Do Gestures Galvanize Group Identity?

Understanding the "MAGA fist pump" and more.

Posted Jan 26, 2021

Image by Francis Chung / AP Images / Used With Permission
Source: Image by Francis Chung / AP Images / Used With Permission

Nonverbal expression and gestures communicate a lot. In many societies, an individual who flashes the “middle finger” (or holds it in place for a short time) communicates a certain degree of ire, shall we say, that one has toward another. On the flip side, a hand-wave can communicate a warm welcome or a cordial good-bye.

Nonverbal gestures can also connote religious sentiments such as bowing to another in Buddhism, or, in Catholicism, making the “sign of the cross,” often in private, without regard to another person. Still, nonverbal gestures take on even greater meaning, even greater force, when they are intended to signal solidarity with a group identity. 

One recent example, of course, is the Trump fist pump (although the fist gesture is not new). Not only do Trump supporters share a common identity of supporting Donald Trump, but they have a nonverbal gesture — the Trump fist pump — as an outward sign of their group identity.

While we know from the social identity literature (e.g., Hogg, 2016) that individuals can share a collective identity and feel unity with one another without a particular gesture, the simultaneous expression of a nonverbal group gesture certainly puts everyone on the same page, in the same moment, at the same time. Thus, whether it be Eric and Lara Trump holding a fist-pump on stage at the “Stop the Steal” rally or Senator Josh Hawley’s famous fist-pump to rally participants on January 6, 2021, the nonverbal gesture speaks something more powerful than words, something deeper within one’s own identity.

At the same time, research by Daphna Oyserman and Mesmin Destin (2010) also underscores the power of identity-based motivation. Basically, our self-concept comprises many identities (e.g., American, mother, etc.), and identity-based motivation occurs when one’s salient identity is congruent with the task at hand. For example, if one is reminded that they are a “mother,” they might be more motivated to speak out about issues related to motherhood; or if they have an identity as an “American,” they might be more likely to strive harder and longer in an international competition.

What’s more, the experimental evidence comes from studies where the experimenter merely makes a particular identity salient in the mind of a research participant. So, just think about how much more powerful these effects are in the real world, such as at a rally, especially when combined with the nonverbal expression of gesture, akin to the Trump fist pump. Such a manipulation of identity-based motivation could have the power to push one’s motivation to new heights.

So, it is sufficive to say that coupling group identity with a nonverbal gesture is a powerful force in social movements, in social engineering at large. And there are many other examples of gestures and group identity too, some benign, socially acceptable — such as Americans routinely placing their hands over their hearts during the pledge of allegiance — and others more pernicious, such as the extended arm with a flat hand in the Nazi salute or the recent adaptation of the “Okay” hand-gesture to express one’s solidarity with white supremacy. 

Nevertheless, because these gestures are visual pathways to evoke one’s deepest identities, these identity-based gestures can greatly impact the level and direction of one’s motivation. For that reason, one should be mindful of where and when they are being used, in good times and bad times.

Although more research is needed, it seems these expressions are most powerful when they are done simultaneously in a group or crowd, as opposed to interpersonally, from one person to another. And given the research on heuristics, such gestures are likely to be more efficacious, the simpler they are to convey. So, dancing the Waltz, the Charleston, or the Macarena may be a little too complicated to convey solidarity with a particular group identity, however exhilarating and unifying the experience.

References

Gaertner, L., & Schopler, J. (1998). Perceive ingroup entitativity and intergroup bias: An interconnection of self and others. European Journal of Social Psychology, 28, 962-980.

Hogg M.A. (2016) Social Identity Theory. In: McKeown S., Haji R., Ferguson N. (eds) Understanding Peace and Conflict Through Social Identity Theory. Peace Psychology Book Series. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-29869-6_1

Oyserman, D., & Mesmin, D. (2010). Identity-based motivation: Implications for intervention. Counseling Psychology, 38, 1001-1043.