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The simple act of shaking someone's hands is a ritual jam-packed with secret social cues and subconscious meanings. Similar to how dogs smell each other's butts when they meet, one part of this ritual is for people to smell their hands afterwards. People take for granted the fact that we still communicate with smells all the time. For us, it's chemicals released through sweat called "chemosignals". Shaking someone's hand is a good way to get a sample of their chemosignals, and so smelling your palm afterwards is probably the easiest way for us to discretely get a whiff of them.
Researchers tested this by having bare-handed people shake hands with people wearing rubber gloves. When they tested the gloves for scent residues, they found lots of them, confirming their hypothesis. After the handshake, they secretly filmed the volunteers and saw them smelling their hands. You may not have realized that you do it, but most likely you do because it's one way learn about the person you just met and pressed palms with. Researchers observed urban dwellers in public cities and saw them touching their faces 3.6 times per hour on average -- and at least some of those were so that we could smell our hands.
A lot of researchers have been focusing on the role that smell plays in humans. A 2012 study from Utrecht University collected hand sweat from men who were watching scary movies and some that were watching gross movies. When they asked women to smell the sweat samples, they subconsciously made scary or gross facial reactions, showing they were able to interpret the emotions that the men felt when they were sweating, which is pretty amazing if you think about it.
So, are you smelling your hands right this second? What do you smell? If you've ever consciously noticed that you smell your hands after a handshake (or haven't), let us know in the comments section below.
Nice to sniff you: Handshakes may engage our sense of smell (Science Blog)
"Why do people shake hands? A new Weizmann Institute study suggests one of the reasons for this ancient custom may be to check out each other's odors."
Smell you later! Chemosignals communicate human emotions (Science Daily)
"Many animal species transmit information via chemical signals, but the extent to which these chemosignals play a role in human communication is unclear."
Chemosignals of Stress Influence Social Judgements (PLOS One)
"Human body odors have important communicative functions regarding genetic identity, immune fitness and general health, but an expanding body of research suggests they can also communicate information about an individual's emotional state."
Chemosignals Communicate Human Emotions (Psychological Science)
"Can humans communicate emotional states via chemical signals? In the experiment reported here, we addressed this question by examining the function of chemosignals in a framework furnished by embodied social communication theory."