Mythbusting: you can tell a lot about someone from their handshake

Posted 06 July 2011 by

Every HR manager must have a story about a line-manager who says, “Don’t tell me how to recruit. I’ve got an eye for the people I need in my team. You can pick up most of that from their handshake and by looking at their shoes.”

Whilst we might think privately that such a manager represents the organisational equivalent of the missing link between humans and Neanderthals, are they completely wrong?

A recent study*, reported in Social Influence, looked at the relationship between how someone shakes hands, and what the ‘shakee’ can tell about them.

300 students were selected for the study. Ten were selected, with varying personality profiles, to introduce themselves, to a hundred different participants who were strangers (the five women introduced themselves to women, and the five men introduced themselves to men). With half of the people, they shook hands, and with half they didn’t.

The participants were then asked to predict the personalities of the people they’d met. Overall the handshake results were unimpressive and unsurprising – common sense indicates you can’t glean a lot from a few seconds’ introduction, handshake or not.

But there were two standout findings: the most obvious was that handshakers’ ability to judge the candidates’ Extraversion scores were considerably higher than chance. The other was that men rated higher than women in their ability to make assumptions about the targets’ Conscientiousness score when they had shaken hands. So there is some evidence of the handshake and interaction around the handshake giving cues to two out of the ‘Big Five’ personality characteristics – with little to learn here about the other three: Openness to Experience, Neuroticism and Agreeableness.

The result about Extraversion is perhaps least surprising, and may be related to other body language or vocal cues. However the result around Conscientious is more curious. That women scored lower on this prediction may be due to the ubiquity of the practice of handshaking in ‘masculine’ environments. But that men scored higher than chance on one single trait, indicates that there may be a subconscious cue to someone’s attention to detail provided by how a handshake is performed.

Clearly this study is applicable only in certain cultures. Handshaking is a relatively unfamiliar practice in Japan, for example, and in South Asia a firm handshake can be seen as intimidating, rude and overly familiar. But in the western business context, it seems that outside very narrow parameters, a competent handshake gives up the secrets of its owner grudgingly.

As the researchers concluded: "[Handshakes] certainly play a part in generating a first impression, but the data reported here suggest that, with the possible exception of conscientiousness, handshakes should not be considered a necessary diagnostic tool in the evaluation of others. They may, however, predict whether someone will show up for their next appointment with you on time."

The fact that men and women seem to interpret handshakes differently and that there are clear cultural differences are almost certain to make handshakes an unreliable and biased way to judge a person. It’s true that the handshake, style of shoe and old-school tie might tell you something; but it might be accompanied with an illusion of accuracy and a large dose of discrimination against genders and cultures you understand less well.

Structured interviews and objective tests are intended to reduce such biases; even then, they need to be used in an informed and sensitive way. When you do that, they can cover the whole of personality in a comprehensive, valid, fair and reliable way.

Indeed if you could tell a lot about someone just by pressing the flesh, then experts in personality wouldn’t be needed.

*Bernieri, F., and Petty, K. (2011). The influence of handshakes on first impression accuracy.

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