Blind athletes provide clues about the nature of our emotions.

'Expression of Joy' from 'The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.'

‘Expressions of Joy’ from ‘The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.’

One of the most important ways that we learn how to interact with the world around us is through observational learning. By watching how our friends and family members behave, we learn at a very young age how to do things like turn on a lightbulb, open a door, or play with a doll, without the tedious trial-by-error reinforcement process that would be required if we only learned things through classic behaviorism. With this in mind, it’s only natural to assume that we have learned when to smile politely, wrinkle our noses in disgust, or furrow our brows in anger by watching the people around us react in those ways when presented with similar situations.

'Expressions of Suffering - Weeping' from 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals' London 1872.  Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

‘Expressions of Suffering – Weeping’ from ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.’

But what if observational learning isn’t the only way in which we figure out how to express our emotions? What if those emotional expressions — or at least, some of those expressions — actually come “pre-programmed” into our very nature, and we would make those grimaces, brow-furrows, and polite smiles of thinly-veiled contempt without ever seeing other people make these expressions first?

In a recent study, David Matsumoto and Bob Willingham studied photographs from the Judo competition in the 2004 Olympic Games to examine the athletes’ facial expressions. Predictably, the researchers found that gold and bronze medalists were more likely to display broad smiles and patterns of facial muscle activation that signal genuine happiness, whereas silver medalists were more likely to display “fake” smiles or expressions of contempt and disgust.

This effect had been found in research before, and it wouldn’t have been particularly noteworthy, had it not been for one important fact:

Approximately half of the athletes in the photos were blind. In fact, half of the blind athletes had been so since birth, meaning they had never directly observed another person’s emotional expressions.

The judoka on the left is blind; the one on the right is sighted.

Not only did both congenitally and noncongenitally blind athletes spontaneously produce emotional facial expressions after winning or losing, their expressions were practically identical to those of the sighted athletes. The blind athletes — even those who had never been able to see for a single day in their lives — not only displayed genuine smiles after winning, they also displayed expressions of contempt or politely fake smiles after losing. Somehow, without ever having seen another person’s face, they still knew what to do with their own faces when they won or lost. For researchers who had been arguing that emotions are “hardwired” and emotional displays like smiles or frowns are biologically determined (rather than learned through culture or social interactions), this finding was a big-time win.

The researchers acknowledge that the congenitally blind athletes’ expressions still could have been socially conditioned. Family members and friends could have verbally reinforced appropriate expressions throughout their lives, so this study is not necessarily proof that emotional displays are completely biologically hardwired. However, this study does show that observation is not necessary in order to learn emotional display and regulation. And, for whatever it’s worth, close others would not be able to verbally reinforce appropriate emotional displays if the blind individuals had never spontaneously generated those expressions in the first place. To a certain extent, it seems that the way we display our emotions really might come to us naturally.

Note: This post has been submitted for the NESCent Evolution Themed Blog Contest. The winning posts will receive travel awards to attend ScienceOnline2013 in January. Wish me luck!

Images from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin via the National Media Museum page at the Flicker Commons; there are no known copyright restrictions. Image from the final of the 2007 All-Japan Judo Championship by Gotcha2 via Wikipedia; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Images of the blind and sighted judoka by Bob Willingham.

ResearchBlogging.orgMatsumoto, David, & Willingham, Bob (2009). Spontaneous facial expressions of emotion of congenitally and noncongenitally blind individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96 (1), 1-10

Bandura, Albert. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

One response to “Blind athletes provide clues about the nature of our emotions.

  1. Pingback: London 2012: The psychology of the Olympic Games | PsySociety

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