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First Impressions
July 12, 2000

The handshake is a simple gesture to which most people don’t give a second thought. But maybe they should.

A new study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , published by the American Psychological Association, found that a firm handshake really does make a good first impression. What’s more, a handshake, like a signature, can reveal a lot about what the person is really like.

Handshaking as a Science

Although etiquette and business books stress the importance of a firm handshake, there has been very little published about this topic in the scientific literature. So, prompted by questions from his students about the personality of handshaking, University of Alabama psychologist William Chaplin designed a study involving 112 male and female college students. Participants had their hands shaken eight times by four people who were trained in practicing and evaluating handshakes.

Handshaking may not seem to be the type of activity that requires training, but the raters in the study spent one month doing just that. They were taught the proper way to handshake by offering their hand in a neutral way, but waiting for the subject to initiate the grip strength and actual up and down motion. They were also taught to release their grip only when the subject began to relax his or her grip.

Handshakes were rated using a 5-point scale based on eight characteristics: completeness of grip, temperature, dryness, strength, duration, vigor (the pumping motion), skin texture and eye contact. In addition, the experimenters rated the subjects’ personalities on other characteristics, such as extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience. Subjects also completed personality questionnaires about themselves that dealt with the same areas.

image: University of Alabama

The students didn’t know their handshakes were being studied; they were told instead that they were participating in a study about how people answer a series of questionnaires that are administered separately, instead of together. This explanation served as a cover for why they were sent into four separate rooms and greeted separately by the four different evaluaters. Naturally, each greeting — as well as each goodbye--involved a handshake.

A Shake is Worth a Thousand Words

Not surprisingly, the results of the study showed that a person’s handshake is consistent over time and is connected to certain aspects of his or her personality. People who had firm handshakes were more extroverted and open to experience, while less neurotic and shy.

But other findings emerged as well. "I think the most interesting findings had to do with the sex differences that we found in the study," says Chaplin. "We found that men had firmer handshakes than women on average but we also found that women who had firm handshakes tended to be evaluated as positively as the men." This runs counter to the notion that women who display male characteristics are often judged negatively in terms of a good first impression.

"This seemed to be an example of one behavior where women could exhibit a behavior that is more similar to a man’s behavior, in this case a handshake, yet not suffer any negative consequences by acting that way," notes Chaplin.

First impressions are crucial on the campaign trail

Another surprising aspect that emerged was that while women who were more liberal and open to more experiences had a firmer handshake and made a favorable impression, the opposite was true for men. Men who were more open-minded had a slightly less firm handshake and therefore made a less favorable impression as evaluated by the researchers.

So what does all this mean? For one thing, the research strengthens the link between certain personality traits and behavior. How we act really does say something about who we are. But our handshakes can vary. "Just like signatures may vary when we sign mortgage papers on a house or an important legal document as opposed to putting our signature down at the grocery store for a free slab of ribs or something like that, I think also our handshakes may vary depending on the formality of the situation," Chaplin says.

Also, trying to make that first handshake a firm one might be a good idea since first impressions can have a big influence. Although Chaplin admits that it may not be easy for someone who doesn’t have a firm handshake to suddenly develop one, it may be a skill worth practicing.

Elsewhere on the web:

Salutations of Courtesy from Emily Post

Self-esteem and shyness from

Gestures Around the World

Different types of handshakes

The psychological meaning of different handshake styles

How Americans Communicate

Social Anxiety Homepage

The Shyness Homepage

by Jill Max

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