Are some nonverbal gestures ‘biologically innate?’

The NY Times reports

Scientists have long assumed that the universally recognized nonverbal expressions associated with pride and shame are not innate, but rather acquired through interaction with other people. But a new study of athletes at the 2004 Olympics and Paralympics suggests that in fact, those gestures may be biologically based.

The researchers [Jessica Tracy of the University of British Columbia and David Matsumoto of San Francisco State University] examined the spontaneous reactions of blind and sighted athletes from 37 countries. All were photographed during and immediately after a match, and the images were later coded for pride- and shame-related behaviors. (To guard against bias, neither the photographers nor the students who coded the images knew the subject of the research.)

In an article in the Aug. 19 issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers reported that blind athletes’ behavior and gestures on winning and losing were remarkably similar to those of sighted athletes.

The study’s abstract reads as follows:

The present research examined whether the recognizable nonverbal expressions associated with pride and shame may be biologically innate behavioral responses to success and failure. Specifically, we tested whether sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals across cultures spontaneously display pride and shame behaviors in response to the same success and failure situations—victory and defeat at the Olympic or Paralympic Games. Results showed that sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals from >30 nations displayed the behaviors associated with the prototypical pride expression in response to success. Sighted, blind, and congenitally blind individuals from most cultures also displayed behaviors associated with shame in response to failure. However, culture moderated the shame response among sighted athletes: it was less pronounced among individuals from highly individualistic, self-expression-valuing cultures, primarily in North America and West Eurasia. Given that congenitally blind individuals across cultures showed the shame response to failure, findings overall are consistent with the suggestion that the behavioral expressions associated with both shame and pride are likely to be innate, but the shame display may be intentionally inhibited by some sighted individuals in accordance with cultural norms.


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