We are likely to be living in an increasingly touchless world. Even before COVID-19 touching others was frowned upon in some societies; the social distancing measures introduced to fight the pandemic can only contribute to this trend. With the benefits of touch for child development and our lives generally, this can’t be good news.

At the same time, there are a number of 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. In a previous blog post we explored how a light touch on the shoulder increased our propensity to take riskier gambles, as it makes us feel more secure.

Fist bumps and high fives: how interpersonal touch promotes trust, cooperation and prosocial behavior

In a fascinating real-life study, Michael Kraus and his collaborators at the University of California, Berkeley investigated how the frequency of touch between NBA players affects their performance in the field [1]. Might be difficult to believe, but early season touch between same-team players actually predicts individual and team performance later in the seasons, even when controlling for players’ salaries, as higher-paid people tend to touch others more. This effect emerges because interpersonal touch enhances team cohesion and promotes cooperation between the players. This is certainly one aspect we will lose, at least for the foreseeable future–besides looking quite odd, one-man goal celebrations are also likely to be hampering teams’ cohesion.

We also know that being touched by others makes us more likely to help them. Psychologists have showed it in a variety of contexts like returning a dime to a stranger[2], helping a stranger by looking after their dog for a couple of minutes[3] or picking up dropped items[4]. In all these studies a quick touch by the arm was enough to increase the share of people who help others substantially.

By the same token, studies show that interpersonal touch increases compliance with requests. A brief touch by a research confederate increased the likelihood of people to take part in activities as varied as signing a petition[5], participating in a survey[6], sampling a product in a supermarket (where it also increased the sales of this product without actually changing its rating) [7], and accepting an employee’s recommendation for a meal[8].

Similarly, a brief incidental touch by others also changes our perceptions of them. In a seminal study in the mid-70s, Fischer and his colleagues showed that when a librarian touched the hand of a visitor, the latter evaluated the librarian significantly more favorably than if no touch occurred [9]. In a similar fashion, when briefly and unobtrusively touched by a car sellers (potential) customer evaluate them higher. [10] Perhaps it is this same mechanism that makes us tip more in bars and restaurants when a waiter or a waitress touches our arm [11].

Much of this will not be possible in a world in which people are constantly on the lookout for interpersonal touch. This is not inherently bad though, for even though we consider helping others good by most measures of goodness, compliance with requests can be a double-edged sword, especially if it can be induced by a simple touch as opposed to, say, arguments.

My best wishes for a great day ahead!

[1] Kraus, Michael & Huang, Cassey & Keltner, Dacher. (2010). Tactile Communication, Cooperation, and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA. Emotion (Washington, D.C.). 10. 745-9. 10.1037/a0019382.

[2] Kleinke, C. L. (1977). Compliance to requests made by gazing and touching experimenters in field settings. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13(3), 218–223. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(77)90044-0

[3] Guéguen, Nicolas & Fischer-Lokou, Jacques. (2002). An evaluation of touch on a large request: A field setting. Psychological reports. 90. 267-9. 10.2466/PR0.90.1.267-269.

[4] Guéguen, N., & Fischer-Lokou, J. (2003). Tactile Contact and Spontaneous Help: An Evaluation in a Natural Setting. The Journal of Social Psychology, 143(6), 785–787. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224540309600431

[5] Willis, F. N., & Hamm, H. K. (1980). The use of interpersonal touch in securing compliance. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 5(1), 49–55. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00987054

[6] Hornik, Jacob & Ellis, Shmuel. (1989). Strategies to secure compliance for a mall intercept interview. Public Opinion Quarterly. 52. 539 551.

[7] Hornik, Jacob. (1992). Tactile Stimulation and Consumer Response. Journal of Consumer Research. 19. 449-58. 10.1086/209314.

[8] Guéguen, Nicolas & Jacob, Céline & Boulbry, Gaëlle. (2007). The effect of touch on compliance with a restaurant’s employee suggestion. International Journal of Hospitality Management. 26. 1019-1023. 10.1016/j.ijhm.2006.12.004.

[9] Fisher, J., Rytting, M., & Heslin, R. (1976). Hands Touching Hands: Affective and Evaluative Effects of an Interpersonal Touch. Sociometry, 39(4), 416-421. doi:10.2307/3033506

[10] Erceau, Damien & Guéguen, Nicolas. (2007). Tactile Contact and Evaluation of the Toucher. The Journal of social psychology. 147. 441-4. 10.3200/SOCP.147.4.441-444.

[11] See for example Hornik, Jacob. (1992). Tactile Stimulation and Consumer Response. Journal of Consumer Research. 19. 449-58. 10.1086/209314.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s