The amazing consistency of physical expressions in dealing with pride, as well as for shame, has fascinated many scientists.
What do cricketers do when they hit a century? They spread their arms out from their bodies and look up to the skies, expressing pride. The expression of a footballer who just missed an easy penalty is very different but almost as predictable. The hands are quickly placed behind the head and the head bends downward, indicative of the player feeling shameful. The amazing consistency of physical expressions in dealing with pride, as well as for shame, has fascinated many scientists.
Some researchers decided to explore this consistency in behaviour. They wanted to find out whether we are born with a tendency to spread our arms out when we are happy or do we do that because we have seen other people do that so many times. Fortunately for them, there were videos of athletes born blind performing at athletic events such as the Paralympics. Due to being born blind, the athletes have had no opportunity to see and imitate expressions of others upon winning and losing. Yet, most of them spread their arms out and presented with an expanded chest upon winning, whereas those who learnt about their loss had drooping shoulders and looked downward. So, it appears that our minds are biologically programmed to react in a certain way to situations, and we humans are simply acting accordingly most of the time!
As with many things about human behaviour, we can turn to Charles Darwin for some insights. Darwin had observed that opposite emotions evoke the opposite physical expressions. This observation, called the ‘antithesis’, suggests that if you raise your eyebrows when surprised, disinterest would likely lower them. If we consider pride and shame as opposite emotions, on-field physical expressions seem to agree with Darwin’s antithesis.
It is interesting to relate these to advice on what not to do when confronted by a wild animal such as a tiger. The standard advice is that one should never narrow the chest, look down or stoop low. Maybe the tiger will quickly understand that as the shame posture, think you have already accepted defeat, and would quickly attack you or eat you!
(Dr Deepak P. is a computer scientist and academic staff at Queen's University Belfast, UK.URL: http://member.acm.org/~deepaksp)