Research Article: Do gestures retain mental associations with their iconic origins, even after they become emblematic? An analysis of the middle-finger gesture among American English speakers

Date Published: April 30, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Benjamin K. Bergen, Joshua Snell.


What concepts and words do communicative gestures activate in the minds of people who view them? It’s widely believed that many gestures grow from iconic origins—they look like what they mean—but also that at some point they may become emblematic—conventionalized as culturally agreed-upon symbols. How long do links between physical movements of the body and the things in the world they denote persist in the minds of gesture-users? A pair of experiments asks this question for the Middle-Finger, a cross-culturally recognized obscene gesture. The prevailing view is that the gesture originates in a phallic symbol. Yet it is now predominantly used as an emblematic gesture displaying contempt (among other things). It is currently unknown whether the iconic origins of gestures persist through the emblematic stage in the minds of gesture users. Two experiments tested the hypothesis that viewing the Middle-Finger primes thoughts about penises or the word penis. The results showed that the Middle-Finger induced no priming of penis compared with control, unlike another obscene penis-representing gesture (Finger-Bang), which did. This suggests that the Middle-Finger no longer activates thoughts of penises in the minds of contemporary American English speakers. Emblematic gestures with iconic origins may undergo historical change not just in the functions they serve but also in the effects they have on the minds of people who use them.

Partial Text

Across cultures and languages, humans use communicative gestures to accompany and replace speech [1]. These gestures vary in terms of their iconicity [2]. Iconic gestures directly reflect aspects of what they denote through their articulated, visible form, as in pantomime. But many gestures with iconic origins transition over time into emblematic gestures [3]. Emblematic gestures, like Thumbs-Up or A-OK, have culturally agreed-upon forms and functions; they can replace words and often have conventional labels. But it is currently unknown, as a gesture’s function changes, whether it also loses its iconic links in the minds of the humans who use it. Emblematic gestures might be bereft of iconic associations for language users—acting as arbitrary conventionalized symbols. Alternatively, iconic associations might survive the transition to emblematicity—in principle, a gesture might both have a culturally agreed-upon form and function, and yet still retain iconic associations to its original basis in the minds of users. The two experiments below ask, for one emblematic gesture, whether its original iconic basis is lost once it transitions to an emblem.

A first experiment investigated whether exposure to an image of a hand with extended middle finger would increase a viewer’s activation of the word penis and related concepts. It used a word-stem completion method [25–26]. In word-stem completion, participants are presented with the beginnings, or stems, of incomplete words, and are asked to fill in the remaining characters. The words they provide are affected by recent experience—they can be primed. Word-stem completion has historically been deployed predominantly as a measure of implicit memory in both neurotypical [27] and impaired populations [28].

In order to determine what causes the non-effect of the Middle-Finger gesture on completions of p e n _ _, a third gesture condition was added to the critical trial, using a gesture in which the hand is uniformly agreed to be iconically representing a penis, but for which there is no conventional, emblematic label relating to “penis”. To produce what will be referred to as the Finger-Bang gesture (seen at the bottom right of Fig 4), the index finger of one hand moves inside a loop created by the index and thumb of the other hand.

In two experiments, images of gestures primed associated word-completion responses—the Peace gesture primed peace and the Finger-Bang gesture primed the word penis. But the Middle-Finger did not prime penis. This suggests that even if the Middle-Finger originated as an iconic representation of a penis in its ancient history, there is no residual evidence of this in the minds of modern gesture users.