Science says handshakes send out a chemical signal that you can smell

Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott greets Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in the Reading Room at Parliament House during the G20 Leaders’ Summit. Photo: Steve Christo/ G20 Australia via Getty.

The social convention of the handshake, the traditional greeting in western society, also transmits chemical signals which could explain why it evolved in the first place.

A study, published in the journal eLife by scientists from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, found that people use the touch of a handshake to sample and sniff signalling molecules.

During the experiment, around 280 people were greeted either with or without a handshake.

They were filmed using hidden cameras and observed to see how many times they touched their face.

One finding of the study was that people constantly sniff their own hands, keeping a hand at their nose about 22% of the time.

Those greeted with a handshake significantly increased touching of their faces with their right hand. However, this only seemed to be the case when greeted by someone of the same gender.

“It is well-known that we emit odours that influence the behaviour and perception of others but, unlike other mammals, we don’t sample those odours from each other overtly,” says Professor Noam Sobel, Chair of Neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

“Instead, our experiments reveal handshakes as a discreet way to actively search for social chemosignals.”

Previous studies have suggested that human chemosignals play a role in mate selection, conveying fear, altering brain activity and synchronising women’s menstrual cycles.

To confirm that handshaking is effective at passing on this type of chemical, the scientists analysed the content of sterile gloves used to shake the hands of the subjects.

They found that squalene and hexadecanoic acid, both chemicals thought to play a part in social signalling in dogs and rats, were transferred onto the gloves.

“Handshaking is already known to convey a range of information depending on the duration of the gesture, its strength and the posture used,” says Professor Sobel.

“We argue that it may have evolved to serve as one of a number of ways to sample social chemicals from each other, and that it still serves this purpose in a meaningful albeit subliminal way.”

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