The Psychology of a Handshake – the story behind Trump’s bizarre greeting routine

March 9, 2017 - 4 minutes read

You might have noticed the recent psychological analysis of the 45th US President Donald Trump’s handshakes. Whether it is his Vice President Mike Pence, or the Prime Minister of Japan, Trump seems to have mastered the art of psychology in his dominating greetings. Not until he met with Justin Trudeau a couple of weeks ago where for the first time Trump failed at establishing dominance and control upon meeting another world leader.

In this post, our resident psychology buff and Summer School Coordinator Sijana is going to explain the story behind these political mind games and give you an insight into the mind of (arguably) the most powerful person on earth!

Whilst most news outlets focussed on showing the confused or even scared facial expressions of the recipients of the ‘Trump handshake’, I think it is worth looking more into the psychological significance of non-verbal communication and establishing dominance. Exploring the science behind how Trump (along with many business people, politicians, world leaders etc.) uses his body language to establish a dominant relationship is important for the understanding of the human interaction and is an excellent example of where scientific theory can be used to add depth to our understanding of an everyday activity. You will be able to learn more about the practical applications of psychology if you take our Psychology course at our academic summer school – here is a quick peek into what you could be discussing in tutorials this summer.

Our hands are arguably our most powerful tool in non-verbal communication. Some go as far as saying that a handshake can make or break your job or university interview. So, what does your handshake say about you?

Which direction is your palm facing?

It is important to notice what direction is your palm facing when shaking hands – a palm up is not threatening, showing subordination, whilst palm down projects silent authority. A particularly powerful example of a palm down gesture is the Nazi salute – if Hitler had used his salute in the palm up position rather than palm down, he might have not been taken seriously at all, and perhaps the entire history of Europe would have been dramatically different. You can learn more about how to analyse history and historical sources at our History course.

Who initiated the handshake?

The study by Allan and Barbara Pease of 350 successful senior management executives revealed that most of them always initiated the handshake. That, combined with the palm down position and a firm (but not crushing) handshake is a recipe for successfully establishing dominance.

So… what is Trump doing? It seems like Trump is trying to establish his dominance in any way he can – he is trying to make his ‘opponent’ move closer towards him or lose balance. It looks like the Canadian Prime Minister was extremely well-briefed and knew how to neutralise Trump’s attempt to establish dominance.

You don’t have to rely on your handshake to make a good impression at your university interviews – join us this summer in Oxford to gain experience in studying advanced topics in your favourite subject and find out how to succeed at your university application!

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