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.
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.