In a new German study, researchers wanted to investigate how hug-related behaviors are related to the person’s feelings about the situation. In particular, they wanted to know whether these feelings are reflected in physical actions, such as giving a side hug or leading with the right or left hand.

Researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum observed around 2,000 hugs naturally occurring at the arrival and departure terminals at a German international airport.

Before the departing flights, the researchers assumed that the people involved in the hug are likely experiencing negative emotions: They are saying goodbye to their loved ones, and according to studies, almost 40 percent of all air travelers have a fear of flying. On arrival, however, positive emotions typically abound thanks to joyful reunions and relief after the flight is finally over.

In order to study people’s motor preferences during a neutral hug, the researchers turned to the video platform YouTube. Here, they watched clips of actors who offered blindfolded hugs to strangers on the street. They analyzed more than 500 such embraces.

Consistent with other similar studies, the researchers found that most people show a preference for right-sided hugs. At the same time, they found that left-sided hugs occur more frequently in more emotionally-charged situations, both positive and negative.

“This is because of the influence of the right hemisphere, which controls the left side of the body and processes both positive and negative emotions,” says lead author Julian Packheiser, M.Sc. “When people hug, emotional and motor networks in the brain interact and cause a stronger drift to the left in emotional contexts.”

To further study the influence of handedness and footedness, the researchers subsequently asked 120 test participants to hug a mannequin after listening to a variety of positive, negative and neutral short stories through headphones. The participants’ handedness and footedness were recorded in a survey.

“Handedness and footedness can indeed predict the lateralization of an embrace,” Packheiser said. Right-handed people tend to hug the other person from the right side, much more often than left-handed people.

An embrace between two men is the exception: Here, the researchers observed a strong lean toward left-handedness even in neutral situations.

“Our interpretation is that many men consider embraces between men to be something negative; therefore, they tend to perceive hugs as negative even in a neutral situation, such as saying hello,” said researcher Dr. Sebastian Ocklenburg. In this situation, the right hemisphere is activated due to negative emotions and affects the motion to the left.

Source: Ruhr-University Bochum