Origins of Clapping: Why do we Clap?

If you think about it, striking your hands together almost aggressively to emit loud slapping sounds is not an entirely intuitive mark of admiration and appreciation, and yet the clap has served this very role for centuries. So what is the story behind why we clap?

There are several theories regarding the origins of clapping:

Theory 1: The Clap Evolved from an Air Hug

If you study infants as they anticipate the arrival of their mother from afar, you’ll see that there are occasions where they’ll reach out, arms wide apart, ready for a hug. Sometimes in their enthusiasm they may grasp at the air, giving it a full air hug before the mother reaches them. As the air hug is completed the hands come together on the empty air with a clap. Babies may also do this when reaching out for something in a “Gimme!” pose; a pose which would only be done when the item is appreciated.

So the clap may have evolved from a gesture of air-hugging, where the clap represents the sending of a hug of appreciation to the performers.

Footage captured amongst extremely excited fans sometimes sees fans clapping their hands together interspersed with air hugs as they are overwhelmed with admiration.

Since the applause-clap is a repeated clapping process however, it is perhaps more likely that the clap evolved from theory 2.

Theory 2: The Clap Evolved from the air-pat on the back

One of the most likely theories, supported by behavioural biologist Desmond Morris, is that when we clap a performer, we are effectively patting him on the back from a distance.

The pat on the back is a well-known sign of congratulations and admiration (see the article on the origins of the back pat here). If you examine people clapping, you’ll often notice one hand is more still than the other. The still hand represents the performer’s back and the moving hand is like the back-patting hand.

Passages in the Bible which refer to clapping as a celebratory act fit with the congratulatory pat-on-the-back origin which denotes a joyous “all’s well”.

Theory 3: The Clap as a Spilling Over of Excited Energy

Another fairly plausible theory is that people are so overwhelmed with emotion after enjoying an astonishingly beautiful performance, that they don’t know what to do with themselves. They must exude this energy somehow, so they might jump up from their seats, stamp their feet and clap in excitement; all actions that are sometimes carried out by overexcited non-human primates.

Theory 4: The Clap Evolved to Break the Trance-like state of the performance

Clapping has been an ancient purification and cleansing practice, to scare away evil spirits. When enthralled by music or a play, people may feel entranced into a state which in ancient times may have been associated with the presence of spirits. The clap may have been encouraged to break the audience out of this trance and frighten off any lingering trance-inducing spirits. This would explain the slightly aggressive undertones of the clapping action.

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