Listen to the conscientiousness of the
handshake (if you're a male interviewer)
Why do we shake hands with people when we greet? The tradition goes back a
long way, as do other forms of greeting. The basic principle of the handshake is
to use your dominant hand, which for most people is the right hand and offer it
forward, showing that you do not have a weapon. When both people do this, the
next step is to grasp the other person's hand. This creates human physical
contact, which is a deep thing in connecting with others. The sensation goes
back to our youngest days when we were in close physical contact with our mother
and creates a warm feeling of one-ness with the other person. In other words it
creates liking and trust, which are fundamental parts of a good relationship.
The handshake also tells you more about what is going on in the other
person's mind. A 'bone-crusher' squeeze by them tells you that they seek to be
dominant and care little for the pain they may cause you. On the other hand, a
limp hand betrays someone who may be rather weak or timid. A longer handshake
may indicate desire. Other factors in greetings include moisture, duration, what
the other hand does and further elements of body language, such as how close you
get and eye contact.
And now there is a new finding. In research, Frank Bernieri and Kristen Petty
found another interesting factor. They first selected ten men and ten women,
each with different Big
Five personality profiles. These were then introduced to over 100 subjects
who were subsequently asked to rank the men and women against the Big Five
personality factors of extraversion, neuroticism, openness, conscientiousness
and agreeableness. Unsurprisingly, they identified extraversion fairly well.
What was less expected was that male subjects were also good at identifying
conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is a good indicator of how hard people
work, making this a useful extra tool for interviewers.
Why does this work only for men? The researchers guessed that it might be
because handshakes are a bigger deal for men, and so they get greater practice.
You seldom get powerful grips from women. Men, on the other hand are always
competing with one another for who will be the alpha male, even in a brief
conversation, and handshakes include signals about this. Women in business, they
guessed (their subjects were students) might also have developed this skill.
Bernieri, F., and Petty, K. (2011). The influence of handshakes on first
impression accuracy. Social Influence, 6, 2, 78-87
Better than sex
What's better than sex? Well I guess there are many views on that, from
'nothing' to standing on the beach in the Maldives watching the sun set over the
Indian Ocean. But, by and large, we tend to enjoy sex rather a lot. Well, good sex anyway.
It's not surprising, because it's a basic need for propagation of the species.
If sex wasn't nice, we wouldn't be here. There are gender differences in this
that perhaps should be noted. For men sex is relatively
straightforward, but women face the prospective pain of childbirth and still
dive between the sheets. This perhaps explains why men get aroused more easily,
although the ultimate pleasure gained by men or women is maybe difficult to
So perhaps it isn't surprising that the question of 'What's better than sex'
has been the subject of research. Not directly, of course. Researchers sampling
various hedonistic alternatives would probably not be taken too seriously in the
academic press. So instead Brad Bushman and colleagues asked college students,
who are usually known for their lack of inhibitions around sex, how much they
liked various pleasant activities, including sex. In this, they were asked about
activities that build self-esteem to greater or lesser extent, with self-esteem
coming from such as getting good marks in an exam or just
people paying them a friendly compliment. To their surprise, they found that
the highest scoring activities were those where the student received a good
boost to their self-esteem. In another study, they gave the students a test and
then let them think that if they waited they might get a higher mark. Those for
who self-esteem was more important generally preferred to wait.
In other words, feeling good about yourself is more important than feeling
good, particularly if you do not currently feel so good about yourself. This is an important point when thinking about changing minds. If you can
focus on how the other person feels about themself, especially if self-esteem
seems important for them, you will probably be more successful in getting them
to think differently. More generally, rather than just use the persuasion methods
that you like using,
watch and listen first, then customize what you do to what is important for the
other person, whatever that is.
Bushman, B., Moeller, S., and Crocker, J. (2010). Sweets, Sex, or
Self-Esteem? Comparing the Value of Self-Esteem Boosts with Other Pleasant
Rewards. Journal of Personality
How Losing Can Help You Win
We all like to win. Or perhaps
we just don't like to lose, which is why some people don't try. The problem is
that, in many of the competitive situations we find ourselves in, there is only
one winner and lots of losers. So why the tricky title above? How can losing
help you win?
Researchers Berger and Pope studied over 18,000 basketball games,
comparing half-time scores with the final results. As you might expect from a
good team, in those games where the half-time score showed one team ahead, the
chances were that they would also win the whole game. In fact for every two
points a team was ahead at half time, there was an additional six to eight
percent chance they would win. A fascinating difference, however, appeared when
the scores were close. In these cases, the team that was just behind had a much
higher chance of winning. In fact a team that was one point behind at half time
was significantly more likely to win in the end.
The just-behind motivation principle works in all kinds of other
circumstances. In races, it is known that being out front is harder and that
being tucked behind the leader is a great place to be so you can sprint past
them just before the finishing line. Berger and Pope showed this in simple
laboratory experiments, where people told to quickly press a button got faster
when they thought they were just behind the leader (note that this did not work
for a third-placed person). Further analysis of this effect showed a close
relationship with self-belief. If we think 'I can do it', then we give ourselves
the extra energy to work harder and put on that extra burst that gets us to the
There are important lessons here for more mundane workplaces and life in
general. If you tell people that they are just behind competitors, they will
work harder than if you note that your competitors are way ahead.
Berger, J., and Pope, D. (2011). Can Losing Lead to Winning? Management Science,
57, 5, 817
Feng Shui, curves and good-enough explanations
Feng Shui is an interesting Chinese philosophy about arranging rooms,
buildings and even your life. It falls into what some call 'woo-woo',
non-scientific nonsense or just the realm of the mysterious. Science has little
time for such systems, although both assume invisible forces within the
universe. And what if there was something to it? It can be a trap to dismiss out
of hand things that have sustained attention and adherents for many years. The
question is 'what is really happening here?'. The system itself uses all kinds
of mysterious terminology and non-scientific ideas such as 'chi' or 'life
force'. Yet what if this was an ancient way of describing the experience of
something that exists. The principle of science is to make up explanations for
things that happen and then keep them for as long as the explanation works and
until a better explanation appears.
One of the ideas of Feng Shui is that curves are better than angles. And it
is generally true. If you walk into a house or room with plenty of curves, it
kind of feels nice. Researchers Dazkir and Read showed this when they asked over
a hundred subjects to rate computer-generated rooms in terms of how comfortable
the room made them feel (pleasure) and whether they would like to spend more
time there (approach). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they very largely preferred the
But why? Was it the mystery of Feng Shui as the curves facilitated the flow
of chi around the room? Or was it something more mundane.
Sadly, it seems that there is a simple explanation for this. When we look at
any object, we know it is a 'thing' because we trace the outline of it before
fitting the shape to an internal library of objects. In doing this, our eyes
detect lines through contrasted edges and then follow the lines to complete the
shape. Following lines is a bit like driving a car. The easiest drive is
straight lines. But when we come to corners, if the bend is sharp, then we have
to brake heavily, slow right down and ensure we keep on the road. But if the
bend is curved, the drive is much easier. Not only this, but curves also add
interest as they reveal new possibilities, breaking the boredom of a long
straight road. Overall, then, our eyes like curves.
There are many other phenomena like this, where the explanations that people
give help them make sense of their feelings, even though the explanations are
wrong. A wrong explanation is, after all, more comfortable than no explanation.
In this way, we rationalize much of what we experience, not because we are
correct but because we have a deep need to
Dazkir, S. and Read, M. (2012). Furniture Forms and Their Influence on Our
Emotional Responses Toward Interior Environments. Environment and Behavior,
44, 5, 722-732
Intelligent Design, the Reversal Trap and
There is a dilemma that religious people may face, which is conflict between
faith and the evidence of
science. Religions are usually based on ancient writings, when science and
technology was nowhere near what it has become over the past century or so.
Today, science tells us that we evolved from apes and that the Earth is 4.5
billion years old. Religions that stray into such areas disagree, for
example the Bible says that the Earth is only 6000 years old.
One of the questions that is important is that of deity, of the
existence of an all-powerful God. When you have such a god, then everything can
be attributed to him (and it usually is a him). One of the 'proofs' of God's
existence is that of 'Intelligent Design', where it is concluded that the
universe would not be governed by such simple mathematical equations unless it
was created with purpose by a great intelligence.
Aside from the
fallacies in this argument, it falls into a deeper trap, of trying to
defeat the other side by using their own arguments against them. While this
reversal might seem a clever move,
its mistake is that
adopting the thinking of the other side accepts this approach this as valid, and
so weakens its own case. Religions are based on unquestioned
belief. Why do they need to use science to 'prove' a truth that cannot be
proven? Do the people who propose ID lack faith?
What is perhaps the problem is that many people, including scientists and
religious adherents, want there to be one true way. In fact there are many
systems of belief (and if you look closely enough, there is one per person).
Even science is based on belief.
Belief is assumed truth, and each group assume their canon is true and all
others are false. Yet like parallel universes, belief systems can exist
concurrently and only become problematic when they try to intersect.
There is yet a value for religion in the idea of Intelligent Design, not so
much as a solid argument that proves God's existence, but more that just
contemplating the idea of ID changes your thinking, even if you are not
religious. In research related to this principle, Tracy, Hart and Martens found
that if you reminded psychology students of their own mortality, they would be
find ID ideas more appealing. However, students of natural sciences went the
other way. Having studied evolutionary theory and science more closely, just the
mention of an opposing view seemed to make them become more entrenched. The
persuasive effect of ID on the psychology students, the researchers found, could
be neutralized by priming them with natural science thoughts.
A learning from this is that you may be able to get people to accept ideas
they know are not true by triggering a related need or fear (death, in this
study). You can also harden views that are already held with some conviction by
providing opposing views that are easily refuted.
Tracy, J., Hart, J., and Martens, J. (2011). Death and Science: The Existential
Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution.
PLoS ONE, 6 (3)
How women choose a mate
How do women choose a mate? There are certainly plenty of men who would like
The evolutionary drivers would first point to seeking men who are able to
defend and feed the woman and their children, so power is classically
attractive, and may be indicated with such as strength, affluence, influence
over others and general cleverness. However, men tend to stray, so loyalty must
also be important. And of course the woman would not want the man's power turned
against her, so kindness is a valued attribute.
But what about beauty? Do women follow 'shallow' men who are so easily
seduced by physical features? Researchers Wilbur and Campbella offered female
subjects a choice of four mates with varying ambition and attractiveness and
found that indeed, women were attracted by good-looking men, though more so when
considering short-term sexual encounters, and particularly when the women were
open to such relationships. But this all changed when they were thinking about
longer-term romantic relationships, even for flighty women, when ambition (which
itself is longer-term) became more attractive.
This research underlines two opposing factors that drive much more than just
mate selection. The extent to which we think in the short term or the long term
has an enormous effect on both our decision and our lives. For those who can
think further out, a longer-term perspective will let them reap many future
rewards, yet many of us are so smitten with the short term and the present value
of things that we often choose a bit of jam today over more jam tomorrow. This
is also made worse where temptation is deliberately projected at us by
capitalist media throughout the day.
Back in the mating world, men are classically driven by the short term.
Nature has told them to spread their seed and so they easily head for quick
gratification. Yet when they take time to think, they can also take a
longer-term perspective and beyond those that seek the 'eye candy' of a
beautiful mate that makes other men envious, there is greater sense in seeking a
woman who will be a good companion into later life.
Christopher J. Wilbur and Lorne Campbella, (2010). What do women want? An
interactionist account of womens mate preferences, Personality and Individual
Differences, 49, 7,749-754
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