The Handshake – Brain Connection

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by: Roger Dooley

Sales and business experts have always talked about the power of a handshake to make a good first impression and start building a relationship. Researchers at the University of Iowa showed that to be the case when they found that job applicants with a good handshake were scored higher on employability:

…the researchers found that those students who scored high with the handshake experts were also considered to be the most employable by the interviewers and seen as having more extroverted personalities and greater social skills.

The students with limp handshakes were judged to have less gregarious personalities and were less impressive. [From the TelegraphHandshake key to landing a job, scientists claim by Richard Alleyne.]

What is it about handshaking that seems to engage the emotions of the two participants? Neuroscientist and oxytocin guru Paul Zak, officially Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California and Professor of Economics and Neurology, writes with author Susan Kuchinskas:

Touch primes the brain to release oxytocin. In Zak’s experiment, half the participants received a 15-minute massage and then played an economic game in which they exchanged real money. After being trusted by a stranger with money in the hope that they’d reciprocate, the brains of participants who got a massage released much more oxytocin than those who simply rested alone. Amazingly, those who received massages returned 243 percent more money to the stranger who showed them trust than those who rested. [From The Huffington Post – The Power of a Handshake: How Touch Sustains Personal and Business Relationships.]

The article explains how oxytocin constitutes a sort of social glue and economic lubricant:

Recent research from Zak’s neuroeconomics lab has shown that the human brain uses oxytocin to unconsciously assess if a person is trustworthy using our memory of past encounters and all of our senses, including touch. If the stranger is a good match for other trustworthy people, the brain releases oxytocin, telling us it is safe to trust.

At the same time, oxytocin causes the release of another brain chemical, dopamine, in the brain’s reward center. This little charge helps us associate a trustworthy person with pleasure. The next time we meet this person, the trust assessment happens more quickly. This is how oxytocin encourages what’s called “pro-social behavior.” That’s all the positive behaviors and feelings we share with others: love, trustworthiness, generosity, and compassion.

Zak’s research seems to suggest that if a firm handshake is good, a massage might be even better. Unfortunately, a typical job interview or sales call doesn’t usually permit that kind of activity. What’s the neuromarketing takeaway from this work? Touch is an important tool in building trust. Typically, this means a good handshake – the Iowa researchers report that the best handshakes include “a complete, firm grip, eye contact and a vigorous up-and-down movement.” Most business contact situations will allow for two handshakes – one at the beginning of the meeting, and one at the end. Make the most of both handshake opportunities.

While additional touching – say, guiding an interviewee through a doorway – might help build the bond that Zak talks about, this is a potentially risky strategy and highly dependent on cultural factors. What might seem like a natural touch to some might seem odd or offensive to others. In general, I’d steer clear of most attempts to incorporate more touching at the beginning of a business relationship. This is something that will evolve naturally over time.

Be aware, too, that not everyone likes handshakes. The most famous handshake-phobic is real estate magnate Donald Trump. Trump says in his blog, “I think that the only thing better than a good handshake is no handshake at all. I’ve long said that handshakes are a bad idea because of all the germs people spread when they shake hands.” (Who knew The Donald had time to blog?) He’d prefer that we adopt the Japanese practice of bowing.

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