Howard has had a longtime interest in psychology and human behavior and enjoys digging into the reasons why we do the things we do.
The hands on the hips posture seems like it's everywhere, so no doubt you've seen it many times in pictures and in person. Here are the usual components of the position:
- the hands are on the hips,
- the elbows are flared straight out, and
- the person is facing their intended target.
There are some possible variations that predominantly mean the same thing, including:
- a change in the position of the hands, fingers and thumbs, or
- a change in the position of the legs and feet.
This is a pose of dominance, threat and challenge. The picture below shows the standard version of this posture. Let's look at the effects of this pose and how the components contribute to it.
It Maximizes Perceived Size
Men in this position will usually have their feet shoulder width apart or wider. This draws them to their full height and takes up more space.
Women will often do this too, but we see more variation in their stances. They might have their weight on one foot with a slight bend in the other leg. Or they could have one leg directly under their upper body with the other leg stretched out somewhat. In either case the posture is fairly straight. Having one leg stretched out takes up more space which is a dominant move and makes the person look bigger.
The flared elbows are the most obvious example of taking up more space and the key to the whole position.
It's Open and Direct
The front of the body is exposed, telling onlookers that they're not concerned about any threat. It gives the impression that they're daring others to try something.
A person in this pose will usually be directly facing whomever they're addressing. If you've ever seen a confrontation in person or on video, you might remember that when both people commit to it they're right in front of each other. They face each other dead on and then they both challenge the other to go ahead and start something.
This element is present in the hands on hips pose, albeit more subtly. The person will directly face the camera or whomever they want to receive the message. There's an impression of defiance as the person stands their ground.
It's Subtly Threatening
The flared elbows come into play again here. Our elbows are sharp and pointy, great for poking people in their soft midsections. If you've ever had to maneuver through a crowded room you know how useful the elbows can be. They can be used subtly, almost apologetically, to create space. It's less aggressive than pushing with your hands but still aggressive.
When we see someone displaying their elbows prominently we can't help but get the message that some physical force is possible.
It's Ready for Action
The hands on the hips pose looks alert and challenging. Fighting position is hands up by the face. Having the hands on the hips puts them halfway to this obviously aggressive placement. If needed, the person is ready to quickly get their hands to a defensive or offensive position.
This complements the visibility of the elbows. There's a double signal of possible physical aggression. The threat from the elbows combined with the readiness of the hands to get involved suggests the person is prepared for whatever is coming.
Variations of the Hands on Hips Posture
There are a few differences that we sometimes see in this posture.
- The Fingers: Usually they are facing the front and the thumbs are facing back (as shown in both pictures). This can be reversed. Women do this variation more often than men because their structure makes it more comfortable. It's also more suited to a feminine shape because it's conducive to a lower back arch.
- Fists instead of hands: Having the fists on the hips makes this posture look even more aggressive.
- Back of hands: Here the backs of the hands are in contact with the hips. This mutes the aggression factor a bit and looks extremely artificial.
- One hand only: One hand is hanging normally at the side and the other is on the hip. This diminishes the dominance and aggression.
All of these postures still suggest dominance, defiance and aggression, only the degree varies.
Where Do We See the Hands on the Hips Pose?
It's all over the place. It's very commonly seen when female celebrities who want to look fierce or powerful are posing for a picture. This position dominates the red carpet, and not by accident. It does work. Even if an onlooker doesn't understand all the elements, I suspect they get the feeling that the person is strong or at least trying to look strong.
Angelina Jolie famously assumed a variation of this pose at the 2012 Oscars. With a flared elbow on one side and an exposed, flared leg on the other, it made for an affected but striking visual. It embodied everything the hands on the hips pose is supposed to suggest. It's as if it's saying, "Who says I shouldn't stand like this? I can do whatever I want."
It can be seen at the beginning of the following video and at the 0:24 mark.
It's also commonly seen from the competitors at sporting events. They will often assume it during a break in the action. It sends the appropriate message to their opponents, and it also helps to reassure the person in question of their own dominance.
It's also seen frequently in casual encounters.
If people are arguing or in any kind of confrontation it's a natural position to take. When someone's telling a story of being involved in a confrontation or a time they stood up for themselves, this pose fittingly makes an appearance.
People also use it when they are simply feeling good about themselves. This pose helps project that feeling to others.
Can We Make Reliable Judgments Based On the Hands on Hips Posture?
This posture is easy to assume on command. I get the feeling that when people do it for a picture they've planned it in advance. When someone goes into it during a confrontation it's most likely real. I think it's important to note that whether it's assumed spontaneously or not it can still be sincere. The message is one of strength and readiness for confrontation. Whether the person would be effective if the situation escalated is another matter entirely.
It's also a natural position to assume if we're thinking about how we could look strong without being too obvious about it. It's not as over-the-top as flexing our muscles or spreading our arms out.
When trying to determine if someone really feels as powerful as this posture suggests, one thing to look for is any contradictions in the scene. For example, if the person's feet are close together or they don't look strongly balanced they probably aren't completely confident. The message would also be undercut if the person was going in and out of the position, or if they were alternating their orientation. This could suggest the person is struggling to maintain their mental state.
The main thing we can take away from this posture is that the person knows there's some reason that they'd want to look more intimidating or confident than usual.