In 2007, one Jamie Langridge became $50,000 richer after winning intense national tournament in Las Vegas. Langridge beat his opponent decisively, with a classic open-hand technique. The sport? Rock-paper-scissors.
Rock-paper-scissors seems deceptively simple. Pairs of opponents display one of three hand gestures. Paper covers rock, rock blunts scissors, and scissors cut paper. It’s so straightforward that children the world over learn to play it. But this is not just a game of chance. Played at the highest level, it becomes a game of psychological strategy, one that justifies five-figure trophies in large competitions and even the publication of strategy guides.
Such advanced games are possible because people don’t choose their hand shapes randomly. They are affected by moves that have gone before, and what other people are doing. Consider a new experiment by Richard Cook at University College London. Cook asked 45 people to face off against each other in several rounds of rock-paper-scissors, in exchange for real money. In every game, either one or both players were blindfolded.
Cook found that the players drew with each other more often when one of them could see (36.3% of the matches) than when both were blindfolded (33.3% of them). The latter figure was exactly the proportion of draws you’d expect if the players were choosing randomly; the former was significantly higher than chance.
Anyone currently following the World Cup, Wimbledon, or any of the many sporting events around the world will know the emotional highs and lows that they can produce. But these events wield even more power than we think. According to Andrew Healy from Loyola Marymount University, sports results can even swing the outcome of an election.
In the US, if a local college football team wins a match in the ten days before a Senate, gubernatiorial or even presidential election, the incumbent candidate tends to get a slightly higher proportion of the vote. This advantage is particularly potent if the team has a strong fan-base and if they were the underdogs. Healy’s study provides yet more evidence that voting decisions aren’t just based on objective and well-reasoned analysis, despite their importance in democratic societies. They can be influenced by completely irrelevant events, putting the fate of politicians into the hands (or feet) of sportsmen.
Healy says that a victory by a local team puts sports fans in a generally positive frame of mind. If they approach the ballot box in this way, they’re more likely to think well of the incumbent party, to interpret their past record more positively, and to be more content with the status quo. The same effect, where emotions cross the boundaries between different judgments, has been seen countless times before in laboratory studies.
You may have seen rowing before, but I guarantee you that you know little about the sport unless you went to university at Cambridge or Oxford. There you will find a subspecies of human known as the “boatie” who seem perfectly happy to gather en masse at godforsaken times of the morning to paddle about on a river. In the rain. In winter. With a hangover. Later, in the pub, they will spend innumerable hours discussing their training schedules, talking about “catching crabs” without a hint of irony and comparing blisters.
For those of us who wondered what could possess grown men and women to forgo the comfort of a bed for several painful hours in the company of eight grunting companions, Emma Cohen from Oxford has some answers.
Group activities, such as rowing in an ‘eight’, increases the pain thresholds of the individual athletes, compared to rowing alone. These raised thresholds are probably the result of endorphins, natural pain-killing chemicals that our brains release when we exercise. Endorphins also produce a light euphoria and a sense of wellbeing that is important for bonding with our friends and peers, and gluing a group of rowers together, despite the smell and pain.
Cohen worked with a dozen men from the University’s rowing squad and asked them to complete 45 minutes of continuous rowing on an ergometer – a gym machine that simulates the rowing experience and that crews use to train out of the river. They rowed for two sessions, either alone or in a “virtual boat” consisting of eight athletes using ergometers side by side.
When sportsmen use rackets or bats, their best bet is to hit a ball on the “sweet spot”, the point where various forces balance out to deliver powerful blows with only very small forces on the wielder’s wrist. Engineers have the right tools and models to work out where this spot lies on their instruments. Now, palaeontologists have used the same techniques to study biological hammers that adorn the tails of giant prehistoric armadillos called glyptodonts.
At first glance, glyptodonts have little in common with the likes of Andy Murray and Roger Federer. These armoured beasts lived in the Americas several million years ago and the largest of them weighed up to two tons. Much like their modern armadillo relatives, they were clad in large suits of bony armour. Their long tails were similarly protected by bony rings and in some species, they were topped with large clubs, or spiky weapons that resembled medieval morning stars.
Uruguayan scientist Rudemar Ernesto Blanco was set about studying the tail clubs of the most formidable of the glyptodonts, by using the same approaches used to analyse sports tools. The analogy is particularly appropriate for species like Doedicurus, where the rings at the end of the tail were completely fused, meaning that the animal’s rear end was defended by a single metre-long piece of solid bone – a biological hammer, indeed.
When wielding this weapon, whether against a predator or a fellow glyptodont, it would be in the animal’s interest to strike at the sweet spot of its own tail to reduce the forces acting on the part of the tail where the bony tip met the more flexible base. Otherwise, it might have risked severe strain and damage. To find the locations of these spots, Blanco applied sports modelling techniques to the tails of nine species of glyptodonts.
In the world of horse-racing, the horses understandably get all the attention but much of the thrill of today’s races depends on the jockeys. Their modern riding posture – the so-called Martini glass – has led to a dramatic improvement in race times, by making things much easier on their horses.
Modern horse-racing has been going on for over two centuries, but in its earliest days, jockeys would ride vertically. The modern, crouched style was only developed in the late 19th century in the US. By 1897, it has been adopted in the UK and by 1910, it was a global phenomenon. The new posture clearly had benefits for the horses for in the few decades after its introduction, race times improved by 5-7%, more than they did in the subsequent century.
You might think that crouching down speeds up races simply by reducing drag on the horse, but not so. Jockeys may be bent over but they still sit fairly high on their mounts, much higher than, say, a track cyclist does on theirs. This high posture means that from the front, the total area of horse and rider doesn’t change very much between the upright and modern riding styles. Less than 2% of the total work done by the horse’s muscles is spent on overcoming this extra drag.
Instead, Thilo Pfau at London’s Royal Veterinary College has found that the uncomfortable stance greatly reduces the burden on the horse by uncoupling its movements from those of its rider.
Tune into the Olympic coverage over the next few weeks, and you will see many an athlete proudly raise their arms and head in victory, while a much larger number slump their shoulders and necks in defeat. We’ve all shown the same body language ourselves, and a new study reveals why – they are innate and universal behaviours, performed by humans all over the world in response to success and failure.
The discovery comes from Jessica Tracy from the University of British Columbia and David Matsumoto from San Francisco State University, who wanted to see how people across different cultures express feelings of pride and shame. In particular, they wanted to know whether these expressions are instinctive, or whether they are cultural oddities that we learn through observation.
But how to find out? We humans are very good at picking up behaviours from each other, which makes it very hard for a researcher to tell if an action is learned or innate. What Tracy and Matusmoto needed was a large group of people from all over the world, who they could watch as they went through the motions of success and failure. And it was critically important that some of these subjects had never seen other people reacting to success or failure before – if they had, it would be impossible to confirm if the actions are inborn. Where could such a group of people be found?
The answer was Athens, during the 2004 Olympic Games. Its sister competition – the Paralympics – included many athletes who were born blind, and could not possibly have witnessed how their peers reacted to winning and losing.
For a sportsman, sometimes pay to have the referee seeing red. In some sports, a simple red garment can give an athlete a competitive advantage because the striking hues draws the focus of the referee. With a delightfully simple but beautifully crafted experiment, Norbert Hagemann at the University of Munster found that refs have a tendency to award more points to red-garbed competitiors.
Three years ago, Russell Hill and Robert Barton found that in boxing, tae kwon do and wrestling, contestants who wore red are more likely to win their bouts. They reasoned that red – the colour of anger and aggression – gives athletes who don it a psychological boost that brings victory that much closer.
An interesting idea, but a later study by Candy Rowe showed that there’s nothing special about red. She found that in judo, where players wear either blue or white suits, it’s blue that grants the advantage. Her theory was that white suits are brighter than the blue ones and more strongly contrasted against the background. That gives the blue competitors a edge when it comes to following and anticipating their opponents’ moves.
But Hagemann rejects both ideas. His explanation has nothing to do with the players at all, and everything to do with people who don’t take part but wield massive influence over the outcomes of competitive sports – the referees. They’re frequently forced to make very difficult decisions under less-than-ideal conditions. Under these tough circumstances, small biases in their perceptions – like a tendency to look at the more striking colour – may come into play.