Hand gestures: Thumb displays and their meanings

Do you know why humans rule the earth? What do you think has given us the greatest edge over other species? Why, among all the primates, only the Homo sapiens were able to make extra-ordinary progress?

Other than a highly advanced and clever brain there is one more important contributing factor that has virtually enabled all human progress. It is the presence of an opposable thumb i.e. a thumb placed opposite to the fingers thus enabling it to stretch further away from the hand. Most primates (chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys) and some other animals also have opposable thumbs but they can’t move their thumb as farther away from the hand as humans can.

Due to this superior opposability of the thumb, human beings were able to make tools, weapons, and complicated structures. It also enabled us to write and hence language was born. Language led to mathematics, science, and literature and these are precisely the things that have brought us where we are today.

The thumb is physically the most powerful finger in the human hand. What’s fascinating is that in hand gestures, the thumb conveys the same message of power, dominance, and superiority.


Thumb displays = power displays

When someone displays their thumb in non-verbal communication, it is a clear indication that the person is feeling powerful and superior. Thumb displays are often accompanied by other body language gestures but they can also appear in isolation.

Let’s start with the most ubiquitous of all the thumb display gestures- the ‘thumbs-up’ gesture.

In most cultures, this hand gesture means, ‘Everything’s okay’, ‘I have it under control’, ‘I’m powerful’. When a fighter pilot is ready for take-off, he makes this hand gesture to re-assure his fellow troops asking if he’s ready to go for it. When a stand-up comedian concludes a brilliant act, his brother in the audience does this gesture to say, non-verbally, ‘Your performance was amazing and powerful’.

Thumbs up gesture

Note that in some Mediterranean cultures this is an offensive gesture and in some European countries, it means nothing but ‘one’ since they count on their fingers starting from the thumb.


You will often see males displaying their thumbs when they want to give the impression that they are ‘powerful’ or ‘cool’. They put their hands in their pockets and have their thumbs protruding out of them, be it pockets of the pants or a coat.

thumb in pockets hand gesture


As mentioned earlier, thumb displays can also be part of a gesture cluster that also includes other gestures conveying other emotions.

For instance, when a person crosses his arms he’s feeling defensive but if his thumbs point upward, it means he’s feeling defensive but wants to give the impression that he’s cool. 

thumb on chest hand gesture


Similarly, when a person has clenched his hands in front of him, it means that he’s exercising self-restraint. But if this hand gesture is accompanied with thumbs pointing upwards it means that even though he is restraining himself, he has got something powerful to say.


putin's hand gesture


A person displaying the thumbs may also lean backward (apathy), tilt their head back exposing the neck (dominance) or rock on the balls of their feet to increase their height (high status). This is because feeling powerful is often accompanied by feeling apathetic toward others, feeling dominant and feeling that your status is higher compared to others.

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