Ever had cold feet at night? People had a remarkable solution to this problem in the Middle Ages. Many nobles in medieval Europe had large beds that allowed a noble, his wife, their children, some servants, and his knights to sleep together in the dead of winter (Lacroix & Naunton, 2010). If this sleeping arrangement sounds a little too cozy, this is probably because modern people like you and I have come to regard the practice of sleeping together with one’s entire household as shameful and uncivilized. Indeed, over the centuries, various forms of interpersonal touch have become less and less common, squelched under an onslaught of changing cultural values and new technology. We increasingly view touch as unhygienic and even invasive, as in the case of sexual harassment, for example. And sequestering ourselves behind phones and laptop screens has only exacerbated the trend.

Given that interpersonal touch is increasingly becoming a scarce commodity, it is important to ask how touch influences our lives. Why is touching and being touched by others so important to us? New research suggests that even fleeting forms of touch may have a powerful impact on our emotional and social functioning. For instance, people can communicate distinct emotions such as anger or sadness through touch. Moreover, people who are touched briefly on the arm or shoulder are more likely to comply with requests such as volunteering for charity activities. These findings could have far-ranging implications for the role of touch in everyday life and point to important applications in therapy and virtual communication.

Physical contact distinguishes humans from other animals. From a warm handshake or sympathetic hug to a congratulatory pat on the back, we have developed complex languages, cultures, and emotional expression through physical contact. But in a tech-saturated world, non-sexual human touch is in danger of becoming rare, if not obsolete. Despite the benefits of digital advancement, it is vital to preserve human touch in order for us truly to thrive.

Has our hi-tech, media-socialized world lost something critical to our species—non-sexual human physical touch? Hasn’t human physical contact set us apart from other animals, and has helped us develop complex language, culture, thinking and emotional expression?

Two hundred years ago, a creature looking somewhat human, was sighted running through the forests of Southern France. Once captured, scientists determined he was age 11, and had run wild in the forests for much of his childhood. One of the fathers of psychiatry at that time, Phillipe Pinel, observed the child—named “Victor”—and concluded, erroneously, that the Victor was an idiot. A French physician attending Victor, disagreed with Pinel, concluding that the child had merely been deprived of human physical touch, which had retarded his social and developmental capacities.

 

Research

 

We know from child developmental research that the absence of physical bonding and healthy attachment between an adult and child may result in life-long emotional disturbances. James W. Prescott, an American developmental psychologist, proposed that the origins of violence in society were related to the lack of mother-child bonding. Harry Harlow completed extensive studies on the relationship between affection and development.

In the early 1950s, American psychologist Harry Harlow provided a dramatic demonstration of the importance of touch in coping. Harlow set out to study the effect that separation from their mothers has on children by conducting a range of controversial experiments with baby Rhesus monkeys. Harlow raised the baby monkeys in isolation in a cage that contained two surrogate “mothers” – one made of metal wire and the other wrapped in terrycloth. Although the wire mother contained a bottle from which the monkeys could nurse, the monkeys would cling to the terrycloth mother when they were frightened, even when this led them to dehydrate and starve. Harlow’s monkeys were apparently hungry for something other than food: They were literally starving for a warm, comforting touch. With these studies, Harlow was the first to show that intimate body contact, and not feeding, was the most important factor in mother-child bonding.

Whether we get a friendly slap on the back, a sensual caress, or a loving kiss –interpersonal touch has a powerful impact on our emotions. In fact, our skin contains receptors that directly elicit emotional responses, through stimulation of erogenous zones or nerve endings that respond to pain (Auvray, Myin, & Spence, 2010; Hertenstein & Campos, 2001). Furthermore, research by Matthew Hertenstein, director of the Touch and Emotion Lab at DePauw University, has shown that touch may communicate distinct emotions (Hertenstein, Keltner, App, Bulleit, & Jaskolka, 2006). Hertenstein and his associates asked pairs of participants to sit at a table with a curtain between them, so that they were unable to see one another. One of the participants, the encoder, was asked to communicate distinct emotions (e.g. anger, disgust, fear, sympathy) by touching the other person’s arm. The person being touched, the decoder, was asked to identify the communicated emotion from a number of response options. Although they could neither see nor talk to each other, the participants were able to encode and decode distinct emotions such as anger, fear and disgust at above-chance levels.

The emotional impact of interpersonal touch is ingrained in our biology. Indeed, there is some direct evidence that, in mammalian species, touch triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone that decreases stress-related responses. Researchers first tested this idea by stroking rats’ abdomens for 30-45 seconds. They found that this type of soft touch raised rats’ oxytocin levels (Ågren, Lundeberg, Uvnäs-Moberg, & Sato, 1995).

Interpersonal touch can also induce oxytocin release among humans. For instance, in one experiment, couples who engaged in a warm touch exercise, during which they touched each other’s neck, shoulders, and hands, had more oxytocin in their saliva than couples who did not engage in this exercise (Holt-Lunstad, Birmingham, & Light, 2008). Likewise, women who report frequent partner hugs display higher levels of oxytocin in their blood than women who report few partner hugs (Light, Grewen, & Amico, 2005). The oxytocin-enhancing effects of touch may reduce the discomfort that people experience from everyday stressors, such as family turmoil or conflict at work (Di Simplicio, Massey-Chase, Cowen, & Harmer, 2009; Taylor, 2006).

 

 

Harlow conducted his ground-breaking (and arguably cruel) experiments after reading a World Health Organization report on the detrimental effect of institutionalization. This report was written by the British psychiatrist John Bowlby, a pioneering researcher who developed attachment theory (Bowlby, 1973). Attachment theory suggests that touch from sensitive caregivers allows infants to feel safe and secure, and thus forms the basis of securely attached relationships later in life. Developmental research has supported these notions. For instance, mothers’ nurturing touch was found to foster more secure attachment in low birth weight infants nine months later (Weiss, Wilson, Hertenstein, & Campos, 2000). Furthermore, infants who were tenderly held by their mothers and for longer periods of time were more securely attached than infants who were held reluctantly or awkwardly (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Thus, early nurturing touch from caregivers plays a key role in shaping children’s emotional security.

The soothing effects of touch likely remain important in adulthood. There is growing evidence that touch from a romantic partner buffers us against stress. For instance, happily married women who are holding their husband’s hand have smaller threat-related neural responses than when they are holding the hand of a stranger or do not engage in handholding (Coan, Schaefer, & Davidson, 2006). People may also obtain the comforting effects of touch from non-romantic relationships, and even with non-human animals such as pets (McConnell, Brown, Stayton, & Martin, 2011). Even inanimate objects appear to have an effect. Some fascinating experiments have shown that people recover more quickly from social rejection when they are holding a teddy bear on their lap (Tai, Zheng, & Narayanan, 2011).

Soft touch does not always have comforting effects. Jonathan Levav of Columbia University and Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta (2010) found that a female’s light, comforting pat on the shoulder increased feelings of security. However, this calming effect did not occur when individuals were touched by a male and was weaker when the touch consisted of a handshake. This finding suggests that gentle touch by non-threatening individuals is most likely to have beneficial effects. Touch is also less likely to have beneficial effects when it violates cultural, social, or personal norms. For instance, uninvited touch from a stranger is often perceived as intrusive or threatening (Thayer, 1986). Likewise, touching the waist area is only appropriate in the context of a strong bond or close relationship (Lee & Guerrero, 2001). Finally, some people generally dislike being touched (Wilhelm, Kochar, Roth, & Gross, 2001).

Beyond regulating our emotions, interpersonal touch may also regulate our social relationships. Cultural anthropologist Alan Page Fiske (1991, 2004) has elaborated on the social significance of touch. According to Fiske, touch is a key element of a communal sharing relationship, a relationship that occurs in all cultures between mothers and their children, and among members of a group with a shared identity. When people engage in communal sharing, they implicitly assume that their bodies share a common substance, which could be real, imagined, or implied. Interpersonal touch (but also other activities like joint eating or dancing) indicates the presence of a communal sharing relationshipby referring to the sharing of a common substance.

If Fiske is correct, touch may render people more willing to share resources. April Crusco of the University of Mississippi and Christopher Wetzel of Rhodes College (1984) conducted a famous test of this idea, in which they examined the effects of touch on tipping behaviour. They conducted the research among diners of two restaurants in a small college town in the American south, where one of three waitresses served the diners. After a waitress collected a diner’s money, she went to get change (in the early 1980s, most people presumably paid in cash). At this point, the researchers instructed the waitresses to touch the diners briefly on the shoulder or the palm of the hand, or to not touch the diners at all. The results showed that diners who were touched by the waitress left between 18% and 36% more tips than diners who were not touched, a pronounced difference that was statistically reliable. These beneficial effects of a brief touch have since been observed for many other behaviors, such as signing a petition (Willis & Hamm, 1980), returning lost money (Kleinke, 1977), helping to pick up dropped items (Guéguen & Fischer-Lokou, 2003), volunteering for charity (Goldman, Kiyohara, & Pfannensteil, 1985), and looking after a dog (Guéguen & Fischer-Lokou, 2002).

Some particularly provocative studies have examined the effects of touch on courtship behavior. One study (Guéguen, 2007, Experiment 1) took place in a French nightclub. During slow romantic songs, an attractive 20-year-old male went up to a young woman and said, “Hello. My name is Antoine. Do you want to dance?”. When he made his request, the man either touched the woman lightly on her forearm or refrained from touching her. While 43% of the women who were not touched accepted the invitation, 65% of the women who were touched agreed to dance. In a parallel study, an attractive male tried to obtain phone numbers from young women on the street. Of the women who were not touched, 10% provided their phone number, compared to 19% of the women who were touched (Guéguen, 2007, Experiment 2). These findings suggest that touch can be a powerful catalyst of romantic liaisons.

Equally notable are findings that touch can motivate people to work harder on shared tasks (e.g., Steward & Lupfer, 1987; Guéguen, 2004). One recent study on this topic examined touches exchanged between members of basketball teams (Kraus, Huang, & Keltner, 2010). The researchers observed touch behaviors of 294 players from all 30 National Basketball Association (NBA) teams during one game that was played within the first two months of the 2008-2009 season. The focus was on touches among two or more players who were celebrating a positive play that helped their team, including behaviors such as high fives, head slaps, or team huddles. The researchers then related the frequency of these touches to basketball performance during the subsequent NBA season. The results showed that early season touch predicted season performance. This relation held even when the researchers statistically controlled for player salary, preseason expectations, and early season performance. Indeed, the only measure that could account for the relation between touch and performance was the amount of cooperation that was observed during the game. These findings suggest that touch among basketball players is a strong indicator of trusting and cooperative attitudes, which may facilitate team performance.

 

 

Although psychologists have learned a great deal about the significance of touch, the scientific inquiry of touch is still in its infancy. One important complexity that has yet to be addressed is that touch is inherently a multisensory experience. During interpersonal touch, we typically experience tactile stimulation, but also changes in warmth, along with changes in what we see, hear, and smell. Nevertheless, inputs from other senses can have independent effects. For instance, merely being in a warm room or holding a warm drink can make people feel closer to others compared to when they are in a cold room or holding a cold drink (Williams & Bargh, 2008; see also IJzerman & Saddlemeyer, in press). More research is needed to establish whether and how warmth and other sensory experiences like smell, sounds, and vision contribute to the effects of touch (see Paladino, Mazzurega, Pavani, & Schubert, 2010, for a pioneering study on this topic).

Other important questions relate to the role of culture. Culture regulates how easily we can access interpersonal touch, by determining who is allowed to be touched by whom, which parts of the body can be touched, what touch means, how touch is ritualized in greetings (e.g., whether we kiss or shake hands with our friends), and so on. However, it is unclear to what degree we can attribute the influence of touch to psychological factors. As we have seen, some of the effects of touch are physiological, such as the release of oxytocin, and they are part of our biological hardware. These physiological processes may be resistant to cultural constraints. For instance, one study showed that individuals who consider touch inappropriate may still show physiological benefits from touch (Wilhelm et al., 2001). However, evidence of this kind remains limited. More research is therefore needed before we can draw firm conclusions about the role of culture in determining the physiological effects of touch.

Despite these limitations, insights from touch research could have many real-world applications. For instance, touch-based therapies may be useful in treating deficiencies in perspective taking (i.e. perceiving someone else’s thoughts and feelings), one of the core symptoms of autistic spectrum disorder (Baron-Cohen & Belmonte, 2005). Given that oxytocin (which is released upon touch) improves perspective-taking abilities among high-functioning autistics (Guastella et al., 2010; Hollander et al., 2007), touch-based interventions might be helpful to autistic individuals (see Escalona, Field, Singer-Strunck, Cullen, & Hartshorn, 2001). More broadly speaking, interpersonal touch may support health-promoting behaviors by enhancing compliance. Indeed, one study showed that when service staff at a home for the elderly touched the patients while verbally encouraging them to eat, these patients consumed more calories and protein up to five days after the touch (Eaton, Mitchell-Bonair, & Friedmann, 1986; for related findings, see Guéguen & Vion, 2009).

Incorporating interpersonal touch in educational and health systems may sometimes be difficult. Educators and health professionals may fear malpractice and abuse charges ( Field, 2001). Moreover, some individuals may prefer not to be touched, even when they might derive benefits from it (Wilhelm et al., 2001). Consequently, it seems useful to look for technological substitutes for interpersonal touch. The emerging fields of mediated social touch (Haans & IJsselsteijn, 2006) and affective haptics (Tsetserukou, Neviarouskaya, Prendinger, Kawakami, & Tachi, 2009) study and design haptic devices and systems that can elicit, enhance, or influence people’s emotions. These efforts have produced devices that can mimic aspects of interpersonal touch, such as the “Huggy Pajama”, a haptic jacket that gives wearers the tactile sensations of a hug whenever a sender hugs a doll-shaped device (Keng et al., 2008).

French novelist Michel Houellebecq (1998) envisioned a future in which all contact between people is mediated by technology. As such, one might wonder if haptic technology can ever replace interpersonal touch. Is being hugged by a haptic jacket as valuable as being hugged by a human being? Will the ultimate high-tech society be completely devoid of human touch? Though provocative, these questions may be largely beside the point. In the foreseeable future, the main use of haptic technology lies not in replacing human touch. Rather, haptic technology provides touch experiences for individuals who will otherwise remain touch-deprived. For instance, individuals with social anxiety, who find it awkward to be touched by people, may find it acceptable to wear a haptic jacket. Likewise, haptic technology may allow parents to hug their children while at work or traveling. New technological developments may thus enable greater numbers of individuals to reap the social and emotional benefits of interpersonal touch.

Communist Romania, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, in a pathological program to raise the birth rate through “science,” established numerous orphanages. When the world was able to see these orphans after his overthrow, they were shocked to see severe underdevelopment in their social skills and values. The commonality for all these orphans was a lack of human physical touch, particularly of the loving kind.

Sharon K. Farber, writing in Psychology Today contends “being touched and touching someone else are fundamental modes of human interaction, and increasingly, many people are seeking out their own professional touchers and body arts teachers—chiropractors, physical therapists, Gestalt therapists, Rolfers, the Alexander-technique and Feldenkrais people, massage therapists, martial arts and T’ai Chi Ch’uan instructors. And some even wait in physicians’ offices for a physical examination for ailments that no organic cause—they wait to be touched.”

Daniel Keltner,  the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, says “in recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.”

Keltner cites the work of neuroscientist Edmund Ross, who found that physical touch activates the brain’s orbitfrontal cortex, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion. Keltner contends that “studies show that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassion response and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka “the love hormone.” Keltner also describes the research that shows the economic benefits of physical touch, citing his own recent study of NBA basketball teams, concluding that teams whose players touch each other more win more games. Keltner also says that “touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch clams cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response.”

Research at University of California’s School of Public Health found that getting eye contact and a pat on the back from the doctor may boost survival rates of patients with complex diseases.

Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule, conducted a “neuroeconomics” study, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, in which he argues that hugs or handshakes are likely to cause the release of the neurochemical oxytocin, and increase the chances this persons will treat you “like family”, even it you’ve just met him or her. Zak argues “We touch to initiate and sustain cooperation.”

French psychologist Nicolas Guéguen reports in the journal Social Psychology of Education, t (link is external)hat when teachers pat students in a friendly way, those students are three times as likely to speak up in class. Another recent study has found that when librarians pat the hand of a student checking out a book, that student says he or she likes the library more—and is more likely to come back.

Touch can even be a therapeutic way to reach some of the most challenging children: Some research by Tiffany Field suggests that children with autism, widely believed to hate being touched, actually love being massaged by a parent or therapist.

According to research conducted at the University of North Carolina, women who receive more hugs from their partners have lower heart rates and blood pressure and higher levels of oxytocin.“Hugs strengthen the immune system…The gentle pressure on the sternum and the emotional charge this creates activates the Solar Plexus Chakra. This stimulates the thymus gland, which regulates and balances the body’s production of white blood cells, which keeps you healthy and disease free.”

Whether we get a friendly slap on the back, a sensual caress, or a loving kiss –interpersonal touch has a powerful impact on our emotions. In fact, our skin contains receptors that directly elicit emotional responses, through stimulation of erogenous zones or nerve endings that respond to pain (Auvray, Myin, & Spence, 2010).

Although psychologists have learned a great deal about the significance of touch, the scientific inquiry of touch is still in its infancy. One important complexity that has yet to be addressed is that touch is inherently a multi-sensory experience. During interpersonal touch, we typically experience tactile stimulation, but also changes in warmth, along with changes in what we see, hear, and smell. Nevertheless, inputs from other senses can have independent effects. For instance, researchers Laurence A. Williams and John A. Bargh found merely being in a warm room or holding a warm drink can make people feel closer to others compared to when they are in a cold room or holding a cold drink.

What does all this have to do with today’s world and workplace? Two things. The growing prevalence for human interaction through digital media—particularly for young people—versus personal physical contact, and the social and legal restrictions over physical contact in our schools and workplaces may have unintended negative consequences.

Josh Ackerman, a MIT psychologist, claims that people understand their world through physical experiences, and the first sense is through touch. He says that you can produce changes in peoples’ thoughts through different physical experiences. His study, published in Science (link is external)magazine, is the latest in the growing field of research called, “embodied cognition,” a field of research that supports the concept of mind-body connection.

In an article in Wired Magazine,  Brandon Keim contends, based on this embodied cognition research, that studies show children “are better at math when using their hands while thinking,” and “actors recall lines better when moving.

Touching in the Workplace

Can a pat on the back or even a hug between colleagues result in increased productivity?

“When that touching is appropriate and wanted, it certainly does,” says David J. Linden, professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neurophysiology. His newest book, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, explores the psychological and psychological basis of touch. “Friendly touching serves as social glue that binds people in the workplace and in the community. It engenders feelings of trust and cooperation. It makes coworkers have more team spirit and more empathy for each other.”

James Coan, a research psychologist at the University of Virginia, who studies the effect of touch on the brain’s response to stress, suggests touch is a way for us to communicate who’s on our team, as well as to “contract out” our stress management. At work, where stress is a constant threat to success, communicating with co-workers through touch might free up our brains—specifically our prefrontal cortexes—to worry about other things we tackle in the course of a day, like decision-making, planning, and finances.

Linden says the physiological basis of these beneficial effects of workplace touch are only partially understood, but they are responsible for the secretion of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding and reduces social phobias, and activation of the brain’s emotional touch circuits located in regions called the posterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. And these processes not only allow individuals to work more productively, but also foster productivity among teams of colleagues.

Handshakes, high fives, fist bumps, and even back pats are all part of a healthy workplace, says Alexander Kjerulf, a consultant and author of Happy Hour is 9 to 5: How to Love Your Job, Love Your Life, and Kick Butt at Work“Touching is very fundamental,” says Kjerulf, who leads workshops worldwide on how to make the workplace happier and more productive; He is also the “chief happiness officer” at Woohoo, the company he founded. “It helps create better relationships at work. It promotes closeness, inclusion, intimacy, and trust among a group of people when their daily interactions also allow them to touch.”

And while a handshake before a meeting is often blamed for spreading germs, recent research indicates there may be an opposite effect: a paper published in December in Psychological Science found that social support can help gird the immune system and better fight off illness. In experiments, hugging accounted for 32% of that social “stress-buffering effect.”

Yet despite its benefits, touch is something that is often frowned upon in many workplaces—a view people like Kjerulf and Linden believe would change if only companies could understand how beneficial touch can be. While sweeping changes to societal preconceptions of workplace touch may take a while, here are some tips for those who are open to exploring the benefits of touch in their workplace now.

Yet, because of the raised awareness of sexual misconduct, and it’s prevalence in working relationships, the issue of the appropriateness of touching in the workplace is now under close scrutiny. As David Swink pointed out in an article in Psychology Today, “In one observational study of conversations in outdoor cafes in London, Paris, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, the number of casual touches was counted. A total of 189 touches per hour were recorded in San Juan and 110 in Paris. In London, there were zero touches. One would expect to find touch counts that vary significantly between work groups and work professions as well. I have a client with offices in Washington, D.C., and Miami.”

Very little research has been conducted on touch in the workplace.  The use of touch in the workplace has often been associated with negative outcomes involving harassment complaints and lawsuits. Unfortunately, the incidence of harassment complaints has not decreased over the last 20 years. While laws protecting employees from unwanted touch and other forms of harassment are necessary, in response, some people develop what researchers call “touch anxiety,” a form of walking on eggshells. This fear of touch can create an unnatural state of human interaction that can have a negative impact on morale and normal conversations, not to mention a reduction in productivity. Could there be a much more positive side to workplace touch?

The etiquette rules concerning touch in the workplace are sensibly clear: the only conventional business touch is a handshake. Unless you are in an industry that requires physical contact, such as a massage therapist, doctor, hair stylist, dentist or similar profession, it’s a safe choice to keep your hands to yourself.

And now on to the nuances of personal touch, and, of course, the exceptions. Diane Gotzman suggests the following guidelines for people in the workplace:

  1. Hugs are “iffy”. Often a longtime client or contact will become a good friend. Greeting each other with a hug might seem acceptable given your established, close relationship. When a professional relationship has evolved to a personal side, and the feeling is mutually relaxed, a friendly hug may be a welcome greeting. It’s always a judgment call, however, and it could prove to be ill-fated if your instincts are incorrect.
  2. Be mindful of others’ touch tolerance. Some people are natural huggers, and others have a strict hands-off policy under any circumstances. If someone flinches when you clap them on the back, it’s a fairly good sign anything more than a handshake would be an invasion of their personal space. Use the flinch as a reminder to respect other people’s boundaries.
  3. Bosses and supervisors should be particularly mindful. In many cases, a pat on the shoulder from the boss can feel patronizing. In addition, there are too many opportunities for sending mixed messages. What may be appreciated by one employee as an authentic gesture to connect may be rebuked by another. The golden rule when it comes to touching an employee is “hands off.”
  4. Consider the situation. Coworkers in a business setting wouldn’t normally touch each other, but securing a massive contract may incite an overzealous high five or a group hug. Another reason someone might physically reach out at work is to offer condolences on the loss of a loved one.
  5. When in doubt, keep your hands to yourself. In general, you can’t go wrong by limiting your physical interaction to a firm handshake. There are plenty of safe alternatives to making a warm connection: a genuine smile, verbal praise, putting a compliment in writing or announcing a successful achievement at the next staff meeting. Any of these substitutes will keep you out of hot water at the office.
A simple (nonsexual) touch can increase compliance, helping behaviour, attraction, and signal power. Here are 10 examples:
  1. A well-timed touch can encourage other people to return a lost item.In one experiment, users of a phone booth who were touched were more likely to return a lost dime to an experimenter (Kleinke, 1977)The action was no more than a light touch on the arm. People will do more than that though; people will give a bigger tip to a waitress who has touched them (Crusco & Wetzel, 1984).
  2. Touch for help. People are also more likely to provide help when touched. In one study, strangers who were touched lightly on the arm were more likely to help an experimenter pick up things they had dropped (Gueguen, 2003). The percentage of people who helped went up from 63% to 90%
  3. Touch for complianceThe power of a light touch on the upper arm often extends more broadly to compliance. In a study by Willis and Hamm (1980), participants were asked to sign a petition. While 55% of those not touched agreed to sign it, this went up to 81% of those participants touched once on the upper arm. A second study asked people to fill in a questionnaire. The same touch increased compliance from 40% to 70%
  4. Touch twice for more compliance. And you can increase compliance with a second light touch on the arm.Vaidis and Halimi-Falkowicz (2008) tried this out when asking people in the street to complete a questionnaire .Those touched twice were more likely to complete the questionnaire than those touched once. The effects were strongest when men were touched by a female surveyor.
  5. Touch for a fight! However, the acceptability of touch, especially between men, depends a lot on culture. When Dolinski (2010) carried out a compliance experiment in Poland, he got quite different results for men and women. In Poland men asked to do the experimenter a favour reacted badly to a light touch on the arm. This seemed to be related to higher levels of homophobia. Women, however, still reacted positively to touch.
  6. Touch to sell your car. Unlike Poland, France has a contact culture and touching is acceptable between two men. So French researchers Erceau and Gueguen (2007) approached random men at a second-hand car market. Half were touched lightly on the arm for 1 second, the other half weren’t. Afterwards those who had been touched rated the seller as more sincere, friendly, honest, agreeable and kind. Not bad for a 1-second touch. We can safely assume the results would have been quite different in Poland!
  7. Touch for a date. You won’t be surprised to hear that men show more interest in a woman who has lightly touched them. But here’s the research anyway: Gueguen (2010) found men easily misinterpreted a light nonsexual touch on the arm as a show of sexual interest. Perhaps more surprisingly women also responded well to a light touch on the arm when being asked for their phone number by a man in the street (Gueguen, 2007)This may be because women associated a light 1 or 2-second touch with greater dominance. Bear in mind, though, that this research was in France again!
  8. Touch for power. Touch communicates something vital about power relationships. Henley (1973) observed people in a major city as they went about their daily business. The people who tended to touch others (versus those being touched) were usually higher status. Generally we regard people who touch others as having more power in society (Summerhayes & Suchner, 1978).
  9. Touch to communicate. Touch comes in many different forms and can communicate a variety of different emotions. Just how much can be communicated through touch alone is demonstrated by one remarkable study by Hertenstein et al. (2006)Using only a touch on the forearm, participants in this study tried to communicate 12 separate emotions to another person. The receiver, despite not being able to see the toucher, or the touch itself, were pretty accurate for anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude and sympathy. Accuracy ranged from 48% to 83%. To put it in context, that is as good as we can do when we can see someone’s face.
  10. Massage for maths. So, if you can do all that with a touch, imagine what you could do with a massage! Well, one study has found that it can boost your maths skills (Field, 1996)Compared with a control group, participants who received massages twice a week for 5 weeks were not only more relaxed but also did better on a maths test. Once again, witness the incredible power of touch
In our desire to have a politically correct and safe social environment, or an environment of instant communication, have we lost sight of the most important aspect of human development and culture—physical touch?

Copyright: Neither this article or a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.

Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.

Ray's latest blog posts

How Will We Deal with the Issue of Aging Baby Boomers?

By Ray Williams August 27, 2019   We have both myopic and conflicting views on how to deal with the millions of aging baby boomers. We need to effectively deal with the following issues: Our concept and prejudices about aging. The impact of large numbers of...

Do We Like Bad News More Than Good News?

By Ray Williams August 2, 2019 Like many others I was shocked and dismayed to see and read the news about yet two more mass shootings with many dead and wounded in El Paso Texas and Dayton Ohio. These instances of domestic terrorism are added to a long list of...

Can Compassionate Love Become an Organization’s Operating System?

By Ray Williams August 1, 2019   The Predominant Business Model     Business organizations have been dominated by men for at least the last two centuries. Correspondingly, male oriented values and behavioral characteristics—competitive aggressiveness,...

Why The Best Leaders View Vulnerability as a Strength

Why The Best Leaders View Vulnerability as a Strength By Ray Williams, April 20, 2019 There is compelling evidence that leaders who are prepared to show their vulnerability more easily gain the trust of others, and are, in fact, more effective leaders. Admitting our...

How Workaholism is Damaging Our Productivity and Well-Being

How Workaholism is Damaging Our Productivity and Well-Being By Ray Williams, April 14, 2019 In Japan they call it “karoshi” and in China it is “guolaosi.” As yet there is no word in English for working yourself to death, but as more and more...

Join our Newsletter for a FREE copy of Breaking Bad Habits e-Book by Ray