When it comes to body language, men and women often have different problem areas. For example, women tend to close off more of their "power zones" (neck dimple, bellybutton, and "naughty bits"), appearing less powerful, and men tend to monopolize space, often appearing arrogant. Whether by nature or nurture, these general gender differences in baseline behavior are real. Just as there are gender differences in how our minds control our bodies, there are also gender differences in how our bodies control our minds.
A study by Thomas W. Schubert published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2004, examined gender differences in self-perceptions after making a fist.
Men and women in the experimental group were asked to make the "rock" gesture from "rock-paper-scissors." They were then tasked with viewing pictures of people in different situations, identifying with one of those people, and reporting on that person's "hope for control" and "hope for power." The control group performed the same task, but made the "scissors" gesture instead. The researchers found that, for men, making a fist increased the likelihood of reporting the person in the picture had "hope for control" and "hope for power." For women, the opposite was true. Making a fist decreased the likelihood that women would indicate that the person in the picture had "hope for control" and "hope for power."
In a separate study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2009, Schubert and Koole examined how making a fist affects feelings of assertiveness. Participants, some making the "rock" gesture and others "scissors," answered a series of questions to measure their assertiveness. Schubert and Koole found that men making a fist reported feeling more assertive than those making the neutral gesture, but there was no similar effect for women.
Why the difference? Forming a fist activates ideas of power or control in both genders, but both genders might make a fist under different circumstances. Researchers argue that, for men, physical aggression is a means to gain power, whereas for women it is an expression of lost power—a last resort.
A fascinating facet of fist-making unexamined in these studies is "thumbs out" vs. "thumbs in." Protecting the thumbs by sucking them or hiding them inside a fist is something newborns do to comfort themselves. It could certainly be the case that women are more likely to tuck their thumbs in when making a fist, or that men who do the same are less likely to report feeling assertive, but we don't know from this research.
Whatever the reasons are, the findings are certainly interesting. I thought about it, and I realized I make a fist when I'm upset or frustrated.
When are you most likely to make a fist? Ask your spouse as well. Do your answers comport with the findings in the study?