The next time you see a footballer feign injury and dive on the pitch, consider that they are using exactly the same survival technique as our oldest ancestors.
The devious squeals employed by professional footballers to trick the referee is very similar to an effective survival strategy used by early humans, researchers claim.
Psychologists found those who could convincingly simulate or exaggerate pain would have had a survival advantage.
This is because they could get people’s attention more easily, which was a key step in our progression from primitive nonverbal noises to complex speech.
‘We’ve seen fantastic football from the likes of Neymar and Mbappe at this year’s World Cup, but they’ve also treated us to an unhealthy dose of play-acting antics and football con-artistry,’ said Dr. Jordan Raine, a psychologist at the University of Sussex.
‘While we all want to see such behaviour kicked out of the beautiful game, the vocal aspect of fakery – both on and off the pitch – is an effective strategy with evolutionary roots that may help explain how speech evolved.’
His research found that simulating pain led to the production of arbitrary sounds, which later led to the creation of early words.
‘Genuine pain causes both human infants and nonhuman mammals to produce cries, which are highly effective at engaging caregivers to respond and assist,’ Dr Raine said.
‘From toe stubs to childbirth, adults cry out in pain too – but evidence suggests that humans routinely exaggerate or minimise our vocal responses to genuine pain depending on context and mood.
‘This suggests that pain cries aren’t just honest windows into our internal state, but social tools to influence others.’
For the study, published in the journal Bioacoustics, psychologists recruited actors-in-training to simulate vocalisations expressing three levels of increasing pain.
They asked listeners to rate how much pain each vocalisation conveyed.
They then examined which aspects of their voices the vocalisers had manipulated, and how this influenced listeners.
Researchers found that the vocalisers simulated increasing pain using similar voice characteristics to those that communicate authentic pain in babies and other animals.
‘From an evolutionary perspective, for our ancestors navigating an environment with danger at every turn, this ability to convincingly simulate or exaggerate pain – and, crucially, elicit more urgent aid – may have provided a vital survival advantage’, said Dr Raine.
He said the ability to produce and modulate pain cries and other vocalisations at will – as opposed to animal-like automatic vocal responses to stimuli – was likely a key step in our progression from making non-verbal noises to complex speech.
‘The light bulb realisation that the voice can intentionally be used to influence others, rather than just honestly communicating information, paves the way for a whole street of light bulbs, and an increasingly flexible use of voice’, said Dr Raine.
‘Simulating pain in cries would logically lead to more complex and varied vocal deception, and eventually, the production of an arbitrary sound whose meaning is agreed culturally rather than biologically.
‘Or in other words, the first words’, he said.