The Handshake: Why It’s Important to Get a Grip

A firm handshake may be more important than you thinkA firm handshake may be more important than you thinkCould handshakes become a thing of the past? As the cold and flu season rolls in, hello waves and distant air kisses become my preferred greetings. And I'm not the only one. According to the industry newsletter PharmPro, almost 50 percent of Americans are reluctant to shake hands because they are afraid of germs, and prior to the Summer Games, the chief medical officer for the British Olympic Association suggested athletes refrain from the time-honored custom. Yet a new study on the science of handshakes that will appear in the December issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience says it's smarter to get a grip despite the creepy crawlies.

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Evaluating MRI brain scans and skin conductance tests (that measure the way that electricity travels through the skin in response to psychological stimuli), the researchers observed that strangers formed a better impression of each other after a handshake. Even after a negative interaction, the hand shakers maintained a more positive attitude. "Many of our social interactions may go wrong for a reason or another," explained author Sandra Dolcos of the University of Illinois Beckman Institute, "and a simple handshake preceding them can give us a boost and attenuate the negative impact of possible misunderstandings."

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Analyzing the amount of stimulation apparent in the reward centers of the brain, the researchers also determined that a firm, friendly handshake triggered the most favorable response.

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Historical anthropologists theorize that the handshake originated as a signal of peace. Extending your palm with an open hand showed you were not carrying a weapon. Over the centuries, the gesture developed into a universal greeting, a way to establish confidence and even close a business deal.

"Handshakes have been proven to increase the perception of trust and formality of the relationship," writes Dolcos. If you want to make a good impression, "…be aware of the power of the handshake." According to a study by the John Hopkins School of Public Health, your odds of encountering harmful bacteria through a handshake are low. Rather than avoid the practice, it makes sense to follows these hygiene tips from the Centers for Disease Control instead.