Smiles of Victory and Frowns of Defeat May Be Hard-Wired in Human Brains

By Eliza Strickland | December 30, 2008 8:52 am

athletes expressionsThe facial expressions that register human joy and disappointment may be hard-wired into our brains, according to a new study. To probe the origins of smiles and scowls, psychologist David Matsumoto and his team compared 4,800 photographs, capturing the expressions of sighted and blind judo athletes at medal ceremonies at the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games. In each case, the faces of gold and silver medal winning athletes were scrutinised [BBC News].

The researchers found that both the blind and sighted gold medal winners produced joyful smiles known as Duchenne smiles, in which the cheek muscles rise and the muscles around the eyes crease. In contrast, both blind and sighted silver medal winners initially showed sadness, with their mouths turned down, but put on “social smiles” that use only the mouth muscles when they received their medals.

This study, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is not the first to posit that facial expressions are innate, but it provides some of the strongest evidence yet to support that theory. Researchers have found it difficult to refute the idea that babies learn how to smile from the parents that beam down at them, as almost everyone experiences these visual cues–except for blind babies. “Individuals blind from birth could not have learned to control their emotions in this way through visual learning, so there must be another mechanism,” Matsumoto said. “It could be that our emotions, and the systems to regulate them, are vestiges of our evolutionary ancestry” [LiveScience].

The findings build on previous research in which Matsumoto studied the body language of blind athletes, and found that their body language in victory and defeat mirrored that of sighted athletes–blind runners also raised their arms in the air in triumph when they felt their chest break the tape, while the losers slumped their shoulders in disappointment.

Related Content:
80beats: Body Language of Winners and Losers Could be Innate
80beats: Facial Expressions Provide an Evolutionary Boost

Image: Bob Willingham

  • Carol Strickland

    Happy Birthday to 80 Beats writer Eliza Strickland (joyful smile)!

  • Larian LeQuella

    Hippo Birdie Two Ewe!
    Hippo Birdie Two Ewe!
    Hippo Birdie Deer Eliza!
    Hippo Birdie Two Ewe!

    And Men With Oars!

  • Eliza Strickland

    Gee, thanks!

  • Alan McCright

    David Matsumoto has been pummelling this same deceased equine for over twenty years, ( see, for example, “Matsumoto, David. The role of facial response in the Experience of Emotion: More Methodological Problems and a Meta-Analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. April 1987, vol 52, No.4, 769-774.”)

    Apparently in those twenty-plus years, he hasn’t learned as much about facial expressions as most of had by the time we entered kindergarten. Watch a really old silent movie sometime: The actors knew all this a hundred years ago. It has been my experience that those blind from birth use the same facial expressions you and I do. There you have it–and for free!

    I am reminded of the National Institute for Mental Health, which, some years ago–according to Time Magazine and Senator William Proxmire, who bestowed his “Golden Fleece Award” on those involved–spent $97,000 to study, among other things, what went on in a Peruvian brothel, (um, sex for money? Drinking? Carousing? I could have told you that for a lot less than $97,000–in fact, I just did.) Dr. George Primov made some 20 visits to a San Tutis brothel to further his “study.” Primov maintains he didn’t spend much money in the brothel and, of course, *I* believe him, don’t you? I’m sure it was all in the name of science and completely above board. BUT–shouldn’t this study have been funded by the *Peruvian* Government? Unless you have a desperate psychological urge to visit Peruvian brothels, why, as an American taxpayer should you fund such a thing?

    There was also the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration study which spent nearly $27,000 to determine why inmates want to escape from prison.

    Sadly, the list of such outrageous nonsense seems endless.

    To think of all the serious, work in non-intuitive fields that could have been funded in the past few decades had the money not been wasted to support hack PhDs and their kid’s dentists.

    I have an hypothesis that cries out for testing: I believe that the sky may be blue–with some variation–in OTHER parts of the world, not just mine. Since I–and my beautiful assistant–will have to travel to London, Paris, Rome, Acapulco, Cabo San Lucas and other parts of the globe to gather sufficient data to prove or disprove this hypothesis, I will need some major-league funding. Only serious governmental agencies with deep pockets–and no grasp of real science whatsoever–need apply.

  • Amber

    Not all blind kids smile, though. Some do. My son, blind from birth, certainly does. My friend’s daughter, also blind from birth, makes almost no facial expressions at all, but still tells the funniest jokes. Mike May (blind from the age of 3), in the book Crashing Through, talks about having to learn to make facial expressions. I’d say there is a part of the brain involved here, something we don’t quite understand yet, and anything that sheds light on our evolutionary past or how our brains work is legitimate study as far as I’m concerned.


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