If you’ve ever wondered whether that stiff and awkward hug from your mother-in-law at your last family dinner was genuine, there might be an easy way for you to tell. A study from Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, set out to explore the subject of hugs and the effect that emotions have on how we embrace each other.
Researchers studied more than 3,000 hugs to determine if three things — people’s feelings, whatever situation they’re in at the given moment, and which hand they write with — have any effect on the way we hug.
Their study’s first location? A German airport. As many of us know, airport arrivals and departures can be emotional experiences. Researchers found that individuals who were at the departure gate seemed negative, not only because they could have been saying goodbye to their friends and loved ones, but also because many people (40 percent, according to the study) who fly feel some type of fear before their flight (also known as aviophobia). However, the hugs taking place on the arrival side produced positive emotions.
The second part of the study involved watching a variety of YouTube clips of actors who were offering blindfolded hugs to strangers. In the final part of the experiment, researchers asked volunteers to hug a mannequin after listening to either positive or negative affirmations to see which side (either the left or right side) they hugged with.
The results found that while “humans show a significant rightward bias during embracing” — aka people tend to lean to their right when going in for a squeeze — most participants hugged to the left in both positive and negative emotional situations. Researchers believe this is because our brains are divided into two hemispheres, each of which controls the opposite side of the body — and since the right side of the brain controls emotion, a hugger is more likely to lean to the left when emotion is involved. Researchers also found that huggers in a neutral environment used their writing hand as a guide, so right-handed individuals went in for a hug toward the right and vice versa.
If you’re ready to put this theory to the test, try taking note of which way you naturally lean when hugging the people you care about, especially if the moment is an emotionally charged one. And the next time you see your mother-in-law, pay close attention!