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The Power of a Handshake: How Touch Sustains Personal and Business Relationships

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Written with Susan Kuchinskas

A solid handshake is more important for landing a job than your resume, according to research from the University of Iowa. This is something anyone in sales knows implicitly. But they might be surprised to learn that the power of a handshake is rooted not in competition, but in empathy -- and even love.

Legend has it that the practice of clasping the right hands developed to ensure that neither man could wield a weapon at close range. But it may, instead, have its root in the age old need to connect with other people. It's a first step toward affiliation: the building of a bond with another person.

Neuroscientists have shown that when we are trusted by a stranger, this engages the same brain systems as other kinds of social bonds, from friendship to the love of a parent for a child to the love of your spouse. These bonds are maintained through oxytocin (ox-ee-TOE-sin), a simple brain chemical ancient in origin. Recent research from Zak's neuroeconomics lab has shown that the human brain uses oxytocin to unconsciously assess if a person is trustworthy using our memory of past encounters and all of our senses, including touch. If the stranger is a good match for other trustworthy people, the brain releases oxytocin, telling us it is safe to trust.

At the same time, oxytocin causes the release of another brain chemical, dopamine, in the brain's reward center. This little charge helps us associate a trustworthy person with pleasure. The next time we meet this person, the trust assessment happens more quickly. This is how oxytocin encourages what's called "pro-social behavior." That's all the positive behaviors and feelings we share with others: love, trustworthiness, generosity, and compassion.

Oxytocin is like social glue, reminding us to stick close to friends. It's also an economic lubricant, allowing us to extract economic value from social interactions. Research from Zak's lab revealed that oxytocin reinforces social values. Inhaling oxytocin makes people more trusting and more generous. It also increases empathy-- the ability not to just see another person's side of things, but to feel the way he or she must feel. But how do we get the feel of another?

George Stewart, the associate professor of management and organizations in the Tippie College of Business who performed the handshake study, says that a warm handshake sets the tone for the rest of the job interview.

Research from Zak's lab published this month in Evolution and Human Behavior shows why: Touch primes the brain to release oxytocin. In Zak's experiment, half the participants received a 15-minute massage and then played an economic game in which they exchanged real money. After being trusted by a stranger with money in the hope that they'd reciprocate, the brains of participants who got a massage released much more oxytocin than those who simply rested alone. Amazingly, those who received massages returned 243 percent more money to the stranger who showed them trust than those who rested.

The oxytocin system, which can be fired up by touch, allowed us, in ancient times, to enter into economic exchange with others. Even in today's global economy, touch is vitally important to doing business. Our feelings about someone else, and the pleasure we feel in cooperating, is the foundation for trade with others. And it all starts with a handshake.

Susan Kuchinskas is the author of The Chemistry of Connection, available in 2009 from New Harbinger. Her blog, Hug the Monkey, is recognized as one of the most authoritative sources of oxytocin information on the Internet. Paul J. Zak is the Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California and Professor of Economics and Neurology. His lab discovered the role of oxytocin in facilitating trust between strangers. His new book Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy is available from Princeton University Press.