Silver and Gold | Hidden Brain The rush of victory or crush of defeat in the Olympics can flash by very quickly. But if you slow those moments down, there's a lot to learn about human behavior.
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Olympic Victory And Defeat, Frame By Frame

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Olympic Victory And Defeat, Frame By Frame

Olympic Victory And Defeat, Frame By Frame

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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. It's almost that time...


VEDANTAM: ...For the Olympics.


VEDANTAM: The pageantry, the dreams, breathtaking victories - for fans, it's an event of extraordinary drama - athletes from across the globe competing at the very highest level, at the limits of human endurance. Social scientists find the games equally compelling for what they reveal about human behavior.

DAVID MATSUMOTO: When a match ends, the winners and losers do something. That's immediate, automatic. It's unconscious. They have no control of it. It just happens. About a second later, then they come to their senses, and they realize that they're on stage. And whatever rules they've learned to manage their expressions kick in then.

VEDANTAM: Coming up, what the Olympics can teach us about human behavior from a professor who's also an Olympic judo coach. Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: My guest today is David Matsumoto. He's a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. He's used the Olympics as a laboratory for psychological observations. But he's also been a part of the Olympics. David's coached the U.S. Olympic judo team, and his daughter has competed in the games. I'm going to talk to him today, first about his research and then about what a sharp-eyed psychologist might observe about human behavior at the Games.

David, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

MATSUMOTO: Thank you so much for having me.

VEDANTAM: You photographed 84 athletes from 34 countries who were competing in the 2004 Athens Olympics judo competitions. And you photographed them at the moments when they won or lost their matches. What did you find?

MATSUMOTO: Well, what you find is that people all around the world show exactly the same types of expressions depending upon whether they won or lost. So those who won a match or won a medal, for example, invariably showed some kind of enjoyment smile. And those who lost the last match showed nothing sometimes. Some of them showed sadness. Some of them showed some kind of distress. But the interesting thing about these findings is that those patterns vary depending upon whether they won or lost, but did not vary across any of the countries or cultures that the athletes came from.

VEDANTAM: Now, most laypeople would not necessarily be surprised by this. They would sort of say yeah, sure, people win. They sort of look the same. But why is this interesting from a scientific perspective?

MATSUMOTO: Well, it's interesting because - actually, before our study, there were many, many studies that have shown that similar types of patterns of findings, cross-cultural similarities in these expressions. But there was never a study that was done in what we call an ecologically valid environment - out in the real world - to show that people actually do this stuff in the real world outside of a psychology laboratory. And I was just very, very fortunate to be able to do this study at the Olympics, which is a perfect social-psychological laboratory.

VEDANTAM: In some ways, the study was basically making the argument, I suppose, that, at least in the moment of triumph, people's reactions were shaped by what seemed like biologically innate imperatives.

MATSUMOTO: Yeah, that's exactly right. However, that study by itself fell a little short. So in actuality, we had the second study, which studied the Paralympic athletes. And in - every sport in the Paralympics has a different disability. For judo, it's blindness. And so we compared the expressions of the blind athletes to those of the sighted athletes, and we found exactly the same things.

VEDANTAM: So these are athletes who've been blind, some of them, presumably, blind from birth. They presumably haven't really...

MATSUMOTO: Let's make it even clearer than that. We had athletes who are congenitally blind, so blind from birth. There's no presumption about what they've seen. They've been impossible to see those expressions. And the fact that they produce the same things on their faces for certain emotions and then in their bodies for triumph absolutely suggests that these things are biologically innate.

VEDANTAM: What did the facial expression of triumph look like?

MATSUMOTO: Well, triumph is actually a whole-body response and involves the expansion of the chest, raising the hands, oftentimes with a fist, a little bit of fierce or aggressive look in the face and oftentimes a stern gaze at some kind of target.

VEDANTAM: Now, one of the things you found, which I found really fascinating, was yes, you do find evidence that some of these expressions are biologically innate. But you also find that culture plays a huge role at the Olympics. Tell me about that part of the study.

MATSUMOTO: What we did was study the expressions across time. So even though we were using a camera, we were using a camera that was shooting eight photographs a second. And so across a number of seconds, we can see how expressions transform across time. So immediately when a match ends, the winners and losers do something. That's immediate, automatic. It's unconscious. They have no control of it. It just happens. About a second later, then they come to their senses, and they realize that they're on stage. And whatever rules they've learned to manage their expressions kick in then.

And it's that second expression or third expression, sometimes, where you see these vast cultural differences. Some athletes are smiling. Some athletes show nothing. Some athletes start crying. Some athletes do something else. But it's very interesting how you see the change at that point but cultural invariance at the beginning.

VEDANTAM: You find that, even though you have this range of emotions that kicks in after the first second or the first couple of seconds, these are not random. These actually are, in some ways, culturally determined - that you actually find athletes from certain countries behave predictably differently than athletes from other countries.

MATSUMOTO: Yes. We were able to identify the various patterns of that cultural variation later on. So there are the neutralizers, those who kind of show nothing. As stereotypes, you can think of eastern Soviet bloc - or old Soviet bloc countries, Eastern Europe, those who have some communist history in them - Cuba, for example - are like that. You can think of the deamplifiers (ph), those who show something but it's muted a little bit. There are a lot of North American, Western kind of cultures that do that. There's those that smile a lot after something, even those that are - have something negative. You can think of the East Asians as something like that. So yes, there are these very interesting cultural, geographic variations in how the major patterns go in the cultural regulation.

VEDANTAM: So in other words, people express what really maybe is happening inside them. But then, the culture kicks in and says here's the way you ought to behave...


VEDANTAM: ...In this situation.

MATSUMOTO: That's exactly what it is. And that - and the reason why most of us don't see that immediate reaction is because when something happens, we're often looking at the thing that happened. So by the time we look at the person who it happened to, they're already on the cultural regulation part. And it's people like us, who have a camera on that person all the time, who are watching the immediate reactions who can get the immediate reaction.

VEDANTAM: One of the most celebrated studies looking at the Olympics - we've featured it elsewhere on HIDDEN BRAIN - this is a study by Thomas Gilovich at Cornell along with Victoria Medvec and Scott Madey. He analyzed the expressions on the faces of medal winners in the Barcelona Olympics. And he found that, in general, bronze-medal winners looked happier than silver-medal winners. I'm going to let you tell me why that might be the case, but also how your own research both amplified and has a nuance to that finding.

MATSUMOTO: Well, we found exactly the same things. Actually, one of the great things about our study is that, not only were we able to study the expressions of the athletes right when they won or lost - right when they're on the mat - we could follow them 30 minutes later in the medal ceremony. So we saw what the same person did who had the same result. But it's - now the social context is different.

And you're exactly right, the silver medalist - everybody on the podium smiles, so there's no question about it because this is a very public, televised thing. But if you measure the exact muscles that are moving in the smiles, you'll find that - let's call the silver-medal smiles more of the miserable smile...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MATSUMOTO: ...Because they've got a lot of other things going on. You can see the - you won't see the crinkle in the eyes. Sometimes, you'll see there's a downturning of the lips because they're really trying to control some negative feelings along with a smile. So some of them looked miserable when they're smiling.

VEDANTAM: And Gilovich would argue this is because the silver-medal winners are comparing themselves to the gold-medal winners...


VEDANTAM: ...And saying if I only had gone half a second faster - if I'd only jumped a little bit faster, I could have been - I could be a gold-medal winner.

MATSUMOTO: That's exactly right. And so the - when you get to the bronze medalists, they have more reason to be happier because the alternative is nothing, whereas a silver medalist...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MATSUMOTO: ...The alternative was the gold.

And so, in our study, we also found that the bronze medalists had more of the enjoyment smiles than the silver medalists did. The only exceptions that we found to this bronze medalist thing that I thought was really interesting when I looked back at her data, there are some bronze medalists who did not look very happy. And these were generally the winners of the world championships of the previous year who came into the Olympics as the favorite, and they had to settle for a bronze.

So because they had to settle for bronze, they were not as happy as those who are getting a bronze and they - you know, a lot of them didn't expect to get a medal, or they were just happy to get a medal.

VEDANTAM: Fascinating. When we come back, I'm going to ask David about his own experience at the Olympics and what a psychologist might learn from being a coach and being a parent of an Olympian. Stay with us.


CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: Hi, I'm Chris Benderev, one of the producers of HIDDEN BRAIN. Here's a great way to listen to our show, NPR One. It's an app for your phone, kind of like Pandora but for public radio. It's full of news and stories from your favorite podcasters, NPR and the local station that you call your own. Whenever you're ready to listen, NPR One has something great just for you. Find it on your app store, NPR O-N-E. All right, now back to Shankar's interview with psychology professor David Matsumoto on the science behind Olympic athletes.


VEDANTAM: Give me some sense of the scale of what's happening in an athlete on the judo mat in the Olympics. I mean, physiologically, what's happening to them?

MATSUMOTO: I'll tell you exactly what's happening because we've actually studied this kind of thing. You know, if you and I are sitting down here right now having this conversation, if we clocked our heart rate, for healthy and normal, we're probably both 60, 72, something like that. Since we're doing something that's really exciting right now, maybe we're at 80 or something.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MATSUMOTO: If you imagine yourself taking a jog, you might be at 70 percent of your max heart rate, which would maybe be at 130, 140, depending upon your age. In a judo match, we've actually clocked athletes heart rates around 200 beats a minute.

VEDANTAM: Wow. And these are highly conditioned athletes.

MATSUMOTO: Highly - you've got to be highly conditioned to be at 200 beats a minute. And this is 200 beats a minute in combat conditions. Now, think about what I'm saying. You're going to be at 200 beats a minute in combat conditions, thinking clearly, being on your game, knowing exactly what you're doing technically, strategically and everything else.

To get to that point, it's not easy. It's nothing that we can sit around and talk about. It's nothing that I can really sit here and kind of help you like a traditional psychologist would. To tell you the truth, I've got to get you to be really physical. And I've got to train your body to tolerate the lactic acid that your body generates as I get you to that profile.

VEDANTAM: How do you get athletes, as a coach, to actually keep thinking when their bodies are in the state of hyperarousal?

MATSUMOTO: Well, first of all, you have to get them to be used to that state of hyperarousal. So there's a long period of time - I mean, we're talking - it'll takes several years of what we call periodized training to get an athlete to be at peak physical condition. Once you're there or along the way you're there, what you can do is then add in some drills - cognitive drills - for athletes to do once they're at that level.

So, for example, I can create a situation where I'll get an athlete's heart rate up to 200. You know, it's not easy. It's not fun. You don't want to be that person. But once you're there, I can have you do a crossword puzzle. All right. One of the things that we used to do is we used to have people run around a track sprinting the 800 meters around the track. And once they come off the track, untie these humongous ropes with knots in them which is entirely frustrating to do. But, you know, you've got to deal with the frustration when your heart is going at 200 beats a minute to do this little complex cognition task.

VEDANTAM: One of the things that I find so fascinating is that so much of the Olympics actually happens out of sight of the TV cameras. So athletes have to get ready. They have to warm up. In fact, just getting to your competition itself can be a struggle, especially if you're competing on Day One.

MATSUMOTO: Well, you're exactly right because most of the public who watch these sports, who are great, by the way - we wouldn't be here without our fans. But most of the public just turns on the TV and can see this peak performance. And competition really is maybe the third thing that the athletes are worrying about. Maybe it's the main thing, but it's always the third thing. The first thing that we're always worrying about - No. 1 is making weight because in Judo, you've got a weight division.

And so - and everyone is - we call it walking-around weight. Everyone's walking-around weight is heavier than what their weight division is. So you've got to be on a program to cut down to a certain amount right before you're weighing in. Then you - everyone's got a routine to cut to weigh in. And it's not fun cutting weight, and it's not fun being with 20 people who are starving themselves.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MATSUMOTO: And if you have to be in starvation mode for a week, 10 days, whatever that is, it's a miserable experience. Now, some people do that better than others, but it's not the thing that you think that you want to be doing with your life (unintelligible) most of the time.

VEDANTAM: So that's the first thing that the athlete's thinking about. What's the second?

MATSUMOTO: The second thing is jetlag. So if the Olympics are in Rio, and if you're coming from where I live, which is San Francisco, you're four hours away. And so you have to think about the four-hour difference. If the Olympics were in Athens, like they were in 2004, now we're talking about a 10-hour difference.

Olympics are going to be in Tokyo in 2020. And now we're talking about a nine-hour difference the other way if you're in San Francisco. And these are big differences because if you're talking about peak performance, you want people to be rested well, fed well, in peak mental condition. And it's especially difficult if you're competing on day one.

And you want to be in the opening ceremonies. And the thing that people don't know about the opening ceremonies is it usually ends at around midnight wherever the host country is. And everyone's got to get on a bus that the local committee sets up. And it's just chaos. It's just a zoo. So many athletes get lost.

Buses don't know where to go. And so you might get on your bus at 12 o'clock. And you might be back in the village at 3 a.m. And you might have a 6 a.m. weigh-in time. And so, obviously, if you did that, it kind of screws you up for that competition.

VEDANTAM: It turns out that flying east and flying west to get to the games is not the same thing - that in some ways, it's better for the human body if you happen to be flying in one direction, rather than the other.

MATSUMOTO: Yes. In fact, it's easier to go in one direction, rather than another, because our bodies are built to function better on a 25-hour cycle than a 24-hour cycle.


MATSUMOTO: That's why it's easier for us to stay up longer than it is to get up earlier. And how that translates to travel is - when we travel west, our time zones are getting later. So we're...

VEDANTAM: You just have to stay up a little bit later.

MATSUMOTO: You just have to stay up a little later. And that's easier. When we travel east - like, I came from San Francisco, and here I am in D.C. now - that's a three-hour time zone. So this morning I had to be at a certain place at 7 o'clock, which is 4 o'clock my time, which means I have to get up at 3 o'clock my time, which is more difficult. So yes, we take these kinds of factors into account.

VEDANTAM: You know, I think when people think about the Olympics who haven't been there, it seems very glamorous, very fun. You know, you're on this world stage. Everyone's watching you. Everyone's cheering for you. Everyone's hoping that you do well. And they clap for you when you succeed. And you're at peak performance. And it seems like it's sort of a glorious time in your life and the life of, you know, the coaching staff and so on. Is that how it actually feels when you're there?

MATSUMOTO: Well, I can't speak for everybody else. I got to say that I never felt that glorious times in the four Olympics and the 12 world championships that I've been to because as a coaching staff member, first of all, you're not done with your feelings until everyone's done competing.

And unfortunately, I never had the situation where everyone on my team got a gold medal. And if that happened, then, I think, after the competition, everything is glorious. But no matter how good our team did, whether it's my local team or the Olympic team or whatever team you're talking about, if there's one person that didn't make it - you know, if there's one person that didn't get what they wanted - I felt it.

I could have nine players take a gold. And one person took a silver. Of course, I'm happy. But it lingers for me. I think that's true for a lot of people. And I'll give you a good example of this. When my daughter made the Olympic team in 2008, at the Olympic trials, her competitor in the finals was another woman from my dojo.

And so as a judo instructor, you have two of your players in the finals of the Olympic trials. You know, you're golden because no matter who wins, someone from your dojo is going to go and be on the Olympic team.

VEDANTAM: So one of the competitors is your daughter.

MATSUMOTO: One of them is my daughter. And the other one is my student who I treat like a daughter. And on top of that, when we're in competition, I don't have a daughter. I have a player. You know, and my daughter knew that. And we all knew that. And I treated my daughter like anybody else in competition or after competition. She - you know, she's my daughter.

But when we're in competition, she's another player. And I got to treat her like I treat everybody else. And so anyway, we have these two players coming up. And I have mixed feelings about that. You know, when my daughter won, I was happy for her. But I was very sad for my other player who lost.

So after that, it was a very bittersweet thing to have occurred. And yeah, I mean, I don't want to take anything from my daughter as a parent. If I could compartmentalize my feeling as - solely as a parent - yeah, great. I'm happy.

But no one can compartmentalize 100 percent. Or I couldn't. And so as a parent, I felt good. As an instructor, I felt good and bad. And it's mixed-up feelings that one had. And I still have it to this day. I remember it very clearly right now.

VEDANTAM: When you watch the Olympics now - and let's say you're not at the Olympics. Let's say you're not going to - are you going to Rio?


VEDANTAM: OK. So when you watch the Olympics on television now, what is it that you're watching? What is it that you pay attention to, knowing all that you know as a psychologist who studied the Olympics, as a coach who's coached at the Olympics, as a parent at the Olympics? What do you look for now?

MATSUMOTO: I look at a lot of things, to tell you the truth. And when I see peak performance of any type - doesn't have to be sports. Even when I look at dancers or somebody who's really good at doing something that's difficult to do, they make it look so easy.

And I automatically think about the sweat and the tears and the blood and the effort for years that that person put in to be able to do that - that we saw that was just effortless. When you're at competition, you're talking about, you know, a few minutes, an hour, of years of preparation. And you can't divorce your memories from those years of preparation. Those things overwhelm me, actually.

VEDANTAM: And so when you're thinking about the athletes, you're actually thinking about all of those - the times that we're not seeing on television - all of the waking up at 4 o'clock in the morning and practicing on the weekends and giving up other aspects of your life - and not just for the people who win but also for everybody else who is there.

MATSUMOTO: Absolutely. I mean, everyone's made a huge sacrifice. And of course, the player or the athlete is always the No. 1 sacrificer. But think about all their support staff. For us, for every player that we had on the mat, we had a support team of 10 or 20 just to get that person on the mat. And so behind one person, there's an army.

And everyone's on the same team. And they never share the limelight. They never get the spotlight. They just share in the knowledge that they help this person have a peak performance. And when that person wins, everyone feels good. And when that person loses, everyone feels awful. And it's all those people, as well as the athletes, that my heart actually reaches out to when I see these things.

VEDANTAM: David Matsumoto, I want to thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

MATSUMOTO: My pleasure. Thank you.


VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Chris Benderev and edited by Jenny Schmidt. Our staff also includes Kara McGuirk-Allison, Maggie Penman, and Max Nesterak. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and listen to my stories on your local public radio station. If you like this episode, give us a review. It helps. I'm Shankar Vedantam and this is NPR.

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