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What Does It Mean When Someone Puts Their Hands Behind Their Head?

Howard has had a longtime interest in psychology and human behavior and enjoys digging into the reasons why we do the things we do.

Maybe you've noticed other people putting their hands and arms behind their head, or perhaps you've caught yourself doing it and wondered why.

There are two main (and different) ways of evincing this pose, but they have two things in common:

  • The arms are raised.
  • The hands are behind the head.

First, there are some physical reasons for doing this. If you've been in the same position for a while or are feeling a bit tired it could serve as a refreshing stretch. Physical motivations take precedence over other explanations, so if one is available it's the obvious reason. But let's assume there isn't a physical reason for it. We want to know what people are unconsciously saying when they assume this pose.

The arms behind the head position, often with a backward lean, can mean two entirely different things depending on where exactly the arms are placed and what the hands are doing. They are sometimes referred to as:

  • the cradle and
  • the catapult

The cradle suggests insecurity and a need for comfort. The catapult suggests aggression and dominance.

Obviously, interpreting body language isn't an exact science. Taking any action in isolation can lead to wrong conclusions. Still, it's useful to know the most likely meanings of the gestures we come across. Let's look at these two positions more closely.

The Cradle

In the cradle the hands are on the back of the neck or head. The elbows are held close together, surrounding the sides of the head. The head can be bowed before being tilted back. When it's tilted back the hands are supporting the weight of the head. More muted versions of the pose could have the hands on the front or sides of the head.

This position implies insecurity, anxiety, or a need for comfort. Let's look at the components to see why.

A bowed head is submissive and defeated. A head that's tilted back being supported is a self-comforting gesture. Someone else isn't holding our head at that moment so we do it ourselves. Having the head supported is a very safe, comforting position. An image of a parent holding a baby comes to mind. The hands might move from the front or sides of the head to the back. This stroking motion is also comforting.

There's an element of this kind of support in the cradle position.

There's an element of this kind of support in the cradle position.

Having the elbows close rather than flared provides shielding for the head. We're concerned about an attack, either physical or psychological.

Where do we see examples of this? It's common at sporting events. When a player makes a mistake or misses on a great opportunity, they will sometimes assume the cradle position. They know that they are the target of mass disappointment and they have to protect themselves from it. The submissiveness of it acknowledges the mistake, thus asking onlookers to show some mercy. The other similar poses that are also often used in these situations are variations on the cradle.

Examples can be seen in the video below. There are many variations of this gesture in it, but close-ups can be seen in the player's reactions from 3:08 to 3:15.

It's also seen in other environments where someone has made a mistake, underperformed, or is feeling stressed. A white-collar worker who's been reprimanded or who's overwhelmed might seek solace in the cradle.

The Catapult

A superficially similar but vastly different position is the catapult. The head is upright or slightly back. The hands are behind the head but they're not supporting it. The elbows are flared. The chest is usually full of air to aid in the expansion.

This position implies aggression and dominance. Let's examine the components.

The elbows are spread wide, exposing the face. This shows the person isn't afraid of an attack, either verbal or physical. It also takes up more space, making them look bigger.

The chest expansion complements the elbow position, pushing them farther apart. It makes the person look as thick and wide as they possibly can.

The person will often be leaning back slightly. This makes them look unconcerned about the possible threats around them and just generally carefree.

The head isn't being held, so the person doesn't feel in need of any support. This also keeps the hands free, making them ready to move quickly if they have to. The possibility of sudden aggression is just under the surface.

Where do we see this gesture? I have to admit I don't see it very often, probably because it's such a conspicuous gesture. It could be used in a white-collar setting during a disagreement or a negotiation. It could make an appearance just before the boss begins a meeting, to let everyone know how important he is. It might also be seen in a casual encounter where someone with higher status is trying to lord it over the others.

The picture below demonstrates the catapult pose well. Note the flared elbows and alert looking head position. Sometimes the chest will be expanded even more than is pictured.

In the cradle pose the elbows would be closer together. The head would be back, fully supported by the hands, and the chest would be deflated.

This version of hands behind the head is dominant and aggressive.

This version of hands behind the head is dominant and aggressive.

Differences Between the Cradle and the Catapult

The main differences are in how open or closed the position is and whether there's head support or not.

The cradle is a closed, cowering, weak position. The catapult is an open, intimidating, strong position.

The cradle's full head support provides comfort and means the person isn't ready to attack, just to passively defend. Substituting a stroking motion or adding it is comforting as well.

The catapult's lack of support and minimal contact show security and means the person's hands are ready to launch an attack. This probably won't manifest as a physical attack, of course, but the threat is present. More likely, they're ready for a verbal response if it's needed.

Should We Take the Hands Behind the Head Pose at Face Value?

When someone goes into the cradle after something embarrassing or shameful has happened it's very likely genuine. It's one of those automatic reactions that seems universal. At the same time, it's possible that someone who wants to look contrite or wants someone with a legitimate complaint to go easy on them could fake it.

The catapult is probably a little less reliable. This one can easily be faked by someone who wants to seem super confident. They could actually be very uncertain of themselves.

We have to use our judgment in each case. This is where it's good to look for a pattern of behavior rather than drawing conclusions from a single action.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to lean back with my hands behind my head.

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