At the Speed of Hands

Our ingrained associations with the speed of hand movements in respect to gender associations influence what products we choose to buy, writes Eda Sayin.

At the Speed of Hands

Hand movements are one of our “windows to the world.” They are instrumental to how we learn and feel about our environment and how we communicate within it. In fact, hand gesticulation is such an essential part of the human experience that children begin to gesture with their hands as a way to communicate before they are able to speak. And from that point forward, our use of our hands as a communications tool only increases. In everyday life, we not only perform but also observe a variety of hand movements: assertively raised hands for attention in a classroom or for hailing a taxi in the street, the gentle brushing of teeth in a toothpaste advertisement, or the frantic movement of steering wheels in action thrillers like The Fast and the Furious.

Through the repeated observation of these different hand movements, we develop associations about the speed of a motoric act and the characteristics of an individual performing that movement. Based on these associations, we form judgments, which influence our response to those products touched by the hand movement. My colleague Sumit Malik and I have found that observing slow vs. fast hand movement activates distinct gender-identity associations, and that these associations can be accessed by marketers and advertisers when attempting to reach particular groups of consumers (forthcoming Psychology & Marketing).

These are learned associations, based on a customer’s recurrent experiences and observations of other people’s hand movements, and this is particularly the case in product marketing. For example, consumers tend to observe advertisements in which a female protagonist uses her hands in a gentle manner when interacting with the product. A male character, on the other hand, usually demonstrates a speedier hand action. Repeated exposure to such sensorimotor experiences can lead to implicit associations of slow hand movements with a more feminine behavior, and fast with male.

Personal care and cleaning products often depict women engaging in slow hand movements as a way to convey the product’s nurturance, gentleness, and care.

One of the fundamental ways we learn to make sense of the world is via observation and imitating others, what Albert Bandera coined as social learning. Research shows that people develop gender and their concepts of gender through social learning and that these associations become rooted as people are repetitively exposed to the traditional behaviors of gender roles through books, films, advertisements, and press coverage.

For example, traditional dance forms such as Kathakali (17th-century Indian art-form) and Flamenco (18th-century Spanish dance) portray femininity through subtle hand gestures and masculinity with vigorous movements. Likewise, representations in films and theater have occasionally shown men to engage in vigorous hand movements and women to depict graceful and softer actions. In the advertising context, commercials of personal care and cleaning products often depict women engaging in slow hand movements as a way to convey the product’s nurturance, gentleness, and care (i.e., stereotypical feminine characteristics). On the contrary, advertisements that depict male protagonists frequently portray fast hand movements – to reflect forcefulness, power, and dominance (i.e., stereotypical masculine attributes).

Surveys estimate that, in 2021, the average person saw a whopping 6,000 to 10,000 ads per day. Thus, as consumers who more frequently observe male protagonists performing vigorous sensorimotor actions, they begin to relate speed with the associated movements, and this becomes ingrained male vs. female behavior. As part of our research, we have run implicit association tests across countries including the US, Spain, and India, and found evidence that slow/fast movements are unconsciously associated with femininity/masculinity across genders. These associations may consequently influence how the consumer views a particular product.

In fact, there is plenty of research that shows that the associations that consumers have with sensorimotor experiences impact how they evaluate products. For example, a study found that consumers tend to evaluate the quality of the mineral water they are drinking based on the information they gathered by touching its container and that water that comes in a flimsy cup is not regarded as tasting as well as that which comes in a firm cup. Another piece of research shows that the sensations of comfort (or lack thereof) that arise for consumers from the floor under their feet can impact their evaluations of the products they are viewing.

As gender becomes more fluid, these learned associations will likely change over time.

Consumers usually have a preference for products that reflect their identities and tend to choose those that are more congruent with their gender. They do so via cues such as color, shape, and form. Hand motion speed may be a more subtle cue, but it is no less powerful. In fact, there are some products that are advertised specifically via hand interaction, for example someone applying L’Oreal face cream, washing their hands with Palmolive liquid hand wash, or using a Philips vacuum cleaner.

So, what can marketers and advertisers do with this information? One option is to simply alter the speed at which the actor’s hand interacts with the featured product and thereby vary the perceived femininity/masculinity of the product and consumer responses to it. Thus, advertising videos – and even written descriptions – of slow vs. fast hand interaction with a product can help consumers align with a product and influence them to make a purchase based on certain perceptions of behaviors.

Furthermore, marketers that intend to position products in a strongly gendered manner should avoid pairing slow motoric movements with a masculine product and vice versa. An incongruent speed-gender identity pairing will simply reduce the impact of any targeted marketing efforts. Our research revealed that people have learned associations regarding gender based on the speed of hand movement and that these associations have very specific implications on the choices that consumers make. What is now important to investigate are the reasons behind and the social effect of this rather perturbing stereotypical association. To that point, it is relevant to note that femininity and masculinity exist with different prevalence levels across genders and, as gender becomes more fluid, these learned associations will likely change over time. Marketers must therefore always consider the evolving nature of the market and consumption habits and adjust their efforts in order to stay relevant to the changing identity and needs of consumers.


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