I was a little surprised by an offhand observation Thomas Schubert made in a recent research report. He claimed that while men will commonly make a fist to celebrate a goal in a soccer match or a home run in baseball, it’s unusual for women to do so.
I’m sure I’ve seen both female athletes and fans celebrating with fist pumps. But maybe I only noticed these cases because they were exceptions. Let’s see if we can verify Schubert’s observation with a little poll.
But there are additional gender dynamics to making fists besides who celebrates that way at a football game. At a minimum, a fist can signal an intent to hit someone (Schubert claims it’s an abbreviation for the act of hitting itself). Researchers have found that males usually hit others with the intent to coerce or punish; women, by contrast, are likely expressing distress when they hit others. It’s almost the opposite intention: speaking in generalities, men hit to establish their power, while women hit to express their powerlessness.
If hitting has a different meaning for men and women, then it falls to reason that making a fist also has a different meaning — which might explain Schubert’s anecdote about making fists in celebration. But studying body movement and how it affects thoughts and intentions is a tricky business (see, for example, this study on smiling). If you tell someone to make a fist and ask them how it makes them feel, is it the physical fist-making that causes the emotion, or the linguistic term “fist”?
To see if fist-making affects men and women differently, Schubert devised a clever cover story. He told student volunteers that he was studying whether body position had an effect on reaction times. The students were asked to put their left hand into one of the positions for playing the game “rock, paper, scissors.” Of course, “rock” is symbolized in the game by a fist. With the right hand, they responded to a Stroop task. The computer screen displayed a series of words, and respondents pressed one key if the color the word was displayed in was red, and another if it was green. Respondents are always told to ignore the meaning of the word itself. In the classic Stroop task, people respond slower when the words themselves name colors different from the color they are printed in. In Schubert’s version, no color words were used. Instead, some of the words were random, while others were related to power (influence, mighty, authority), and others were related to aggression (attack, hate, brutal). This graph shows the results for power words:
Both women and men reacted significantly slower to power words when they were making a fist. Schubert argues that since men and women both use fists to express something related to power (either power itself or powerlessness), you’d expect there to be no difference between the results for men and women. Indeed, the difference between male and female respondents was not significant. There was no significant difference between fist and neutral hand position for words related to aggression. Schubert believes this is because his participant population is unlikely to use physical violence (maybe we need to re-run the study on boxers or gang members).
In a second experiment, Schubert used the same rock-paper-scissors cover story, but instead of using a Stroop task, he administered a Multi-Motive Grid, designed to measure “hope for control.” Seventy-eight volunteers looked at pictures, each with several different captions, and were asked if they thought the caption accurately described the picture. For example, one picture people showed people in a bar. One caption might read “here one wants to have influence.” Agreeing with this caption would indicate more hope for control than disagreeing with this caption. The test was scored on a scale of 0 to 12. Here are the results:
Women’s responses showed significantly less hope for control when they were making fists compared to when they were not. Men’s responses did not show this pattern, and trended (though not significantly) in the opposite direction: More hope for control while holding a fist.
In a third experiment, the respondents rated a story character for hostility and kindness, again while either holding their free hand in a fist or not. Here are the results for kindness:
Once again, women and men showed the opposite effect when making fists. Men thought the character was more kind when they were making a fist, while women thought he was less kind. Results were significant for both men and women.
So making a fist, even when you’re not consciously intending to do so, appears to have a significant impact on your thoughts, and the impact is different for women and men. Schubert is careful to point out that these differences may not be inherent in all men and women — certainly there are some women who make fists and hit to express power rather than powerlessness. Maybe our little poll will shed some light on whether CogDaily readers match Schubert’s results.
Schubert, T.W. (2004). The Power in Your Hand: Gender Differences in Bodily Feedback From Making a Fist. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(6), 757-769. DOI: 10.1177/0146167204263780