How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
The Need for Touch
We have a deep need to touch others and be touched by them. When others touch us (in ways we like), we feel both less alone and a warm connection with them.
Sometimes we want others to touch us, particularly when we want to be comforted or otherwise loved. We may also want to play the active toucher, reaching out to others to show we care about them.
A young boy is upset. He runs to his mother and buries his face in her dress, holding onto her legs. The mother bends down and picks him up. His cries soon subside.
A person meets a person they admire. They spend longer than usual shaking hands.
A woman is upset. A friend gives her a hug. She feels better.
Physical contact is a joining of identities as two people effectively become one through that connection. This starts with children connecting with their mother or other carer in a warm and comforting way. It also helps balance deep tensions between the self and the other. Touch is a common element in close relationships.
Greeting others often includes physical contact, whether it is a simple handshake or a fuller hug. Hugs are also used in as a form of comfort, and if nobody is there to comfort distressed people, they may be seen to hug themselves.
A number of studies have shown that children's development is delayed by a lack of sensory stimulation, with touch singled out as critical. Studies carried out in the late 20th century of people who were in orphanages in Eastern Europe during the Cold War communist era have shown deep psychological damage that can be correlated in particular with a lack of human touch. This only emphasizes more the essential role a mother has in cuddling her infant.
Touch is highly context-dependent and the same gentle touch on an arm can be perceived as a romantic thrill from a prospective partner, a comforting connection from a sympathetic friend, or a threatening invasion by someone playing power games with us. Supermarkets keep aisles wide enough so people can bend down without being brushed by passers-by, an effect that can make people seek to shop elsewhere.
In the romantic sense, the lightest of touches can feel like a jolt of electricity, and stroking the skin even more so. It is interesting to note that hairs are important in this sensation, and shaving, or otherwise removing hairs (as is often culturally done), can deprive people of a very pleasurable sensation.
Touch is good for changing minds in other situations, too., for example request compliance (Brockner, Pressman, Cabitt, & Moran, 1982), readiness to spend money shopping (Hornik, 1991), willingness to complete a survey (Hornik, 1987) willingness to return money (Kleinke, 1977) and increasing tipping (Crusco and Wetzel, 1984).
When you want people to do something for you, a light touch on the arm can make them more likely to respond positively (this works best for young women touching men).
Some people touch others a lot. This can be natural connection and it can also be a deliberate method of showing power or seeking influence. If you are touched by someone and you do not like it, ask them not to touch or move away. If it is not troublesome, you can still wonder what they are up to. Notice also whether you feel you like them more or should agree with them, then decide consciously what to do.
Ardiel, E.L. and Rankin, C.H. (2010). The Importance of Touch in Development, Paediatric Child Health, 15, 3, 153-156.
Blackwell, P.L. (2000). The Influence of Touch on Child Development: Implications for Intervention, Infants & Young Children, 13, 1.
Brockner, J., Pressman, B., Cabitt, J. and Moran, P. (1982). Nonverbal intimacy, sex, and compliance: A field study. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 6, 253-258.
Crusco, A. and Wetzel, C. (1984). The midas touch: the effects of interpersonal touch on restaurant tipping. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 10, 512–517.
Hornik, J. (1987). The effect of touch and gaze upon compliance and interest of interviewees. Journal of Social Psychology, 127, 681-683.
Hornik, J. (1991). Effects of physical contact on customers' shopping time and behavior. Marketing Letters, 3, 49-55.
Kleinke, C. (1977). Compliance to requests made by gazing and touching experimenters in field settings. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 218-223.