In a bruising encounter with an aggressor, signalling “I give up!” via your submissive body language can be a life saver. At least that’s the case for our primate cousins, and likely too for our human ancestors. For a new study Philip Furley and Geoffrey Schweizer have explored the possibility that this behaviour persists in modern day sporting encounters. Intriguingly, while a loser’s automatic submissive signals may be advantageous in real-life violent contexts, in modern sport they likely backfire.
The researchers showed adult and child participants dozens of silent, three-second clips of winning and losing athletes in table tennis, basketball and handball, and tested whether the observers could tell, based purely on “thin slices” of non-verbal body language, whether each athlete was winning or losing, and by how much (from “far behind” to “high lead”). The clips were taken from the breaks between play. Scores were concealed. And any clips containing explicit emotion, such as shame or pride, were omitted. Here’s an example of the clips used for table-tennis:
The researchers found high levels of accuracy, among young children (aged 4 to 8), older children (age 9 to 12), and adults. That is, the participants’ estimates of whether an athlete was losing or winning, and by how much, tended to correlate with the actual situation, as measured by the (hidden) score at that stage in the contest.
The older kids were no more accurate than the younger kids, but the adults were more accurate than the children. With the handball, the researchers compared the accuracy of participants who were experienced players, with the accuracy of others who knew nothing about handball – and found they performed just the same. This highlights the instinctual nature of these judgments because they weren’t dependent on expert knowledge. However, the fact that adults were superior at the task to children is suggestive of some relevant maturation process occurring during adolescence.
Furley and Schweizer acknowledged that, even with the scores hidden, they can’t entirely rule out the possibility that observers were picking up on some other signals of whether an athlete was winning or losing, beyond the athlete’s body language (in fact in further analysis they found that, when present, coaches’ body language also conveyed this information). But the researchers think signals from anything other than non-verbal body language are unlikely, and it’s in the spirit of open science that they’ve made their video clips freely available for others to investigate further (watch the stimuli for basketball and handball).
Assuming the main finding is accurate – that athlete’s express clear submissive signals when they’re losing – this will surely be of interest to sports psychologists and athletes looking for a competitive edge. Exhibiting submissive non-verbal behaviours could be “highly dysfunctional”, the researchers said, encouraging an opponent to increase pressure. “What makes sense for a primate losing a fight may lead to exacerbating the downward spiral for athletes on the losing side.” This suggests learning to mask submissive body language could be highly advantageous, something Roger Federer and other cool champions appear to have mastered already.
Philip Furley, & Geoffrey Schweizer (2014). The Expression of Victory and Loss: Estimating Who’s Leading or Trailing from Nonverbal Cues in Sports. Journal of Non-verbal Behaviour DOI: 10.1007/s10919-013-0168-7