Psychologists Just Explained What Trump Is Doing When He Shakes Someone's Hand


Nov. 18 2019, Updated 2:31 p.m. ET

One of the most fascinating subplots of Donald Trump's Presidency is the absolutely bonkers way he shakes hands. The latest chapter was created this past Thursday, May 25th, when Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected President of France, saw Trump's signature handshake coming and beat it at its own game. With world leaders now actively preparing for Trump's uncomfortable greeting, psychologists have decided to set the record straight on why they think Trump doesn't shake hands like a normal person.

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Later, during that same visit, Trump demonstrated his trademark handshake style: he'll offer his half-open hand after signaling a  handshake is expected (in this case, requesting an uncalled for handshake from King Phillipe of Belgium). Then, when the hand is given,  he'll yank it uncomfortably towards himself, forcing Trump's "victim" to extend their arms and turn their body into an uncomfortable position.

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Trump will also avoid a normal "shake," instead moving his arm in a strange back-and-forth motion (as if he were sawing wood) while twisting his counterparts hand into odd positions and using his other hand to clasp the shake in place. All together, it makes for one of the  strangest greetings in the political sphere. Why does Trump do it?

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Florin Dolcos, a University of Illinois associate psychology professor and faculty member at the Beckman Institute’s Cognitive  Neuroscience Group, helps explain Trump's strange habit:

"It goes  down to asserting dominance. Why he wants to do that? I don’t know. It  looks, to me, like he is trying too hard…. It looks ridiculous." 
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Frank Bernieri, an associate professor in the psychology department at Oregon State University, who has written on the influence of the handshake, commented:

"It’s an intimidation tactic. There are self-preservation strategies and  intimidation is one of the main ones. This is perfectly consistent with Trump. He pretty much says that’s what I do to make a deal."

The handshake as a power move has been mythologized in film and popularized in the world of business. But Howard Friedman, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior and a professor in  the psychology department at the University of California, has doubts  about its effectiveness:  

"Such attempts would usually be ineffective because the main point of a handshake is to establish a sense of mutuality and mutual respect. [S]omeone who uses or attempts to use such a power or intimidation handshake either 1) already has the power and would also simultaneously be employing other status signals like elevated height, invasive touching, higher-status clothing, and other dominance cues from face, voice, gaze, and posture; or 2) is misjudging the likely reactions of the other person and/or the audience."
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The strangest part is that Trump reportedly hates shaking hands! He has called such greetings “barbaric” and “one of the curses of American society.” He is a rumored germaphobe who dispenses Purell sanitizer.

The psychologists all seem to agree that, unlike other politicians who shake hands to show respect or win votes, Trump uses his handshake to assert his alpha-ness by putting his counterpart on the defensive from the first moment. Also, they all seem to agree he's a weirdo for doing so. Seriously, just watch this:

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