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Triumphant Body Language Evolved to Reinforce Hierarchy

Update Date: Jan 10, 2014 07:35 PM EST

Dominance is the first reaction athletes experience during victory, a new study reveals. Body language known as  "dominance threat display" or "triumph" is often observed in winners of Olympic and Paralympic judo matches. Researchers believe that this type of body language is innate and stems from an evolutionary need to establish order and hierarchy in society.

Lead researchers David Matsumoto and Hyisung Hwang also found that culture affects the intensity with which athletes display this kind of 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," Matsumoto said in a news release.

Researchers labeled the body language of athletes seen in victorious poses as "triumph". They hypothesized that triumph is separate expression from pride, which requires more cognitive thinking and reflection.

To test their theory, researchers examined the first body motion made by an athlete upon learning he or she was victorious, determined whether that action was considered "triumphant," and rated the intensity of the action on a five-point scale. Triumphant actions include raising the arms above the shoulders, pushing the chest out, tilting the head back and smiling. Researchers believe these actions are biologically innate because they were observed in winning athletes from all cultural backgrounds and even in blind Paralympic athletes.

"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."

After comparing the intensity of an athlete's expressions of triumph with his or her culture's "power distance" (PD), researchers found that athletes from cultures with high PD produced such body language more than those from cultures with low PD. PD is a measurement that determines the degree to which a culture encourages or discourages power, status and hierarchical differences among groups. Countries with high PD include Malaysia, Slovakia and Romania, while countries with low PD include Israel, Austria and Finland. Countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Italy fall in the middle of the PD spectrum.

Researchers said that findings support dominance in the real world. Displaying dominance and establishing status and hierarchy within a group helps a group operate efficiently.  Societies and groups that place greater emphasis on hierarchy have a greater need for body language that helps establish power and status.

"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 said. "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."

The findings are published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

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