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BEIJING 2008

Victory dance is only human -- or is it?

August 12, 2008|Denise Gellene | Times Staff Writer

Chimps do it. Gorillas do it. Michael Phelps does it too.

The exuberant dance of victory -- arms thrust toward the sky and chest puffed out at a defeated opponent -- turns out to be an instinctive trait of all primates -- humans included, according to research released Monday.

Scientists from the University of British Columbia and San Francisco State University looked at thousands of photographs of judo matches taken during the 2004 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games in Athens, for such classic in-your-face victory moves as clenched fists, thrown-back heads and outstretched arms.

The images of the 140 blind and sighted athletes from 37 countries revealed that Paralympic athletes blind from birth struck the same triumphant stance as sighted Olympic athletes. Since the blind athletes could not have learned the victory dance by watching others, the scientists concluded that the behavior was innate.

They found that the dance was the same for all, regardless of what culture or country they came from.

This display of human pride and exuberance -- witnessed by millions when swimmer Phelps and teammates won the men's 400-meter freestyle relay for the U.S. on Sunday -- closely resembles the dominance displays of chimps and monkeys, which also feature outstretched arms and exaggerated postures, researchers said.

The animal world is filled with inflated displays of superiority, noted Daniel M.T. Fessler, a UCLA anthropologist not involved in the research.

Birds puff themselves up and cats arch their backs to make themselves look bigger and scarier to adversaries, he said.

Jessica L. Tracy, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said that the hangdog look of losers also turns out to be instinctive.

Blind athletes across all cultures slumped their shoulders and narrowed their chests, a posture that signals shame in humans and submission in other primates. Sighted athletes from most parts of the world did the same.

But the researchers unexpectedly found that sighted athletes from individualistic societies, such as in the U.S. and Western Europe, tended to put on a brave front, outwardly appearing to stand tall in the face of defeat and shame, the report said.

Tracy speculated that the athletes were intentionally hiding their feelings -- consciously overriding their innate urge to signal defeat -- because losing is so stigmatized in their cultures.

"We have been taught that even if we screw up in life, to hide it," she said.

It's just like politics in the West, she added. "It's not OK to say, 'Hey, I was wrong.' "

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denise.gellene@latimes.com

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