The Power of the Middle Finger

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

So you drive to work, start to change lanes (without glancing back over your shoulder) only to notice another car speeding toward you. You correct the error and quickly steer back to your original lane. The other driver speeds by giving you the middle finger salute. Perhaps your heart races a bit. You feel insulted, a little foolish and maybe angry. Yes getting “flipped off” inspires hostility in the receiver of the nasty gesture. I once watched two middle-aged adults in a flip-off contest, each trying to out shout and out gesture the other in an absurd display of immaturity. Funny to watch, in a bad-television-sit-com kind of way.

We find evidence of the insulting middle finger gesture in writings from ancient Greece and Rome. Fans of the Click and Clack radio program will get a kick out of the urban legend they created on the origins of the “Pluck Yew.” Most cultures find the gesture insulting. In France if you give the V-sign with the back of the hand out it translates as “up yours.” The A-OK sign, with thumb and first finger making an O, offends people in Latin American countries. And our cheerful thumbs-up gesture infuriates those from Australia, Bangladesh and most Islamic nations. In the U.S. some have been arrested and convicted for use of the middle finger gesture although most cases were overturned on appeal.

But the real power of the middle finger salute might surprise you. According to new research, “extending the finger in response to an annoying behavior may increase one’s perception of others apparent hostility, potentially justifying further aggressive responses.” (Chandler & Schwarz, 2008). When we use the middle finger we actually see others as more hostile. Likewise, using the thumbs-up sign can cause us to see others as friendlier (Note to troops:  don’t try this in Iraq or Afghanistan).

If you want to avoid escalating conflict, try a gesture that will make you feel better: Smile. When you smile facial muscles send messages to your brain priming you to feel better. Others think you look more attractive and will likely smile back. You can start a whole upward spiral of feel-good emotions using far less energy than flipping the digitus impudicus.