I watched the recent 46th NFL Super Bowl between the Patriots and the Giants but sooner rather than later changed channels during the halftime show, which featured Madonna. As a result, I missed seeing live the beginning of the mini-scandal that ensued when one of her backup singers, M.I.A., made an obscene gesture to the viewing audience.
By all reports, Ms. M.I.A. gave 114 million US viewers the finger—i.e., flipped them the bird, flipped them off, showed them the back of her closed fist with the middle finger extended upwards. Whatever we want to call it, the phallic message was clear and nasty and hardly missing in action: **** you.
The NFL and NBC fell all over themselves apologizing, but let's get real. Our thresholds for outrage have increased. This was not the worst thing that any of us have seen on television or in real life.
And even more recently, singer Adele apparently gave the finger on a live British awards show when she was cut off during the broadcast. Again, apologies cascaded.
Be all of this as it may, I was reminded of a study conducted by my University of Michigan colleagues, Jesse Chandler and Norbert Schwarz (2009), about the effects of such gestures on the psychology of the person making the gesture. Chandler and Schwarz asked research participants to perform a judgment task while giving the finger. A plausible cover story was provided for the request; the study ostensibly was about the effects of motor movements on reading comprehension. Specifically, in one condition, these researchers asked participants to read a story about a fictional character while extending their middle finger and then to rate their perceptions of him. Compared to other conditions (defined by different gestures), flipping the bird was associated with seeing the fictional character as more hostile. Other ratings were not affected.
In another condition, participants were asked to do the same task while giving the thumb's up sign. Here the results were different. Female participants—but not male participants—attributed more positive attributes to the fictional character.
The theoretical point of this research is its demonstration that "priming" can occur not only by words or visual images, as frequently shown, but also by nonverbal gestures. Flipping the bird primes a view of the world as a hostile place, whereas giving the thumb's up sign primes a view of the world as a positive place.
Gestures obviously convey our feelings to those who see them. The less obvious point is that gestures also influence our own view of others and may lead to further behaviors by us in keeping with the gestures. And those who are the targets of gestures may respond accordingly, and we have spirals and escalations set in motion, negative or positive. Consider that even Madonna was miffed at the gesture made by M.I.A.
Maybe the practical implication of these ideas is to refrain from flipping people off, not just because doing so is crude, rude, and lewd, but because it affects how we see the world and in turn how the world may treat us. Better to "thumb's up" other people or to flash the V sign* or to make the heart sign.
These strategies are examples of the familiar positive psychology advice about the importance of positive framing, but the interesting wrinkle is that positive framing can occur with our gestures.
*The V sign has a long history, and its specific meanings have changed over the eons, but it often conveys something positive. According to one story, perhaps apocryphal, the two-fingered salute dates to the Hundred Years War between England and France. The French supposedly cut off the arrow-shooting fingers of captured English archers, so that they could no longer use their fabled longbows. So, English archers fell into the habit of showing their fingers during battle as a sign of defiance: "We've still got our fingers, and we can still kill you!" We know with certainty that Winston Churchill popularized the V for victory symbol during the Second World War, that members of the anti-war counter-culture of the 60s used it signify peace, and that contemporary Japanese and Chinese teenagers often make the gesture when posing for photos, signifying (I think) that they are happy and that life is good. When I visited Beijing a few years back, I thought I was back on campus in the 1960s, so frequently did I see the V sign made. Interestingly, in some quarters, the V sign made with the back of the hand out is an insult.
Chandler, J., & Schwarz, N. (2009). How extending your middle finger affects your perception of others: Learned movements influence concept accessibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 123-128.