Many of our most vivid memories, individually and collectively as a culture, are of great victories and defeats in sports. If you witness raised voices and waving arms at a group gathering, there’s a good chance that a game or match is being recalled. More than politics or anything else that makes people shout, sports are a great human universal. We can all find something to say about the game last night.
As it turns out, there is more than just excitement transferred from arenas and stadiums to the fans watching the action. A close look reveals that those seemingly insignificant gestures, the high-fives and fist-bumps, proliferate and come into vogue based on what the athletes are doing. Some stars have a characteristic gesture imitated and adopted by devoted fans. But there are mainstays in these momentary acts of connection that have lasted decades. Chief among these is the good-old-fashioned highfive, which is said to have originated with basketball.
The reason the high-five has persisted is possibly because there happens to be a lot more in that display of team spirit than we thought. A team of Berkeley scientists recently tabulated every bump, hug, and high-five in games played by every NBA team early this season, the New York Times reported last month. The study’s conclusions were that the best teams and individual players shared a lot more of these moments of connection than those who were less successful.
Controlling for the variable that the winning teams and players were just more excited than their losing counterparts, the researchers were more interested in the efficiency with which the ball was handled, rather than the total points scored. As it turns out, players who acknowledged teammates’ successes and showed a unity of spirit with these seemingly simple gestures performed better than those who didn’t express themselves that way.
Biology may play a role in this exchange, as these moments of contact apparently trigger the release of oxytocin, the hormone associated with trust, while reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. As the Times reported, with emotions regulated this way, the mind is freed up for problem solving.
So, here’s a new indicator of successful business practices that you should watch for in the office or on the job site—how many high-fives are you seeing? If you don’t see highfives, look for fist-bumps, or just a plain old pat on the back. They all add up to the feeling of teamwork and a job well done.