Bad PR: Chevrolet’s ‘Scientifically-Perfect’ Greeting

PH = √ (e2 + ve2)(d2) + (cg + dr)2 + π{(4<s>2)(4<p>2)}2 + (vi + t + te)2 + {(4<c>2)(4<du>2)}2

Or, as you might like to summarise it, hello – because that seemingly-complex string of numbers, values, algebraic representations and powers is actually supposed to be the formula for the perfect handshake. Still, I’m getting ahead of myself here, so I’ll take it from the obligatory start, by which I mean the Daily Mail:

Firm squeeze and three shakes: Scientists devise formula for the perfect handshake

It has been traditional greeting, a symbol of peace and a key part of business deals for thousands of years.

But today scientists announced that they have created a formula for the perfect handshake after it was revealed that seven in ten Britons are nervous about getting it wrong.

Regular followers of this blog will know the drill by now, but let’s go through the motions at least a little more. However, if you are a regular reader of this blog, and know about the general fourth paragraph reveal rule, you’ll know what’s coming next in the article:

More than two-thirds (70 per cent) of people said they lacked confidence when it came to performing the gesture, according to a survey for Chevrolet.

Yep – the double-whammy reference to a survey, and therefore the unmistakable whiff of PR, and also the mention of the survey’s paymasters and beneficiaries: Chevrolet. The only real surprise should be that the company’s name came as early as the third paragraph, but it’s more of a rule of thumb than a hard and fast law.

Staff at the car firm will be instructed on the ideal technique with a five-step process and given the mathematical formula in a new handshake training guide.

Excellent – I know when I buy large motorvehicles it’s not only a concern but a cast-iron demand of mine that the forecourt staff are trained in complex algebraic equations to perform fairly everyday tasks. Next on Chevvy’s list of formulas to develop is the formula for duping gullible young couples into extended finance packages, followed presumably by a formula for reading the Daily Mail without noticing which articles are little more than extended adverts.

Still, there’s a bit more to this than the general survey stuff we’ve covered before here – by which I mean the leading questions, the engagement of a polling populace more interested in getting to the end of the questions than answering honestly, and the manipulation of statistical analysis to make a survey sing your hymn. Take, for example, the stat of ‘more than two thirds of people lack confidence when shaking hands’ – imagine the following question and answers (which I’ve made up for the purposes of this article – I’ve not seen the original poll data):

How confident are you in your ability to give the perfect handshake?

  • A: Extremely confident
  • B: Fairly confident
  • C: Not very confident

From this simple re-wording alone, I think it’s clear that most people would plump with option B – who amongst us is extremely confident at giving the PERFECT handshake? Presumably only the most arrogant of palm-pressers. What’s more, let’s assume an even distribution and that 33% of those polled fall into each camp, we can see that 1/3 are extremely confident, 1/3 are fairly confident and 1/3 are not very confident. How many of those polled were not extremely confident in their PERFECT shaking ability? Two thirds. This little trick is known as lumping the middle, or something equally lacking in poetry.

The formula angle is a slightly different trick, however – no less obvious once you’re used to spotting it, but somehow more annoying and damaging to the real work being done by scientists. After all, what most informs the stereotypical tabloid view of those ‘zany boffins’, but the classic ‘scientists discover the formula for the perfect cup of tea’ type stories? With our Bad PR goggles on (readers should have collected enough tokens from the back of Bad PR blogs by now to have sent away for their very own pair), that Chevrolet mention really stands out. Not least when you read their original press release on the subject:

The mathematical formula has been developed for car brand Chevrolet as part of a handshake training guide for its staff to prepare them ahead of the launch of the new 5 Year Promise offer, which aims to offer peace of mind and reassurance to its customers.

Did the University of Manchester really, independently, come up with a perfect handshake formula, and then Chevrolet offer to sponsor it into the press? Or did Chevrolet perhaps give a grant to the University of Manchester, to do with as they please, with the proviso that they – although staying out of the research itself – would get a hat-tip in the press release? Either of these scenarios would be fine, respectable, perfectly legitimate.

Or did Chevrolet decide handshaking is a big part of greeting people, that their salesmen greet a lot of people, and so if they were seen to be the best handshakers they would gain kudos – and using this theory tout around relevant academics to come up with a formula they could attach to a pre-made press release? Well, Manchester’s not so far from Liverpool, and skepticism’s not so far from the kind of circles of people who work for universities, so after a few phone calls I was actually able to ascertain that Professor Geoffrey Beattie, the psychologist in the article, did indeed agree to come up with a formula which could be neatly slotted into Chevvy’s PR machine (which, doubtlessly, is an overly ostentatious and large machine with an inordinate gas-guzzling engine and go-fast stripes).

Why would an academic agree to put his name to a story like this? Much like the journalists who reprint it as if it was news, there’s no real malice or malevolence involved I’m sure – to a psychology professor, it’s a chance to get a version of psychology into the news, to stir up interest. OK, the story itself is a bit wishy-washy, and it’s hardly groundbreaking research (or indeed research at all – it’s more of a back-of-the-Chevvy-manual calculation, as we’ll see in a moment), but if it makes people think about psychology then that’s a good thing. What’s more, while it generates interest in the academic themselves, subsequent interviews can give opportunities to push some real science into the conversation, so it could seem like a good thing to do – despite the reality being, unfortunately, that when added to the myriad of other ‘zany boffins’ stories it serves only to feed the stereotype that scientists are ‘mad’, ‘zany’, ‘loony’ or – worst of all – wasteful. ‘Why are they spending their time and research money mathematicising handshakes when the world’s icecaps are melting‘, the tabloid reader may worry. Presumably a tabloid reader who invents words like ‘mathematicising’. Suffice to say the same tabloid doesn’t go on to explain the relationship between academic and corporate PR budgets, and the funding that being in the public eye can encourage.

This, of course, is nothing new – in fact looking around for other examples it appears Ben Goldacre was courted by the ‘Jessica Alba has the perfect wiggle, say zany boffins’ story in 2007 (a story, it’s worth pointing out, that I wish I’d been doing the Bad PR thing at the time of):

This important study was the work of a team – apparently – headed by Professor Richard Weber of Cambridge University, and I was particularly delighted to see it finally in print since, in the name of research, I discussed the possibility of prostituting my own good reputation for this same piece of guff with the very same PR company in June.

Here was their opening email: “We are conducting a survey into the celebrity top ten sexiest walks for my client Veet (hair removal cream) and we would like to back up our survey with an equation from an expert to work out which celebrity has the sexiest walk, with theory behind it. We would like help from a doctor of psychology or someone similar who can come up with equations to back up our findings, as we feel that having an expert comment and an equation will give the story more weight.” It got them on to the news pages of the Daily Telegraph.

So, is there any scientific value to these kinds of PR pieces, beyond potentially popularising other more serious work ? Well, yes and no – take, for example, the quote from Professor Beattie, as it features in the Chevvy release:

Professor Geoffrey Beattie, Head of Psychological Sciences at the University of Manchester, who devised the formula comments: “The human handshake is one of the most crucial elements of impression formation and is used as a source of information for making a judgement about another person.  A handshake reveals aspects of the personality of the person giving it – for example, a soft handshake can indicate insecurity, whilst a quick-to-let-go handshake can suggest arrogance – so it is surprising that up until now there has not been a guide showing people how they should shake hands.

This does indeed seem to me to be genuine psychology, based on arguably sound science. However, following Beattie’s quote we have:

Les Turton from Chevrolet comments: “It is easy to overlook everyday rituals, but as the handshake is used to complete agreements it is important our staff are well trained so they and can pass on trust and reassurance to our customers. The simple five-step guide for the perfect handshake should mean they are well prepared ahead of the introduction of our new 5 Year Promise ensuring all our deals are concluded in the proper way.”

Which immediately pricks the bubble of credibility.

What’s more, the formula itself isn’t actually all that groundbreaking, despite its grandiose appearance. Quoting it in full, with legend:

PH = √ (e2 + ve2)(d2) + (cg + dr)2 + π{(4<s>2)(4<p>2)}2 + (vi + t + te)2 + {(4<c>2)(4<du>2)}2

(e) is eye contact (1=none; 5=direct) 5; (ve) is verbal greeting (1=totally inappropriate; 5=totally appropriate) 5; (d) is Duchenne smile – smiling in eyes and mouth, plus symmetry on both sides of face, and slower offset (1=totally non-Duchenne smile (false smile); 5=totally Duchenne) 5; (cg) completeness of grip (1=very incomplete; 5=full) 5; (dr) is dryness of hand (1=damp; 5=dry) 4; (s) is strength (1= weak; 5=strong) 3; (p) is position of hand (1=back towards own body; 5=other person’s bodily zone) 3; (vi) is vigour (1=too low/too high; 5=mid) 3; (t) is temperature of hands (1=too cold/too hot; 5=mid) 3; (te) is texture of hands (5=mid; 1=too rough/too smooth) 3; (c) is control (1=low; 5=high) 3; (du) is duration (1= brief; 5=long) 3.

Decoding the formula then, we can see the perfect handshake involves:

  • Direct eye contact
  • Use of a ‘totally appropriate’ verbal greeting (as opposed to a ‘totally inappropriate’ one)
  • A fully genuine smile
  • A complete or firm grip
  • A hand which is not totally dry, but on the dryer side of medium (ie not clammy)
  • Neither very strong nor very weak
  • Neither too close to yourself, nor too close to the other shaker
  • Of medium vigour
  • Neither too hot nor too cold hands (Goldilocks hands, I suppose)
  • Neither too rough nor too smooth hands
  • Neither too controlling nor too loose
  • Neither too long not too short

Looking at the list of features, are there any you couldn’t have guessed? And, in the context of those measurements, do the accoutrements of mathematics genuinely mean anything? For example, one component tells us to multiple a medium level of strength by a mid-range position, and then multiply them by 2π. Unless we’re shaking hands in a big circle, what has π got to do with it?

So, there we go – a whistle-stop tour of another tool in your Bad PR toolbox: when you see a zany scientist and a crazy formula, check the story for interested parties. And if they appear in the fourth paragraph, so much the better.

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  1. #1 by Michael on July 26, 2010 - 19:46

    This reminds me of IBM in the late 1980’s. They promoted a business dress code. Dark blue suit, white shirt, red and blue striped tie (usually diagonal paterned with an allowance for a thin gold or cream separation bar between the primary colours). They managed to transport this look around the globe with features in business papers, glossy magazines and even into self-helpless books (such as Anthony DohDah Robbins). Nearly all the finance companies actually made it their official dress code. Unbeknowing to one and all that they were advertising IBM all the time. No-one in that industry wears a light coloured suit. I am sure that someone wrote a book about it.

  2. #2 by John David (@mariuskane) on July 29, 2010 - 16:27

    Please define the following :

    Medium Vigour : Doesn’t that vary by person depending on strength, if for example a bodybuilder (strong) was shaking hands with an IT geek (weak) – [please note this is for example purposes only, using stereotypes for example and humour] – would the “medium vigour” of the bodybuilder feel far far too vigourous.

    “Neither too rough nor too smooth” – if I accidentally put too much moisteriser on do I have to then go and use a pummice stone to roughen it up, or vice versa – and what level of roughness does it have to be, is there an SI unit i can measure against.

    “Neither too long nor too short” – please define the length of time in seconds.

    “Neither very strong nor very weak” (See bodybuilder example above)

    I mean… i am all for scientific formulas – I work as a statistician and if my team told me this, they’d get short shrift on the matter.

  3. #3 by Michael on August 7, 2010 - 18:06

    The SI unit of roughness is the µ. It gives the surface roughness of machined components.

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