has been accepted for publication in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

"There is evidence for similar behavior in primates," lead author David Matsumoto told Discovery News. "In non-human primates, there are similar behaviors involving body enlargement, although with different hardware."

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Matsumoto, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, and colleague Hyi Sung Hwang, identified displays of both triumph and pride at the Olympics. The fist-pump-chest-thrust move makes the individual look large and powerful. This expansive posture boosts testosterone, decreases levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), and increases feelings of power and risk tolerance.

"We believe that the triumph expression signals victory and achievement, which in turn signals dominance and aids in establishing status in a hierarchy," Matsumoto explained. "This enables social coordination and enhances reproductive success."

The pride display is slightly different than triumph. For pride, the person generally has an open stance with arms to the side or akimbo. The chest is out and the head is slightly back. Often the person smiles slightly, as if the athlete is thinking, "Oh yeah. I'm good."

The researchers think that pride may be related to evaluations of self in connection with achievement, whereas triumph may be more specific to victory over others. A person can display both pride and triumph, which could help to explain why the gestures sometimes intermix. The athlete, for example, might raise his or her arms with no fist pumps -- only the sly "I did it" smile.

For the study, the researchers showed participants photographs of judo competitors from 17 countries. The athletes, snapped by the International Judo Federation photographer, had just won a medal match at the 2004 Olympic Games. The participants, who came from either the U.S. or South Korea, were asked to judge the emotion portrayed in each image.

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Across multiple studies, the observers consistently chose the same expressions as representations of either triumph or pride. These now add to universal expressive behaviors among all humans. So far, that list includes anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise.

"There is some evidence for embarrassment and shame as well," Matsumoto said.

Mark Frank, a professor who is the director of the Communication Science Center at the University of Buffalo, told Discovery News that he "very much agrees with the conclusions."

In terms of the origins of triumph-and-pride displays, Frank said "that there is likely some other primate (Homo or non-human) linkage. It may be some anger/effort burn off (e.g., in anger there is some redirect of blood to the periphery and upper body). You see this gesture in many sports -- hockey, football, basketball -- so it goes beyond just contact sports."

The expression could then emerge from relief combined with the residual energy that was required to overcome the obstacle. For example, swimmer Michael Phelps might display triumph after pushing himself to go faster than his competitors.

Both Frank and Matsumoto, however, indicate that further research is needed to pinpoint the origins and to better understand the displays. Unanswered questions, for example, concern possible differences between men and women, and differences between spontaneous versus thought-out displays of triumph.

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