Friday, 14 March 2014

With hand on heart, people are seen as more honest, and they really do behave more honestly

Image: Greg Peverill-Conti / Flickr
You know when you want a friend or partner to tell you, honestly, how you look in a new outfit? A new study offers a way. Daft as it may sound, the findings suggest that if you truly want an honest verdict, it could work to ask your friend to put his hand on his heart before he answers (in British and Polish cultures, at least).

In one of several experiments Michal Parzuchowski and Bogdan Wojciszke asked 48 Polish undergrads (eight men) to rate the physical attractiveness of ten women - ostensibly friends of the experimenter. In fact, half these target women had been selected from a German equivalent of the Hotornot.Com website for supposedly being extremely unattractive, and the other half because they were moderately attractive, and this categorisation was confirmed in pilot work.

As the participants made their ratings of the women (from 1 "definitely unattractive" to 9 "definitely attractive"), they were told to place their hand on their heart, or on their hip. The cover story was that the study was about the effects of cognitive load on judgments of appearance, and this extra action acted as cognitive load. The key finding was that participants who had their hand on their heart provided significantly harsher (yet more honest) ratings for the women previously categorised as unattractive, as compared with participants who had their hand on their hip. In contrast, there was no difference between the groups in the ratings they gave to the women categorised previously as moderately attractive.

The researchers said that because of its cultural meaning, the gesture of putting a hand on the heart automatically activates concepts related to honesty, which increased participants' bluntness in their ratings of the less attractive women. There was no social need to tell a white lie about the more attractive women, and so no differences emerged between the groups in this case.

This result complemented findings from the whole series experiments the researchers conducted. For example, in a separate test, participants used more words related to honesty and integrity to describe a woman photographed with her hand on her heart, as opposed to on her stomach. In another experiment, participants rated the boastful claims of a job candidate as more credible when she was photographed with her hand on her heart, as opposed to having her hands behind her back.

Finally, participants were less likely to lie about their performance on a series of maths problems if they had their hand on their heart, as opposed to over their shoulder. In this case the participants were tricked into assuming these postures because they thought they were testing a breathing monitor (either held against the chest or against the forearm over the shoulder). In debriefing across all experiments, none of the participants guessed the true purpose of the research.

Parzuchowski and Wojciszke said their results extend the embodied cognition literature in a new direction, showing how bodily gestures associated with honesty can both alter our perception of other people's morality, and influence our own moral behaviour. "…[A]n abstract concept of honesty can be grounded on a very concrete level," the researchers said, "and can be primed with an unobtrusive use of bodily feedback from a hand configuration."

Can we apply this in the real world? Of course the only snag when it comes to getting an honest answer about how you look in your new outfit is that the researchers tricked participants into putting their hand on their heart for some other reason than increasing honesty. I'm sure you'll find a way.


Parzuchowski M, and Wojciszke B (2014). Hand over Heart Primes Moral Judgments and Behavior. Journal of nonverbal behavior, 38, 145-165 PMID: 24489423

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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