Psych Study: Firm Handshakes Impress

The etiquette books and your mother were right.

Sweaty palms, a weak grip, not making eye contact and a lack of pumping are big no-no’s when reaching out and shaking a stranger’s hand.

A cool hand, a firm grasp, a reasonably timed eye-lock and a few ups and downs of the other person’s five digits give a better first impression.

And women — don’t be afraid of offering a strong, assertive handshake!

These are the findings of a “gripping” handshake study of 48 male and 64 female college students from the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, in this month’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association.

Four psychology students decided to evaluate the handshakes and personalities of the 112 students over a period of nine months last year because handshakes are one of those human behaviors taken for granted but rarely studied, says William Chaplin, an associate professor of psychology who led the study.

“Very little has been written about handshakes in the psychological literature,” Chaplin says, “and what is there addresses either the handshakes of psychiatric patients or a study performed by a single observer.”

A Personality Indicator?

Chaplin says he and the students wanted to see if a handshake provided an indication of someone’s personality and what perception the glad- or sad-handing might make on a recipient.

First, the four students developed a method to assess their subjects’ grips. They rated the shake on a scale of 1 to 5 for completeness of grip, temperature of skin, dryness, strength, duration, vigor, texture and eye contact.

Then, each of the four students evaluated the 112 students’ handshakes twice, as well as their personalities. The students had invited subjects from all over the school to participate in what was billed as a “personality analysis.”

The subjects filled out four routine psychological personality tests given to them by each of the handshake monitors. The four personality tests measured extroversion, neuroticism, openness to new experiences, and emotional states. Subjects rated themselves, for example, as to whether they “have a tendency to start dancing when they hear music,” or if they generally feel “interested, enthusiastic, distressed or hostile.”

The monitors shook their hands before and after the test. Unbeknownst to the subjects, however, the monitors graded their handshakes and their own perceptions of the candidates.

“We didn’t want the subjects to know that what we were studying was their handshakes,” Chaplin says.

Finally, the students compared their analyses of the personality profiles, the handshake measures and their perceptions of the participants.

Handshakes Stay With Us

Chaplin says the results of his study indicate that a person’s handshake is consistent over time and is related to some aspects of his or her personality. Those with a firm handshake were more extroverted, open to new experience, less neurotic and shy than those with a less firm handshake.

The analysis also revealed sex differences. Males usually had firmer handshakes than women did. But women who had a firmer handshake make a more favorable impression.

“The result of this study differs from the typical finding that women who exhibit confident behavior that is similar to the behavior of men often make a more negative impression than the men,” Chaplin says. “Giving a firm handshake may provide an effective initial form of self-promotion for women that does not have the costs associated with other less subtle forms of assertive self-promotion.”

New York City psychologist Doe Lang, who recently wrote The New Secrets of Charisma, and has a company that provides communications training, said the results were not surprising, but added cultural differences exist with greetings and handshakes, something the study did not address. The Japanese, for example, bow, rather than shake hands.

Howard Friedman, professor of psychology at the University of California in Riverside, says too much should not be made of one aspect of human behavior. “In general, any attempt to assign a single, major specific meaning to a gesture or touch is an oversimplification,” he says, “because people are very good at expressing and understanding a whole complex of interacting verbal and non-verbal messages.”