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60-Second Mind

Olympic Gold Medal: Is the Body Language of Triumph (or Defeat) Biological?

A study published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA concludes that our reaction to Olympic victory is innate. Christie Nicholson reports

[Below is the original script. But a few changes may have been made during the recording of this audio podcast.]


When watching the Olympics over the next two weeks we'll recognize the signs of a winning athlete: raised arms with closed fists shot into the air—and the loser, who stands unassuming, yet betraying deflation with a subtle slump in posture.

Recently, researchers from the University of British Columbia wanted to find out if we, whenever we win or lose, are biologically driven to display the result.

After all, similar exhibitions are recorded in monkeys, rabbits, elephants, crayfish and other species.

They measured the spontaneous behavior in response to winning and losing at the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games in 140 athletes from 37 countries.

What they found was that all winning athletes showed more expositions of pride: heads tilted back, chests puffed out, arms raised punching the air. The losers narrowed their chests, and their shoulders slumped.

But here's the interesting variable that provides evidence for possible biological underpinnings: 53 of the studied competitors were blind. And still, they displayed identical responses without having seen pride and shame expressions.

Curiously, the congenitally blind athletes revealed the greatest response to losing, but sighted Olympians showed a weaker reaction to defeat. Perhaps the latter were more conscious of trying to hide visual clues that exposed their broken confidence.

—Christie Nicholson

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