Show Me How You Really Feel: Hugging to the Left or Right Reveals Your True Emotions, Says Study

Sebastian Ocklenburg (left) and his collegues wanted to know if hug-related behaviour is affected by the emotional context of the give situation. Julian Packheiser gives a hug to Noemi Rook. Credit: Ruhr-Universität Bochum

It's well-known that emotions can greatly affect your body language. For example, if you're nervous you may fidget or shake. And if you're uncomfortable, you may cross your arms. New research suggest that your feelings may also affect the way you embrace someone.

Depending on a person's emotional state, we may choose to hug a certain way, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Research. A team of researchers observed more than 2,000 hugs that took place in various international terminals across German airports and found that right-sided hugs, meaning your right arm reaches in first towards your partner's left arm, are more common, which has previously been observed, the authors point out. But, during more emotionally-charged situations, things change.

"Our results were consistent across two studies and showed that embraces are shifted to the left in emotional situations (more left-leading hands)," Julian Packheiser, study co-author and PhD student at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, told Newsweek via email. "Therefore, we alter our hugging in emotional situations, regardless of positive or negative emotional contexts."

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Packheiser and his colleagues findings align with the right-hemisphere hypothesis, which theorizes that positive and negative emotions are both processed within the right hemisphere of the brain, he explained. According to this theory, both positive and negative emotions are processed within the right hemisphere. Once the the right hemisphere is activated (which controls the left side of the body), left-sided behavior is expected, and vice versa.

However, their findings should be taken with a significant grain of salt considering their work had quite a few limitations. Perhaps the largest assumption the team made is concluding that emotions experienced during departure flights were negative and emotions experienced during arrival were positive.

"I personally don't buy that," Lillian Glass, a body language and communication expert told Newsweek. "When you hug someone there's a great deal of various emotions that are involved. Also, most people are statistically right-handed, so you're going to go to the right side."

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Additionally, although the team observed people at the international terminal, their findings may only be representative of the German population.

Among other noticeable observations, they found that hugs between two men were an outlier because they typically had a left-handed drift.

"[Male on male hugs] were apparently already perceived as negative because of a left-shift in the neutral situation. It seems that these man hugs are still inducing a little discomfort in some men as we could not find this for any other gender combination," Packheiser said.

In order to better support their results, Packheiser and his colleagues plan to conduct future research analyzing electrical activity in the brain during embraces such as hugging. Looking at this type of activity could better inform what a person is truly feeling, rather than making an assumption.