The unintended consequences of making a fist -- and how they depend on gender

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchI 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

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How do people celebrate a (momentaneous) sports acheivement without using a fist? I know I would be arrested if I raised anything but a fist in my country...

I answered "No; I'm male," but a more accurate answer would be "No; I'm not likely to even notice a sports achievement."

I ask this in a genuine spirit of perplexity: what scientific value is a study like this supposed to have?

Isn't there a much simpler answer for why men might make fists more often than women: that men are, on average, inferior to women in digital dexterity, and thus are likelier to make simple hand gestures? Why involve psychology at all?

And how could you isolate fist-making from other, surer differences in posture signaling power? Does the study distinguish between subjects who were leaning forward, and those leaning back? Or between those who presented their hands palm-up, and those who presented them palm-down?

And how distinct, really, is the act of making a fist? It looks similar, but it feels very different, to clench the fingers in order to pound something with the heel of the hand (which is, as Darwin pointed out, more natural to human beings than punching), and to more loosely close the fingers, and straighten the wrist, in order to punch with the knuckles. Furthermore, closing the fingers is not usually aggressive--we do it vastly more often to carry things (with handles), to hold onto things (like a leash or a line), or even to hide small things (like a coin). And if a fist should be associated with any instinct, why power particularly? Why not activity or motion generally, given that we are descended from quadrupedal primates which likely walked on their knuckles or fists?

And what is "power"? Aren't "influence" and "authority" precisely those kinds of power which one, by definition, does not and cannot have, if one has to hit anyone to be obeyed? What do they have in common with "might"? And is "might" a word likely to elicit an instinctual reaction, given that it is exclusively employed in formal contexts?

It seems to me that the hypothesis of this study is so hopelessly vague that it is impossible to assign any meaning to the data. For example: why couldn't the same set of data be used to show a difference in attitudes toward "power" between people thinking of neutral objects (like paper) and weapons (like rocks and scissors?)

The problem is, I never pay attention to sports. I'm female, and I've made a fist to celebrate a victory at things like video games, but not sports.

Ditto to #4. I'll make fists in celebration of day-to-day victories, but I ignore sports whenever possible. So I chose, "No; I'm female," but I think the focus on "sports" victories is too narrow here.

Interesting study.

Somewhat puzzled by the findings of the third experiment though; particularly concerning males. However, there are a couple of contexts that might explain the peculiarity.

For females, the data in experiments 1-3 suggest that making a fist is connected to a power emotion, reduced hope for control, and increased perception of hostility in another. This suggests that women's psychological response when in a (presumed) power stance is power avoidance. For males, making a fist is associated with a power emotion, tendency towards hope for control, and increased perception of kindness in another. It's the increased perception of kindness that's somewhat puzzling given the other two results. That would seem to suggest that making a fist in the context of winning a competition (or just scoring a point in a match) might be more connected with a feeling of personal accomplishment and/or celebration (entirely plausible) rather than a show of domination or aggression over the person or team being defeated.

Two contexts where one makes a fist that I think might induce similar results for women in experiment 3 include: playing thumb wars (rather than rock-paper-scissors) which requires one to make a fist, is relatively more socially oriented because contact is required, and is a more playful form of aggression because its impossible not to laugh. The other is a fairly recent trend of tapping fists (usually done by males, but often times by both genders in sport) to say hello or goodbye.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 14 Jan 2008 #permalink

The famous picture of Brandi Chastain at the World Cup (It's the first hit in Google images for "Brandi Chastain") has both her hands in a fist.

The more that I think about it, I would disagree with the statement that women don't make fists when they celebrate. It's pretty common if you watch women's sports. It's probably more likely that the author doesn't watch competitive women's sports (like the rest of the US)


I'm just curious: why do you think your anecdotal evidence of one woman making a fist is better than this researcher's anecdotal evidence? And what do you make of our poll results showing that only about 50 percent of women who read this blog say they make fists, compared to 75 percent of men?

Like #3, I am a little bit concerned that the conclusions drawn are a somewhat far-fetched. Especially I do not think that the procedure of having people making a fist/scissors with one hand and performing another task with the other one is really as unobtrusive as the researcher seems to believe.

I remember the first time I participated in a psychological experiment myself - I was 20 and facing three middle aged women who wanted me to rate some pictures of other women for attractiveness, and my, was I concerned not to get anything wrong! I imagined being rated myself how prejudiced I was and so on. Of course, that is just anecdotal evidence (again), but there is a huge literature about how subjects respond (consciously and sub-consciously) to experimenters behavior. To be a little bit unfair: Sometimes I think psychologists, when experimenting, seriously underestimate their subjects' capability to think.

So, taken together, I think it's problematic to draw a conclusion from a rather silly manipulation about peoples' appraisals of their own power (that's from the article) and gender differences with regard to that.

Gender bias studies are tricky. I'm not sure how good a poll on it is if you tell people you're looking for gender bias in the first place. Usually the biggest hurdle is overcoming the bias of the researcher who thinks they are immune simply because they are the scientist. I can't tell you how many rediculous, exasperating papers I've read on Evolutionary Psychology, but I won't rant endlessly here. I know there is some good research out there as well. (the best ones being those that refute Buss! lol) :)

I answered your poll honestly...I make fists for all kinds of victories and I'm a woman, but you should know they always told me I "think like a boy" growing up because I did well in math and with spacial tasks. So would growing up with that gender bias really make me 'male' for this poll? ;) In all seriousness, tho, I don't identify as male but that brings me to my next point: you didn't specify if were you asking for our biological sex or our gender identity. That could also make a difference.

By braingirl (not verified) on 15 Jan 2008 #permalink

I'm female, and I like and watch some sports enthusiastically. I don't make a fist. Answering the first commenter, I clap, cheer, scream, and raise my hands in the air without making them into fists. No doubt there are other ways of celebrating, too ...

My most common use of my fist is to hit my husband's arm when he's on a string of really crap jokes (truly, you have no idea how bad these get). Is that meant to punish these and get him to stop, or a sign of distress at powerlessness at not getting him to stop making such crap jokes, though?

I don't know, but I think there are a lot of real-life situations defy neat classification.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 19 Jan 2008 #permalink

I feel bad for blogger Dave when readers so often criticize his polls. I submit that as my "Get out of jail, free, card" so that I can also submit the following criticism:    ;)

I think this is an intriguing topic to explore. Unfortunately I suspect the self-reporting aspect of the poll might affect its results. I strongly suspect many of us make fist gestures without realizing we do so.

I decided to abstain from voting in the poll because I don't think I can reliably self-report. I was initially inclined to say No, but as I thought about situations in which I might make gestures, I realized that I just plain don't know. In those situations I don't pay enough attention to my own actions.

As someone who often advocates paying closer attention to our own behaviors, this serves as a helpful reminder. So, thanks!


I am involved in the leather/BDSM communities, where we often play with power relationships for the pure pleasure of doing so. making a fist is something I frequently see or do - but when and how one does so seems to break down a lot more on where one identifies on a power continuum than on gender.

If I am involved in a scene, a sex/power/play interaction, and I am the one who has the negotiated power at that time, my hands are often in fists, or itching to be that way. If I am in the surrendered-power position, I often find my hands falling open, rather than clenching. If something switches - I'm in bottom mode, and something happens that triggers me to come up to top mode, my fists almost always clench, or at least begin to do so, as that happens. My unscientific observations is that this tends to be true for others as well.

I've seen two guys playing with each other, both in positions of expressing their power to each other, by taking turns punching each other in the chest, not as an act of violence, but as an expression of power and of accepting the partner's power. Watch pre-game rituals at a football game, and you'll often see exactly the same ritual - two football players taking turns punching each other in the chest wit their fists.

If there are gender differences in epressing power with fists (and sports celebrations are about expressing power in triumph, IMO) I would hypothesize in part that they have to do with differences in how men and women perceive their relationships to power.

By hiding my identity (not verified) on 26 Jan 2008 #permalink

Use some interpretive power, people! The sports thing is just a generality. I don't give much of a damn about sports either, but I DO pound air to celebrate a good thing in politics. "YES! Minimum wage is raised! Woo-Hoo! Edwards is in the race!"

What are you passionate about? Competitive about? Would you raise a fist in celebration of clenching a business deal? Winning an art show? A contract for your band? Then choose yes.

If the celebratory fist seems unnatural to you, choose no. The sports part is irrelevant to the main thrust of the argument, which is ... nonetheless, kind of weird to me. I don't really draw a connection between wanting to punch someone, and raising a fist to celebrate, although I have certainly felt both emotions.

Should the cultural history of this be looked at? Political fist raising goes back at least as far as the Boxer Rebellion, and was echoed a few decades ago as the Black Power salute.
The again, symbolically, the upraised fist is *not* an attack at a person. It is either a salute where the fingers are curled back to oneself and therefore, expresses empowerment as "I salute myself" rather than pledging loyalty outward. OR it is a threat to systematic oppression-- by punching upwards, one is symbolically attacking the forces holding one down.
So, DID the sports fist predate the political fist? If not, it is surely a solidarity salute. On the other hand, if it did, the sports fist could well be a symbol of aggression, given that sports are considered related to war.

Ugh. I've just canceled my argument that sports vs other victories is irrelevant. And instead issued a suggestion that this is WAY more complex than the researchers are thinking.

By Samantha Vimes (not verified) on 26 Jan 2008 #permalink

I agree with Samantha; I'm a woman who pumps her fist in the air to express a victory. It is not a hitting motion. It's more of a pulling-towards-me motion.

By speedwell (not verified) on 27 Jan 2008 #permalink

I hold my hands in fist a lot just noticed I was while sitting hear reading off of the screen which is why I sought out this search. I hold my fist in an odd way like this: with my thumbs in and my four finger folded over my thumb I do it subconciously a boyfriend brought it to my attention because it annoyed him. I never saw anyone make a fist with there thumbs on the inside, why do you suppose I do it. Help so so so curious about this.