There is no denying that the run-up to the 2012 U.S. presidential elections has begun. Whether it's in the form of debates or television ads, politicians are trying to get their message out and pick up votes anyway they can. But, sometimes it's hard to tell what a candidate really thinks about an issue. Interestingly, research suggests that one way to gauge their feelings is to look at their hands. As it happens, our gestures reveal what we are thinking even if when we don't clearly put our thoughts into words.
Simply put, right-handers tend to gesture about positive things with their right hand while lefties use their left-hand when they are conveying a positive message. The reason is that we interact with the world more easily with our dominant hand, which leads us to associate good things with that hand and bad things with the non-dominant one. Yes, there is a general linking of right with good, "my right hand man," and left with bad, "my two left feet." This likely developed because the right-handed majority prefers to interact with the world using their right hand (and the right side of their body more generally). But, for the minority of left-handers in the world, these associations are reversed. In other words, the content of our minds depends on the structure of our bodies, with different bodies leading to different ways of thinking.
Laboratory experiments support these ideas. When right- and left-handers judge which of two products to buy or which of two job applicants to hire based on brief descriptions found on the left or right of a page, right-handers tended to choose the person or product described on the right, but left-handers the person or product on the left.
And, it works for political messages too. In 2008, two lefties, McCain and Obama, were vying for the U.S. presidency. In 2004, it was two righties: John Kerry and George W. Bush. Daniel Casasanto, a psychology professor at the New School for Social Research in New York analyzed both speech and gesture (over 3,000 spoken sentences and almost 2,000 gestures) from the final debates of the 2004 and 2008 elections. What he found was that, in both of the left-handed candidates, positive statements were associated more strongly with left-hand gestures and negative ones with the right hand; the opposite gesture pattern was found in the right-handed candidates. As Obama said, gesturing with his left hand ''You can keep your health insurance." Kerry, four years earlier, made positive statements about the same subject using his right hand "You want to buy it, you can."
The hand people use to gesture when they speak seems to have unexpected communicative value, providing a listener with a subtle index of how a speaker feels about the content of what he or she is saying. So, next time you are wondering what a candidate really thinks about an issue, don't just listen to what they say, look at their hands. Our gestures provide a window into our emotions.
For more on the links between thought and action, check out my book Choke!
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