Q: Can I communicate honesty nonverbally?
A: Yes. Different parts of the body have symbolism, and drawing attention to certain parts of the body really can activate certain perceptions. For instance, drawing attention to the heart can make you appear more honest!
A group of researchers from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Sopot, Poland published a study in 2014 in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior that examined how a common nonverbal gesture – placing one’s hand on one’s heart – can influence people’s perceptions.
The researchers pointed out that many of us perceive ourselves to be moral, but we often don’t realize what is influencing our morality (positively and negatively).
They pointed out that even nonverbal behaviors are associated with various influences on morality.
In many Western societies, the heart is associated with moral courage, and placing one’s hand over one’s heart is associated with honesty.
- By contrast, the head is associated with rationality, but not necessarily courage or morality.
- Particularly in Poland, the gesture of having a hand over one’s heart is a common gesture indicating sincere intentions.
The researchers simply wanted to see if having a hand over one’s heart activates these associations and causes a person to perceive more honesty and behave more honestly.
The researchers recruited 118 participants from their local area (in Poland) to participate in the study.
The researchers prepared two photographs of a woman for the purpose of the study. She is wearing a fairly plain outfit with a white shirt, and is otherwise not remarkable, except that in one photograph she has a hand placed over her heart, and in the other photograph she has a hand on her abdomen.
The participants were told that this is a study of communication skills (not honesty). They were asked a single question: “What does the person in the photograph communicate to others? List 5 associations that come to mind when you see this person.”
The participants were randomly shown either the heart or abdomen photograph.
A group of raters (who were unaware of the purpose of the study) then took the participants’ answers and categorized them in terms of whether the answers related to honesty.
As you might guess, participants reported that the woman with a hand over her heart is communicating honesty significantly more than the woman with a hand on her abdomen.
Hand on heart: 49% reported terms related to honesty
Hand on abdomen: 18% reported terms related to honesty
Having established that the hand-on-heart gesture is associated with honesty, the researchers moved on to a more interesting experiment.
In this experiment, 37 Polish students listened to recordings of candidates who were being interviewed for a job.
- “I have never been late for work.”
- “I never procrastinate.”
- “I am kind to everyone.”
- “I have never called in sick.”
- “I have never argued with members of my family.”
- “I always keep my promises.”
- “I always respond to letters.”
- “I have never cheated anyone.”
- Randomly, the students either were given the photograph of a female candidate with her hand over her heart, with both hands behind her back, and with her hands straight at her sides.
- In the recording, the candidate made a number of boastful statements taken from previous research – some were quite hard to believe. The statements included:
- The participants were asked to listen to the candidate’s interview while looking at the photograph, and then rate each claim in terms of its credibility.
- The participants also rated the candidate’s attractiveness.
- As predicted, participants who listened to the boastful claims while looking at a photograph of the candidate with her hand over her heart found her claims more believable than those who saw the other photographs.
- Somehow, the gesture made her boastful claims more believable.
Now the researchers felt they were on to something and decided to see if the gesture actually influenced behavior. In this case, will people act more honestly if they are (sneakily) asked to put their hands over their hearts?
48 Polish students were recruited to be participants of this study.
The researchers got 10 photographs from the website Hot or Not (www.hotornot.com) by asking some independent raters to find 5 pictures of definitely unattractive women and 5 pictures of moderately attractive women.
Then, the experimental participants were brought into the lab and were told that they were doing a study on “cognitive load” – basically whether physical activity interfered with mental precision.
Then, participants were told to either place their dominant hands “6 inches below their collar bone” or “6 inches below their ribcage.” This resulted in the participants either having a hand on their heart or their hip (but they weren’t aware they were specifically targeting these areas).
Then, the participants were told to rate the attractiveness of the women in the photographs.
Amazingly, the participants were told that the women in the photographs were friends of the researchers!
- Therefore one would expect that the participants would be polite and rate the unattractive women as slightly more attractive than they normally would.
Crazily enough, the participants who were sneakily asked to place their hands over their hearts rated the unattractive women as… unattractive.
Participants with hands on their hips significantly inflated their ratings of the unattractive women. Presumably, out of politeness.
The effect was not seen for the moderately attractive photographs. All participants rated these photographs as moderately attractive in general.
In this experiment, 52 participants were recruited. This time, their honesty was measured differently: they were given an opportunity to cheat.
They were given a list of math problems and were asked to simply work out the answers in their heads, and report how many they were able to solve in a certain amount of time (5 minutes).
They were told that a certain hand-held device could measure their breathing, and they had to place the device somewhere on their bodies while doing the math problems.
One group had hands on hearts, one group had hands over their shoulders, and one group was simply asked to solve the problems on paper (so they could see around how many an average person could solve).
Because the participants in the first two groups reported how many they had solved, they could inflate the number (cheating), or they could report honestly.
Those who simply did the math problems on paper solved, on average, around 5.37 problems in 5 minutes.
Those with hands over their hearts claimed to have solved around 5.50 problems. Slightly higher than the paper-and-pencil group but not significantly higher.
Those with hands over shoulders claimed to have solved an average of 7.87 problems in the 5 minutes (45% more than the other groups)!
Since it’s highly unlikely that having a hand over one’s shoulder significantly improves one’s math skills, it’s more likely that this group simply cheated – they inflated the number.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Nonverbal body language not only can change how people are perceived, it can change people’s own behavior.
Having a hand over one’s heart increases how honest one is perceived, even when making hard-to-believe claims (like “I always keep my promises.”).
But even more significantly, the gesture actually caused people to behave in more honest ways – by honestly rating a woman’s attractiveness and by refraining from cheating in a task where no one would ever know.
We wear clothing that brings attention to certain parts of the body. What are the common hand signs and meanings we communicate to others without realizing? How might we be influencing our own behavior?
Parzuchowski, M., & Wojciszke, B. (2014). Hand over heart primes moral judgments and behavior. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 38, 145-165. Link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10919-013-0170-0#page-1