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Blind athletes provide clues about the nature of our emotions.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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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 having to suffer through a tedious trial-by-error reinforcement process every single time we need to learn how to do something new. It’s only natural to assume that we have similarly learned when to smile politely, how to wrinkle our noses in disgust, or why we should furrow our brows in anger by watching the people around us react in those ways when presented with similar emotionally-evocative situations.

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 them — 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 once seeing others make those 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.



Matsumoto, D., & Willingham, B. (2009). Spontaneous facial expressions of emotion of congenitally and noncongenitally blind individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1-10,

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

Image Credits

Image of the baby on the computer via Public Domain Pictures at Pixabay, photographed by Petr Kratochvil

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.

This post was previously published at my old PsySociety blog in August 2012. You can see the original post by clicking the From The Archives icon on the left.

Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. stalder 2:06 pm 02/27/2014

    Matsumoto and Willingham’s (2009) research is quite impressive in its detail. But it might not be perfectly clear on how similar blind and sighted athletes were in their emotional expressions. The authors wrote that “the range and type of emotion signals displayed were comparable to those produced by sighted athletes” (p. 5), but they did not report the exact comparison of numbers of such displays. They did report exact comparisons for broader categories of displays.

    The authors also did report exact correlational evidence that is tricky to explain. If I understand correctly, as the number of particular emotion-related facial movements (relative to the overall number of facial movements) increased or decreased in blind athletes from one type of movement to another, a similar pattern emerged for sighted athletes. But two things:
    1. Correlation can be quite different than a straight comparison of numbers. Absolute numbers (or proportions) of each emotion-related movement can differ between the two groups of athletes while still being correlated in their patterns.
    2. Using the Spearmen correlation (to account for non-normal distributions), less than half of the reported correlations (4 of 9) were actually statistically significant.

    But I mostly wanted to note that Fernández-Dols and Crivelli (2013), in Emotion Review, recently described a potential problem in Matsumoto and Willingham’s method. Long-story-short, F & C reported evidence that athletes like those studied by M & W don’t really smile after winning unless they first interact with another person. F & C’s larger argument is that “smiles are interactive (i.e., dependent on an audience)” and “have multiple meanings and functions, depending on the context” (p. 26). In other words, a smile need not reflect emotion per se.

    F & C’s article (2013) appeared after the original publication of this blog post (August 2012). And Ms. Tannenbaum’s conclusion may still be true, that observation is not necessary for emotional expression. However, according to F & C, the smile itself need not be “emotional expression.” So perhaps we can just say that observation is not necessary for smiling.

    In general, contemporary writing in this area questions how much faces really reflect particular emotions, or how well lay people can read emotions from nonverbal cues alone. It’s getting interesting. We might need to be cautious in our nonverbal decoding out there.

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  2. 2. 14099218 5:10 pm 04/24/2014

    No face is a clean slate… Never in my life have I seen a person without emotion painted across his/her countenance… not even those who were born without sight. A facial expression is a glimpse into the emotions of the person you are looking at. Telling us something about what they feel, even though many expressions are given as the accepted social behaviour rather than a true reflection of the emotion felt. If blind people automatically display the ‘correct’ facial expression then it definitely tells us that there are more things said in the creases on our faces than we might realise. To some extent a blind person’s facial expressions could be seen as their own. For they have not been influenced by the observance of the facial expressions of others. How much of what we say with our faces, are us talking and how much is merely a copy of someone we saw some time in our lives?

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