In the U.S., people are asked to put their right hand over their heart during the Pledge of Allegiance as a sign of respect. That gesture, it turns out, can do more than just symbolize dignity and honor. According to new research, when we place our hands over our hearts we tend to be more honest with others.
To arrive at this finding, researchers conducted a number of experiments with Polish student volunteers. They asked both female and male students, for example, to look at a set of photos of women and rank how attractive they found each of those women to be. The researchers had selected photos of women who received particularly low scores or were ranked as moderately attractive on a German website similar to Hot or Not.
At the same time, the researchers told the students to either put their hand on their hip or on their heart when they answered. The researchers' cover story was that they wanted to test the effect of "cognitive load on judgments of appearance" by assigning a second simultaneous task.
When it came to judgements about the unattractive women, those who put their hand over their heart were more honest than those who placed it on their hip. There was no difference between the hip- and heart-evaluations of the attractive women, on the other hand, presumably because there was no reason to lie in that situation. "Thus, when presented with an opportunity to lie about someone’s appearance, people who put their hands over their hearts remained more honest, even if it meant being impolite," the researchers write.
In another experiment, they found that people also have a subconscious expectation that others who put their hand over their heart are actually more honest. Other student volunteers looked at a photo of a woman pictured with either their hand over their heart or else behind her back while a recording, supposedly made by the woman in the photo, said things like “I have never been late for work,” “I always keep my promises,” “I am kind to everyone” and “I have never cheated anyone.” Then, the volunteers ranked how credible they found those statements. As predicted, when the woman had her hand over her heart, the students ranked her statements as significantly more believable.
Something as simple as placing our hand over our heart, the researchers conclude, can trigger us to behave more morally. But at the same time, skilled liars could use this simple cue to manipulate others into believing that what they say is the hand-over-their-heart truth.