Victory Gestures: Science Discovers A New Emotion

Pyschologists examine the post-victory gestures of Olympic athletes and discover a new emotion – triumph. How does it differ from pride and how do you recognize it? Science shows us.

Many athletes react with some sort of gesture after earning a victory, like throwing up their arms or clenching their fists. These victory gestures were formerly lumped into the official emotion of “pride.” However, a recent study published in Evolution and Human Behavior suggests that victory gestures are conveying signals of triumph, not pride. Little research has previously been conducted on triumph as an emotion and new research suggests that triumph may be an emotion after all.1

A previous study conducted on the athletes in the 2008 Olympic Games suggested expressions of pride and shame are universal and apparent in all humans. David Matsumoto, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, performed a more recent study to investigate whether some of the expressions deemed as pride in 2008 were actually forms of triumph.2

The participants of the study were from two different cultures, the United States and South Korea, and each were shown photos of judo competitors from seventeen different countries who had just medaled at the 2004 Olympic Games. They were given a list of emotions and asked to judge what the emotion was being demonstrated. Research has shown South Korean culture is different than the United States in that it values collectivism more than individual achievement and rights, and includes social rules that refrain from showing emotion. All of the observers still chose the same expressions as a representation of triumph.3

In the photographs that were labeled triumph, athletes raised their arms above the shoulders, clenched their fists, and their faces showed grimaces or yelling. The photographs that were labeled as pride, portrayed athletes who held their arms out from their body with their hands open, tilted their head back and their face showed a small smile. On average, triumph expressions occurred four seconds after completion of a judo match, and pride expressions were portrayed on an average of sixteen seconds after completion of competition.4

“We found that displays of triumph include different behaviors to those of pride and occur more immediately after a victory or win,” said Matsumoto. “Triumph has its own signature expression that is immediate, automatic and universal across cultures. One of the biggest differences between triumph and pride can be seen in the face,” Matsumoto said. “When someone feels triumphant after a contest or challenge, their face can look quite aggressive. It’s like Michael Phelps’ reaction after winning the 2008 Olympics. It looks quite different to the small smile we see when someone is showing pride.”5

As the Olympic Games in London loom, all spectators will get a chance to view the emotions of pride and triump for themselves. Matsumoto explained, “Watch that immediate reaction in the first few seconds after an athlete has won their medal match – no matter what the sport is – and you’ll see this triumph response from athletes all around the world, regardless of culture.”6

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