Why bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists, and other things the Olympics teaches us about human emotions

Posted on August 17, 2016

The Olympics is a laboratory for testing the limits of human strength and endurance. But it serves as a laboratory for other types of experiments, too.

One such experiment has been helping researchers to unlock the mystery of facial expressions. Psychologists have long debated whether the smiles, frowns and other expressions that people make are a universal reaction that humans are born with, or whether we learn them from those around us.

If we are born with certain facial expressions, researchers argue, these expressions should be the same around the world. If these behaviors are learned, though, they might differ from place to place.

For decades, researchers have believed that people in different cultures display emotions in different ways — for example, people in one culture amplify their excitement to fit in with those around them, while those in another culture learn to mask their sadness or disappointment in public. Yet some psychologists have also argued, somewhat controversially, that certain facial expressions are universal, just a part of being human. Unfortunately, researchers have found this extremely difficult to study in the lab, since it’s hard to provoke authentic and strong emotional responses in people in such an artificial environment.

Not so at the Olympics. Athletes toil and sweat for years for sometimes just a few minutes of performance on the Olympic stage, and the winners and losers of various events can’t help but let their joy, anger, surprise, frustration or disappointment at their performance shine. Just look, for example, at the surprise and delight of Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui when she found out from a reporter that she had won a bronze medal in the women’s 100-meter backstroke — a reaction that has made her an Internet sensation.

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Category(s):Happiness

Source material from Washington Post


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