Emotional Valence is Body-Specific: Evidence from spontaneous gestures during US presidential debates.


What is the relationship between motor action and emotion? Here we investigated whether people associate good things more strongly with the dominant side of their bodies, and bad things with the non-dominant side. To find out, we analyzed spontaneous gestures during speech expressing ideas with positive or negative emotional valence (e.g., freedom, pain, compassion). Samples of speech and gesture were drawn from the 2004 and 2008 US presidential debates, which involved two left-handers (Obama, McCain) and two right-handers (Kerry, Bush). Results showed a strong association between the valence of spoken clauses and the hands used to make spontaneous co-speech gestures. In right-handed candidates, right-hand gestures were more strongly associated with positive-valence clauses, and left-hand gestures with negative-valence clauses. Left-handed candidates showed the opposite pattern. Right- and left-handers implicitly associated positive valence more strongly with their dominant hand: the hand they can use more fluently. These results support the body-specificity hypothesis, (Casasanto, 2009), and suggest a perceptuomotor basis for even our most abstract ideas.

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