Do Interviewers Read Too Much Into Handshakes?
There is quite a lot of attention, (perhaps too much attention), given to the handshake as an indicator of the underlying suitability of job candidates. Does a strong handshake mean that the candidate is bold, brave and assertive, or are they none of these things, but just able to give a strong handshake? Do they crush your palm, turning it to pulp, and does this mean they are overwhelming and insensitive? Or perhaps they give a lifeless, dead kipper of a grip which makes you question their conviction or staying power? Interviewers make plenty of positive and negative assumptions about candidates based on a candidate’s handshake and use it to inform their overall first impression. But, is it really a valid personality assessment tool? Does a person’s handshake really correlate to a candidate’s personality and potency?
Let’s take a look at what the research says. Back in 2000, a study was conducted by William F. Chaplin etal at the University of Alabama of 112 male and female college students. Their handshakes were evaluated by four handshake coders who received a whole month’s training in shaking hands and assessing handshakes prior to the study. The students didn’t know their handshakes were being assessed and they also completed four personality assessments.
Interestingly, the study found that not only is a person’s handshake consistent over time, it is indeed related to some part of their personality. There were no surprises in how the shakes correlated to personality; they found that firmer handshakers were more extroverted and open to experience and limp handshakers were more shy and neurotic. But, assessing handshakes is not quite as simple as this, as there are a few additional factors to consider. You’ll need to take into account gender differences, as men tended to have firmer handshakes than women. In addition, they found that women with firm handshakes were more liberal, intellectual and open to new experiences. Also, men with a slightly less firm handshake were open.
You’ll also need to factor in age as this study showed that grip strength also correlated with age and the actual strength of the person. You know, you could be experiencing what you think is a strong grip, but you might be a weaker person shaking with a stronger, younger person, and the grip actually could be weak!
Is this all beginning to sound a bit confusing? It should. Remember, the Alabama handshake coders had one month’s training in how to decode handshakes. Have you? Most, if not all interviewers have not had handshake decoding training, so even though handshakes do correspond to many personality aspects, you could argue that most us are not actually qualified to assess it, suggesting that we may read too much into handshakes.
In truth, there isn’t even consensus on what personality traits handshake strength correlates to. In this study by Frank Bienieri and Kristen Petty of 300 students, they found a strong link between handshake and the personality trait conscientiousness but not extroversion and neuroticism like in the earlier study. But, once again we need to consider that these were highly controlled conditions with researchers and subjects all asked to behave in a specific way to make it easier for them to observe patterns. They had also never met the candidates before and knew nothing about their backgrounds, which is very different to the recruitment situation, which was completely varied and where they did know about the candidates’ background in advance and might even know them, or know of them.
So, in conclusion, while firm/weak handshakes do correlate to certain personality traits, there is some disagreement as to which traits handshakes indicate. Also, we have to question whether the typical interviewer who has not been trained to decode handshakes and who is operating in a uncontrolled, varied environment can reliably evaluate handshakes, anyway. This suggests to me that if you do put a lot of faith in handshakes as an indicator of personality, there is a real chance you may be misjudging the candidate standing before you.