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The Wisdom Hiding in Our Hands

Etiquette says keep them still; research says let them loose.

That our hands communicate if you watch them closely enough sounds a conclusion befitting a palm reader, not a distinguished psychology professor from the University of Chicago. And yet that’s one of the takeaways from Professor Susan Goldin-Meadow’s latest book, Thinking With Your Hands: The Surprising Science Behind How Gestures Shape Our Thoughts.

Goldin-Meadow has studied language and gestures since the mid 1970s, finding that our hands not only reveal our emotions but also our thoughts—sometimes in ways that differ from what we’re actually saying. “The thoughts you express in gesture don’t always appear in your speech,” she writes.

Case in point: Somebody says men and women are equally good leaders, but gestures at eye-level when talking about men’s leadership skills, and gestures at mouth-level when talking about women. “He may think that he believes in the equality of male and female leadership,” Goldin-Meadow writes, “but his hands have given him away.” It’s not that the person is trying to hide his beliefs; it’s that he might not even be aware of them.

If gestures can reveal unflattering beliefs and biases, why use them at all? Because Goldin-Meadow’s research has shown gestures can, if we tune into them, help us learn, think, and remember. “If you’re a CEO worrying about revealing that you don’t really believe in equality, become aware of your gestures,” says Goldin-Meadow, “and then try to change your implicit beliefs about equality—that’s assuming they’re a good CEO.”

A developmental psychologist, Goldin-Meadow has focused her research mostly on children, particularly on how gestures influence their language, learning, and development. She pioneered research into “homesign,” gesture systems created by deaf children who can’t learn spoken language and have never been exposed to sign language. Homesigners use their hands to create a language of their own.

Goldin-Meadow’s research has found that a child’s gestures can reveal a level of knowledge their minds and words haven’t yet consciously grasped—what she terms a “mismatch.” Analyzing video footage from experiments, Goldin-Meadow discovered that when some children solve a problem incorrectly, their gestures often convey an awareness of the very principle they’ll need to solve it. Children displaying this “mismatch” learn to solve the problem faster than children who do not mismatch.


Other research of hers has found children learn much better when information is presented in gesture and speech, rather than just speech alone—and that children learn better when they themselves gesture.

Chapters in Goldin-Meadow’s book cover how we can use our hands to parent, to diagnose, and to educate. She delves into research showing how gestures can not only reveal what’s on our minds but also change our minds—that is, do everything from improve memory to influence testimony. Goldin-Meadow backs up these big claims with data, and is comfortable exploring questions that defy pithy answers: Why do blind individuals gesture when talking to other blind people who can’t see those gestures? Are there ideas our hands can’t express?

Grasping the power of gestures requires that we first notice them—a tall task given that we now spend more than 4.5 hours each day looking at our phones.  In a recent Zoom interview to discuss her book and research, Goldin-Meadow framed herself so there was space for her hands on camera—space she regularly used.

When they hear about hand gestures, many professionals probably think of those not-quite-natural movements they see during speeches or presentations. Yet those aren’t the gestures you’re talking about.

That’s interesting. When people hear “gestures,” they usually think I’m talking about “emblems”—gestures like a thumbs-up or an OK sign. But I’m not talking about those, either. Emblems are well-formed; you can do them correctly or incorrectly. If I make an OK like this [uses her thumb and middle finger to make the symbol], that’s not the OK sign. Emblems are more like words, and I’m more interested in the stuff that’s created on the fly because it can tell us something about the way we’re thinking.

So if we go back to the people who instruct speakers about using their hands, their goal may be good. But if you think really hard about how to use your hands, you’re probably going to do it wrong. We don’t know that much about spontaneous gesture, about what works and what doesn’t work.

There’s this delicate balance you touch on: some intention is necessary, yet too much can be counterproductive. So let’s say a CEO comes to you and says: “I believe in the power of gestures, what should I start doing about it?”

One of the things I’d say is: Just use your hands when you talk, and don’t worry about the ways in which you use them. It’s a little like breathing. I’m not going to think about how I breathe. Because if I think about how I breathe, or how I walk, it all falls apart. With gesture, you just get it started and then it runs off on its own.

We also have evidence that the act of gesturing itself helps get the mind working, and helps children acquire words and sentences.

Do you feel any extra pressure ever with how you use your hands, since you’re the gesture expert?

No, I just use my hands, I just gesture. Sometimes I notice that I’m gesturing but not how I’m gesturing.

When I’m really into a lecture, my hands go up. I rarely think about the particular gestures I’m using. What I do think about, though, is being consistent if I’m explaining a topic. If I’m explaining concept A over here [lifts left hand] and concept B over here [lifts right hand], I don’t switch them. That will confuse people. Little things like that.

But in general, you just have to let it rip.

Your book has me looking more closely at everyone’s hands now. And I was particularly taken by the idea that our hands can reveal biases we’re not even aware of.

Biases and ideas. I’ve done a lot of research focused on the latter.

If I take two glasses, for example, that have exactly the same amount of water in them, then I take one glass, and I pour it into a very wide, flat dish, and ask a child: “Do the containers have the same amount of water in them, or a different amount?” Little kids think it’s a different amount just because you poured it. When they’re explaining it, some kids will say: “It’s different because this one is short and this one’s tall.” And their gestures will follow their speech [moves her hands vertically from one container to the other]. Other kids will give the same incorrect answer, but their gestures reflect the width of the containers [makes a tight pinching gesture near one container and a wider pinch near the other]. When they do that, they’re expressing different ideas in their hands than their mouths. They never talk about width, but they seem to know width is relevant to the problem. Kids who do this learn that the amount of water stays the same when poured more quickly than kids who don’t.

Your book outlines a number of profound effects that gestures can have on a child’s development. For the parent overwhelmed by the many implications of gestures, where do you tell them to begin?

In the book I encourage four steps.

The first is to just watch your kid, watch their gestures and respond to them. When they’re pointing at a bottle, you can say, “yes, that’s a bottle.” Gesture helps you make inferences about what the kid does and doesn’t know (that the object is called a “bottle”). The literature I reviewed in the book about how kids use gesture will help parents know what to keep an eye on during development.

The second is to encourage your child to gesture. You can do that in lots of ways. You can just say, “Trying using your hands when you talk.” When you encourage little kids to gesture, they’re obedient; they will. And in their gestures they will reveal things that they may not even consciously know. We also have evidence that the act of gesturing itself helps get the mind working, and helps children acquire words and sentences.

The third is gesture yourself, which will get gestures going in kids—it creates a gesture environment. Emily Post discourages gestures; people think they make you look like a fool. But I don’t agree. Gestures are informative, people use them. They look at them all the time. And I think they glean information from them.

The last point is pay attention to your own gestures. Particularly if you’re a teacher, make sure that you’re not pointing at this thing and meaning that thing.


Author and Professor Susan Goldin-Meadow

Could your work be used as an argument for return to in-person work and for face-to-face meetings?

I think we should be returning to face-to-face teaching. I don’t really want to teach kids over Zoom. It’s hard for everyone. I can’t answer their questions in the same way as I would face-to-face. It’s a very different discussion. I make sure that when I’m lecturing on Zoom, I leave enough space for my gesturing hands. But students don’t always do the same, so I don’t get the benefit of seeing their gestures.

For me, fully-online education is not going to be as effective as in-person. It’s not going to help students learn the same way.

What space is there for gesture in a world of Zoom meetings and smartphones? Is its power diminished?

That depends on your point of view. We’ve talked on the telephone for many, many years. There are no gestures visible on the telephone. Nonetheless, we gesture when we talk on the phone. I think in part when we gesture, we’re gesturing for ourselves. And we’re using those hands to organize our own thoughts. It’s not working as well for the listener. But I know for me, phone conversations are harder than face-to-face conversations. There’s no question about it.

In the book, you seem comfortable with the mystery of all we don’t know about language and how the mind works. We so often turn to science for answers

I think that’s actually one of the biggest problems with our culture right now. That people think science offers certainty, answers. But if you’re at the edge of scientific knowledge, we can’t know for sure; we’ve got to be uncertain.

It’s a little like breathing. I’m not going to think about how I breathe. Because if I think about how I breathe, or how I walk, it all falls apart. With gesture, you just get it started and then it runs off on its own.

I suppose what people tend to crave is some version of “if you stand in a power pose, you will be more confident.” You don’t seem to approach your research in that same way.

I can be certain about some things. I know which gestures will make it easier for children to solve the math problems we study. And if you want to help children consider more than one point of view in a moral dilemma, I know the gestures to teach them. And I’m happy to say those work to improve understanding. It’s just difficult to know which gestures to use for all of the problems we teach.

We’re trying to figure out, for instance, the gestures to use to teach college students standard deviation. We have gotten a terrific teacher to help us and she gestures up a storm. So now we have a good sense of what gestures to use in a lesson. We’re thinking about how to set up a curriculum to teach students not only what words to say, but also how to express problem-relevant ideas in their gestures.

This has to be done task by task. It’s doable, but it takes time. If you look at any scientist, physicist, chemist, linguist—they all gesture quite a lot, and express ideas with their hands they may not be expressing with their mouths.

What other subjects are you looking into?

Anjana Lakshmi, a social psychologist who is a student in my lab, is looking at how people use their hands when they are asked to evaluate others—like when you’re evaluating men and women as leaders. That’s attracted a lot of attention.

She’s identified two dimensions of evaluation. There’s the vertical dimension when people evaluate competence. So, highly competent [lifts hand to eye level], less competent [lowers hand to neck].

But there’s also an in-out dimension when people evaluate warmth. So [moves hands closer to body] is a warmer person, and [moves hands away] is less warm.

She’s finding evidence for these dimensions in spontaneous gesture. And she’s also manipulating gesture: telling speakers to put their hands up here [lifts hand to eye level] and watching to see if that encourages them to talk not only about competence, but high competence.

We also want to look at parents’ hands when they tell their kids that “boys and girls are equal.” Are their hands conveying the same message as their words?

photograph: rob kozloff/uchicago

The Authors

Edward Stephens

Director, Senior Editor, Dallas

Edward is Senior Editor of the Brunswick Review, a business publication with readers across 68 countries. He's also written for some of the most recognizable names in the Fortune 500 and FTSE 100, drafting everything from keynote speeches to white papers, op-eds to scripts.