The sense of touch is vital for our development as humans and our functioning in the world. At the same time a number of societies, the US and UK ones for example, already frown upon interpersonal touch, in order to avoid any allegations of wrongdoing or for other reasons. The COVID social distancing measures are likely to exacerbate this – in the ‘new normal’ we will be even more cautious to touching others, to say the least. From that perspective of the positive impact of touch on us living in touchless world can’t be good news.

At the same time, there are a number of judgement biases caused by or induced by touch, which we might be better off not experiencing. Being touched by others increases how much we tip and compliance with requests in general, and self-touch makes us more self-focused and increases the extremity of our judgments. Interpersonal touch also makes us feel more secure and safe, which is not inherently bad, except when it backfires. Read on to learn how and why.

In a very interesting experiment Jonathan Levav and Jennifer J. Argo J exposed participants in one of their experiments to a series of sure payoffs and risky gambles. While being instructed by a female research confederate verbally, some of the participants were also touched lightly on the back of their shoulder for 1 second. Levav and Argo then had a look at how likely participants were to select the risky gamble. As it turns out, the light touch increased people’s propensity to risk it significantly.

Interestingly enough, a touch by a male confederate didn’t do the trick. In a subsequent task the researchers investigated how much people would invest in risky equity – a male touch didn’t have any impact; a female touch on the shoulder though led to a three-fold increase compared to a female handshake or simply a verbal instruction by a female.

What drives these results? You guessed it, people reported a higher level of security when touched on the shoulder by a female assistant. So, while we yearn for security in our daily lives, and interpersonal touch is perfectly capable of delivering it, we will do well to remember that with security also comes higher risk-taking intention. Perhaps worryingly, our sense of security need not come from something actually related to it – as this study shows, even an unobtrusive, mild touch can activate this feeling and impact our investment decisions. In a touchless world there will be fewer opportunities to gain security by someone touching us, but so will be our propensity to take gambles.

My best wishes for a great day ahead!

One thought on “Welcome to the touchless world: less feelings of security but also less risky behavior

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