Two years ago in grad school, a colleague and I conducted a little anthropological study on UFC fighters during staredowns—you know, those events where pairs of dehydrated competitors scowl at one another on the day before they beat each other up.
Since nonverbal behavior communicates internal states, personality traits, interaction motives, and dominance dynamics, we wanted to know: Which nonverbal cues could predict the outcome of the fight? Can body language during the staredown predict the winner?
First, we intended to look at dozens of variables that could be measured in video clips of staredowns:
- Body parts: left-right foot, left-right hand, hands-shoulders, head-nose-ears, and eyes
- Motion variables: overall movements, relative movements, velocities, and turbulences
- Distance variables: alignments of body parts and interpersonal distance (who closes it?)
- Behavior variables: smiles, touches, nods, gestures, and handshakes
- Posture variables: direction, relaxedness, and expansiveness
- Psychological ratings: perceived aggressiveness, perceived dominance, and perceived potential to win
We soon realized that this analytical endeavor was way out of proportion to the time limitations of our little project, so we agreed to solely capture three variables that seemed to be the most promising and interesting ones:
- Gaze behavior: Who breaks the eye contact? (Analysis method: observational frame-by-frame coding by multiple independent raters)
- Head movement: Who turns the head away first? (Analysis method: motion analysis software based on optical flow algorithms)
- Victory: Who wins the fight? (Analysis method: official UFC record)
These were our results of analyzing 87 staredown interactions (after eliminating all precarious cases):
Pearson’s chi-squared tests showed that these results were statistically significant (p was .024 and .038, resp.) while the effect size was minor (phi was only .241 and .223, resp.). The low statistical power is not surprising, given the fact that an MMA fight is an extremely complex event and surely not determined in its outcome by how a fighter subtly behaved on the previous day.
Have you spotted the most interesting finding in the table though? The fighter who broke eye contact or who turned away first was more strongly correlated with the winner!
Usually, confidence and dominance are associated with not breaking eye contact. If you shy away, you’re a coward, right? So what’s up with those findings of ours? According to my interpretation, staredowns are highly ritualistic events. You’re supposed to stare your opponent down. In this context, holding eye contact isn’t a spontaneous action. Staring is the expected, common baseline. By breaking eye contact first, the fighter unofficially ends the staredown sequence and thereby dominates the situation. He’s less emotionally attached, he doesn’t give a fuck to act overly intimidating, he just turns away.
Of course, this interpretation is speculative, and we had no methodological means to investigate any mediating causal relationships. Therefore, we didn’t bother to get our little study published in a peer-reviewed journal. Still, we did present it at a scientific conference and met with great acclaim. Here’s our poster: