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Exploring the Meanings of the “Heartfelt” Gesture: A Nonverbal Signal of Heartfelt Emotion and Empathy

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We conducted two studies to explore the potential meanings associated with the “heartfelt” gesture, which involves placing one’s hand with a flat palm in the center of the chest. In Study 1, we approached 176 participants in various social settings and asked them to recall an example of the gesture and the emotion they associated with its use. Although shock and surprise emerged as important themes, participants reported social relational examples associated with intensely-felt “heartfelt” emotions and empathy. Women were more likely to recall an example of the gesture’s use than were men. In Study 2, we replicated the effects of Study 1 using a larger online sample (N = 252), finding that women were more likely than men to use the gesture, and revealing a significant correlation between gesture use and self-reported empathy. The studies highlight the emotional significance of the gesture and challenge the prevailing view that the gesture primarily communicates sincerity. Implications for the possibility that the gesture serves as a nonverbal signal of heartfelt connection to others and/or an emblem of empathy are discussed.

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Fig. 1


  1. These are actual responses from Study 2.


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The authors wish to thank Timothy Chang, Amber Conklin, Marcia Salley, and Santokh Singh for their assistance with data collection and article annotations. The authors also wish to thank Judy Hall and Jessica Tracy for their encouraging words of support in the early stages of this work. Data from the first study reported in this article were included in a poster presentation in 2019 at the 8th Annual Nonverbal Preconference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Portland, Oregon.


This study was not supported by external funding.

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Correspondence to Sally D. Farley.

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Sally Farley is the Associate Editor for Special Issues at the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. This manuscript was handled by the editor-in-chief and underwent blind review. Karen Akin and Nicole Hedgecoth declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Farley, S.D., Akin, K. & Hedgecoth, N. Exploring the Meanings of the “Heartfelt” Gesture: A Nonverbal Signal of Heartfelt Emotion and Empathy. J Nonverbal Behav 45, 567–585 (2021).

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