Dec. 29, 2008 -- Spontaneous facial expressions come naturally; they aren't learned by watching other people.
Researchers including David Matsumoto, PhD, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University, report that news in January's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Matsumoto's team compared photos of blind and sighted athletes who competed in judo in the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games and the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Photos were taken three times: immediately after the matches, as the athletes received their medals, and as the athletes posed with their medals on the medal stand. The researchers looked for differences in the facial expressions of the winners and losers, between blind and sighted athletes, and between athletes who had been born blind and those who had become blind later in life.
Blind or sighted, the athletes made similar expressions. Winners beamed wide smiles; losers looked sad or disgusted when they lost and managed milder smiles on the medal stand. And it didn't matter if they had been born blind or not; all of the blind athletes made similar faces.
Because of those similarities, Matsumoto and colleagues conclude that the universal emotional expressions that they saw may trace back through evolution "and that all humans, regardless of gender or culture, are born with this ability."
But the researchers note that managing those emotional expressions -- stifling a scowl or summoning up a polite smile -- may be learned, though that learning doesn't seem to require observation.