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The Power of a Handshake: How One Gesture Could Change Our Perspective

Photo source: Tero Vesalainen via Pixabay

A handshake can manifest openness when meeting a person for the first time.

A handshake plays an important role in a lot of ways including on businesses. Sealing a business deal, securing a job, and making an acquaintance are just some of the situations where we get to see a handshake. It’s a powerful nonverbal means of communication that could change how we see a situation or a person.

At the G20 summit held in July, two of the most influential people in the world, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin made headlines after their handshake had ended up in a ceasefire in Syria, which has long been an issue between the two countries. Russia and the US have made news for a while especially after air strikes in the southwest of Syria killed many civilians including children and left many others injured. For this reason, the ceasefire agreement between the two leaders following their private meeting in Hamburg, Germany shook the world.

Trump confirmed the agreement with a tweet following the meeting. He said, “We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives. Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!”

More Than Just a Greeting

A handshake could also make a lasting good impression. A job seeker could leave a good impression with just a handshake that is firm, sure, and confident. A handshake can also manifest openness when meeting a person for the first time at a market or in a business setting. This gesture can leave an impact on people. A worker shaking a manager’s hand strongly upon accepting a promotion will appear responsible and assertiveness. A handshake can also appear as a good understanding between two people from the point of view of people witnessing this handshake.

New research revealed that people can leave a better impression if they shake a stranger’s hand in greeting. Sanda Dolcos, Department of Psychology postdoctoral research associate, and Florin Dolcos, Beckman Institute researcher, led the research. It is set to be included in the December print issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The participants of the study are 18 males and females. Data gathered for the study included functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), behavioral responses, and skin conductance of the participants. They watched and rated videos of interactions in a business environment. The researchers focused on their approach and avoidance behaviors in social interactions.

The results showed increased sensitivity to approach behavior in brain regions associated with “a positive evaluation of approach behavior and a positive impact of handshake." The scientists said the participants recognized the positive effect of a handshake.

"Overall, our study not only replicated previous reports that identify activity in regions of the social cognition network, but also provided insight into the contribution of these regions into evaluating approach and avoidance social interactions, and grant neuroscientific support for the power of a handshake," Sanda said.

Florin said a handshake that is firm, confident, and friendly is often marketed by consultants as good business practice. "In a business setting this is what people are expecting, and those who know these things use them," he said. "Not a very long time ago you could get a loan based on a handshake. So it conveys something very important, very basic. Yet the science underlying this is so far behind. We knew these things intuitively but now we also have the scientific support."

Leaving an Impact

Another study revealed not all people in the world view handshaking the same way. This research published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior said people living in the western side of the world view the gesture more positively than those who live in the Eastern countries. Also, it revealed that Western people view handshaking initiated by men and women differently.

"Handshaking is an inherently Western behavior customary in business contexts, and it's also a historically male behavior," said Yuta Katsumi, the U. of I. graduate student who led the research with psychology professors Sanda and Florin Dolcos.

The participants of the study were 88 Western and East Asian males and females. They were shown videos of two characters who are interacting in a business setting. After being shown the videos, they were then asked how interested they would be in doing business in the same way as in the characters in the videos. The researchers found Westerners view handshakes more positively than East Asians did and that they rated men who did not shake hands less positively. With these alongside other findings, Katsumi hypothesized expectations had an impact on how positively people would rate handshakes during social interactions.

"Our results show that in Western males there is a clear expectation to shake hands during first encounters with other males," Florin said. "But they don't seem to be affected by the absence of a handshake when interacting with females. This is clear evidence of how subtle things that might seem trivial can make a big difference in daily social interactions."

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