Right Hand Over Heart Nonverbal Expression Primes Honesty
Christopher Philip

Hand Over Heart Gesture - HonestyEmbodiment Of Gestures – A Primer

Researchers Michal Parzuchowski and Bogdan Wojciszke, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Sopot, Poland have found more evidence of the ‘embodiment’ of nonverbal communication – the link between gestures and the mind.

Many cultures associate the “hand over the heart” gesture with honesty, but is it universally recognized? “The gesture indicates that one is not bearing arms, or that one appears to have genuine intentions, or is giving one’s word of honor, or is pledging allegiance,” say the researchers in their paper published in the Journal Of Nonverbal Behavior.

“Indeed, since the time of Aristotle,” the researchers continue, “people have believed that the heart is the seat of the human mind, and symbolically it is still used to refer to the emotional or moral core of human beings.”

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Many cultures refer to the “hands on the heart” via various idioms such as British-English, German, Polish, Russian, and Slovak. For example, people say “from the heart”, “the heart of the matter” and in Poland, it reads “with hand over heart.”

Hypotheses And Predictions

In the current paper, the researchers wished to discover if the emblematic gesture had any influence over both the perception of honesty when displaying the gesture, and also the actual honesty the gesture produced when it was adopted.

This is an interesting preposition – namely because morality is typically thought to be the result of conscious deliberation rather than generated from plain ordinary body posture

The researchers tested two simple hypotheses over the course of four experiments:

(1) That persons making the hand-over-heart gesture are perceived to be more sincere and honest, and…
(2) When individuals are unobtrusively manipulated into making the hand-over-heart gesture, they behave more honestly.

The researchers predicted that both moral judgments and behavior may be driven by nonverbal embodied cues.

Hand Over Heart - Experiment 1aIn the first study they wished to assess whether or not the hand-over-heart gesture was in fact emblematic of honesty in their Polish speaking subjects. This test involved having participants provide a short open-ended written description of a person as they where depicted in the posture. Each participant was asked “What does the person in the photograph communicate to others? List 5 associations that come to mind when you see this person.”

As a control, they also had another image of a person holding their hand over their stomach which is emblematic of stomachache. To control for other effects, they were certain to keep all other factors including facial expression and lighting identical across both postures. Once the results were obtained, they were independently analyzed and rated for traits describing honesty.

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In total 118 participants responded to the invitation which was published on a popular educational website. The results showed that when people viewed the hand-over-heart gesture they coupled honesty with the posture 49% of the time versus only 18% when describing the hand-over-stomach gesture. This told the researchers that the hand-over-heart gesture was positively associated with honesty. This lead them into their second study.

Hand Over Heart - Experiment 2aIn the second study the researchers wanted to test the impressions that the hand-over-heart gesture made on other people. Specifically, they wished to test if it made them appear more honest. This time 37 Polish university students listened to a fragment of a 4-minute audio recording of a job interview. As they listened to the interview, they viewed an image of a female interviewee standing straight, with either both hands behind her back (authoritative posture), or her right hand placed over her heart.

During the interview, the job applicant made highly improbable boastful statements. These included phrases such as “I have never been late for work”’; “‘I never postpone anything to the future”, “I always keep my promises”, “I am kind to everyone”, “I always respond to letters”, “I have never cheated anyone”, “I have never called in sick” and “I have never argued with members of my family.”

As the subjects listened to the statements by the interviewee, they rated them on a 7-point scale for credibility. Again, the results showed that the hand-over-heart gesture produced higher perceived honesty based on the credibility scores. This told the researchers that the signal is believed as more credible even when saying things that are not particularly credible.

Hand Over Heart - Experiment 3aIn the third experiment the researchers wanted to test whether the hand-over-heart gesture could influence the behaviour of others. In other words, they wanted to see if the hand-over-heart gesture produced more honesty.

The researchers first collected sample images from a German website similar to hotornot.com where participants rate the images of others for their attractiveness. They selected images that were either extremely unattractive or moderately attractive

Hand Over Heart Fig 3 Physical Attractiveness vs. PostureAs the images were presented to the subjects, they were told that the images were of the “experimenter’s friends.” They figured this would influence the subjects by inducing them to be less honest, produce more “white lies”, and downplay the relative unattractiveness of the models in the photographers – especially that of the most unattractive – over those of the who were simply moderately unattractive. As the subjects made their assessments, they were instructed to hold the hand-over-heart or the control posture, hand-over-hip posture.

Again, they found that the hand-over-heart gesture produced more honesty – those images with highly unattractive women were rated lower than when subjects held their hand-on-their-hip. “Thus, when presented with an opportunity to lie about someone’s appearance, people who put their hands over their hearts remained more honest, even if it meant being impolite,” say the researchers in their paper. In fact, only the ratings for the unattractive targets were influenced by the hand-over-heart gesture. This told the researchers that the hand-over-heart gesture unobtrusively induced others to behave in a more moral way.

Hand Over Heart - Experiment 4aIn the final experiment the hand-over-heart gesture was tested to see how it would affect a person’s desire to cheat. This time they had subjects either hold their hand over their clavicle bone of the left shoulder (the control) or hold their hand-over-their heart as they solved as many mathematical problems as possible during a set timeframe. Since in the hand-over-heart posture the hand was occupied, they were told to simply remember the amount of problems they solved correctly. They were incentivized to cheat by offering them a $2 reward for each problem they solved which was to be randomly awarded to one participant at the end of the study.

The results, once again, showed that the hand-over-heart gesture produced more honesty than the control condition. In fact, those in the hand-over-heart condition reported the same number of solved math problems as the control condition which did not permit cheating. On the other hand, the hand-over-clavicle condition produced 45% more solved math problems than the other two groups.

The Take Away Message

This is the first time that a gesture has been shown to produce honesty. The results provide more evidence of the link between the body and mind – embodiment.

The researchers showed that not only is the hand-over-heart gesture read by others as honest, but when it is performed, it actually produces honesty itself.

“Specifically, we identify putting the hand over the heart as a gesture emblematic of honesty, and we show in a line of studies that individuals performing this act are perceived by others to be more honest, and that persons unobtrusively performing this act themselves behave in a more honest way,” say the researchers.

They continue, “Although cultures may vary endlessly in specific gestures associated with honesty or their opposites, our guess is that all such gestures may influence morally-relevant behavior, and perceptions when based on the same mechanism which we showed here for one particular gesture (hand-over-heart) in one particular culture (Poland).” Raising the right hand as one does during in court when taking the oath to tell the truth may produce similar effects.

Indeed this may be true in many more cases than we currently realize.

According to the researchers, “It is possible that American participants would lie more when crossing their fingers behind their backs, and would infer that a person displaying this gesture is less credible. In the same vein, French participants could express less confidence after fluttering their right hand with the palm down.”

And as we study endlessly on this website, there may be many other sources of honesty and dishonesty as well as other feelings and behaviours attached to body motion, posture and gesture.

As we see in this study too, even morality is subject to our bodies.

It is interesting that our muscles, joints and limbs can induce thought and thought-patterns. I am certain that as the science in nonverbal communication advances, more links will be uncovered between the body, mind and posture.

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Michal Parzuchowski and Bogdan Wojciszke. Hand Over Heart Primes Moral Judgments and Behavior. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 2014; 38:145–165.

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