Curious case of the romantic fingers

It has been ever so intriguing to learn why people behave in the manner they do. Social scientists and psychologists in particular have been grappling to understand and predict behaviour through years of rigorous research.

Several causative theories have been propounded and numerous assessment methods continue to be designed adding to the already available repertoire. Yet it cannot be said with certainty that we have a complete understanding of human behaviour, given its dynamic nature, influenced by complex interplay of multifarious factors. 

Nonetheless, researchers from time to time come up with ludicrous findings, making one wonder at the wasted efforts and uselessness of such a study. Case in point is a recent research reported in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, that made headlines in media as well.

Researchers from the universities of Montreal, Concordia, Miami, McGill and Universidade de Brasilia claim that the ratio of length between the forefinger and ring finger determining either “masculinised” or “femini-sed” fingers can predict court-ship-related consumption beha-

viour. In effect, men with masculinised fingers and women with feminised fingers are more likely to be highly romantic, take efforts to look good and spend lavishly on gifting their partners.

Although, researchers have tried to link levels of estrogen and androgen to substantiate their claims, it certainly seems like a case of mistaking correlation for causation. Making one’s digits responsible for such a range of complex behaviour has to be viewed with skepticism.

Already, a wide range of claims try to predict behaviour and temperament based on bodily feature like shapes of head and face, length of limbs, head to toe proportions etc. At best, they arouse curiosity, make for interesting readings and perhaps stir amusing conversations, but beyond that it has very little scientific sense.

Previously too, behavioural scientists have attempted psychological profiling based on physical constitution. William Sheldon, an American psychologist and physician, categorised people into three distinct physical types and suggested typical behavioural disposition to each.

Rounded individuals, whom he called ‘endomorphs’ were relaxed and extroverted, the muscular ‘mesomorphs’ were believed to be aggressive and ass-ertive and the thin and wiry ‘ectomorphs’ were said to be sensitive, inhibited and thoughtful. This theory found no validation and even commonsense knowledge was enough to shun it.

Furthering inequalities

Such findings not only have little utility value, but they also pave way for further discrimination in a world which is constantly assailed by notions of what is physically more appealing and, therefore, right. Undeniably, inequalities exist, not merely in terms of one’s socio-economic status, gender, age, or intellectual capacities but also owing to one’s skin colour, height, weight, facial contours and other physical endowments.

In a quest to enhance confidence and be accepted in this world of physical ‘rightness’, people have been lured by a multibillion-dollar beauty enhancement industry that caters to a range of services from colour lightening, nose shaping, muscle building, lip blooming, to height enhancing. The present finding now may, perhaps, lead to finger lengthening procedures as well.

Today, years of extensive research later, psychologists try to understand behaviour from the standpoint of the individual’s growing environment, myriad experiences, specific influences, thinking styles etc, while viewing the earlier held belief of genetic influence with some consternation. Besides, cases of people rising above oppressive physical challenges to achieve great feats abound. In such a milieu, linking certain patterns of behaviour to a mere physical feature is misleading and a retrograde claim.

What make humans effective and superior are the perseverance to excel, the rigor to brace challenges and the tenacity to further learn. Huge efforts are in place training people to change and enhance their behaviours and attitudes in order to lead a more fulfilling and productive life.

Personality, as is known in psychologists’ parlance is pliable, therefore teachable and trainable. Personality development training – the mantra in schools, colleges, and work places – is being conducted to help individuals take responsibility for their behaviours and be inspired to dream bigger without finding their circumstances, genetics or physical makeup limiting.

The field of Positive Psychology has made great strides and holds much promise in this matter, but that is a discussion left for another day.

(The writer is a Professor, author and Director of Eudaimonic Centre for Positive Change and Wellbeing, Bengaluru)

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