In Brief

Even when no one is looking, victors smile and losers frown, according to a study published in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study found that, regardless of judo silver medalists' cultural backgrounds, they expressed negative emotions immediately after their final losing match. However, about half of the silver medal winners--especially those from East Asia, Western Europe and North America--genuinely smiled by the time they reached the podium.

"People all around the world have...the same kind of immediate reactions to the same types of emotional stimuli," says study author David Matsumoto, PhD, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University. "Culture may influence how we express them afterwards."

Past research on spontaneous emotional expression showed mixed results, Matsumoto notes. For example, studies on professional bowlers' expressions after successful or unsuccessful rolls showed that they often did not smile or grimace until they had turned around to face the audience. Matsumoto, who coached the U.S. judo team in 1996 and 2000, came up with an idea to further investigate the phenomenon while on a plane to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where he was officiating. Also on the plane was Bob Willingham, the official Olympic judo photographer that year. Matsumoto asked Willingham to continue taking pictures of competitors after the medal matches--in which the top two competitors vie for gold and silver, and the next two fight for bronze or fifth place. Willingham also photographed the medalists' facial expressions as they stood on the podium and listened to the national anthem.

Matsumoto and his research assistant coded 84 athletes' expressions using the Facial Action Coding System developed by psychologist Paul Ekman, PhD, and found that 13 out of 14 gold medal winners smiled immediately after the final match, while most of the silver medal winners expressed sadness. Once on the podium, all the gold medal winners displayed Duchenne smiles--a genuine smile that is hard to fake, as it engages muscles near the eyes as well as the mouth. Only six of the silver medal winners displayed Duchenne smiles on the podium, and the rest showed other expressions, such as sadness-smile blends, forced smiles or contempt.

This suggests that silver medal winners, depending on their cultural values, may fight to put on a happy face while they stand on the medal podium, Matsumoto says. However, the study adds evidence to the theory that people, regardless of their culture, spontaneously display similar facial expressions, he notes.

--S. Dingfelder