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body language: effects of touch

August 22, 2010

Touch can have powerful effects, positive and negative.

Here are a few research results concerning the effects of touch:

  • Touch reduces stress by reducing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
  • Touch stimulates the production of oxytocin, a hormone that counteracts cortisol and lowers blood pressure and anxiety. It in turn increases the desire to touch and bond with other people. And not just in people. Studies show that petting a dog increases oxytocin in both humans and dogs. The anti-stress effects are even larger when it’s your own dog (Odendaal & Meintjes, 2003).
  • As I wrote in my blog post on human territories, touching an object can be a sign of owning it. Research showed that just touching an object can make you feel as if you own it or should own it, leading you to buy it and pay more for it (Peck, 2009). So when you’re out shopping, you better keep your hands to yourself.
  • Brief touches to the arm, hand, or shoulder make people feel more positive toward the person who touched them. For example, students rated the librarian and the library more positively when the librarian lightly touched their hands when they checked out books.
  • Touch can affect people’s willingness to comply with a request. For example, one researcher approached 120 women in a nightclub and asked them to dance. 65% of the women who were touched lightly on the arm agreed to dance, while of those he didn’t touch while asking only 43% agreed to dance.
  • Touch increases self-disclosure. People who are touched are more willing to share personal information, maybe because touching and sharing information are both signs of trust.
  • Touch helps create a bond between people, partly due to the release of oxytocin.
  • When waitresses touch diners briefly on the hand or shoulder, they receive larger tips. This is called the “Midas Touch” effect after King Midas of Greek mythology, who turned everything he touched into gold. The effect happens whether or not people remember the touch afterwards.
  • Premature babies who are touched regularly gain weight more quickly than babies who aren’t touched as often.

Whether a touch has positive or negative effects depends on who’s doing the touching and on how, when, and where people are touched. Inappropriate touches can make us feel threatened, since touch always occurs within our intimate space.

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8 comments

  1. Profound discoveries. Now I know a reason I may like some people instantly. The gentle tap on the shoulder and the little hug. I am very hesitant to touch someone I don’t know. Someone I love says her attitude toward strangers is “don’t touch me”. She is a very friendly person, too. This may have roots in some early negative experience.


    • Not touching strangers is a very good thing, since it violates their intimate space.

      Your observations fit in nicely with the findinsg on gender differences. For women, whether they find a fleeting touch pleasant or not very much depends on how well they know the person who touches them. For men, it depends on the gender of that person.


  2. Really interesting! Especially the observation about a waitresses. I would have thought that one would be just the opposite. Guess it’s just me…I would leave less of a tip. Same with sales people..keep your hands to yourself is my motto.

    But now talk to me and that’s different, I would gladly talk your ear off even with a stranger if you got me going on certain subjects. For instance…Thunder. Out and about with a dog is a huge ice breaker and people who would most likely never speak to you come right up when they see him. And pretty much everyone wants to pet him.

    Your whole series on body language has been interesting.


    • Yes, sometimes these findings are just the opposite of what we would expect.

      What was interesting is that the “Midas touch” study just observed waitresses, not male waiters.

      And keep in mind that it was a fleeting touch, very discreet. They weren’t groping their customers 🙂


      • LOL Fleeting touch or not.. it would still get them a less of a tip from me. It’s false familiarity and it has become way too prevelant. Don’t even get me started on people using my first name without my permission. That would be a good blog topic 🙂


  3. Then maybe I should convince you to move to Germany, RJ. Few people would call you by your first name without permission.

    I also wonder if the result of the Midas touch study would have been the same on my side of the big pond.


  4. Great post. I’m interested in body language specifically in terms of fiction writing, and found your blog helpful.


    • Thanks for commenting, Jami. I’ll blog more about body language and how it can be used in fiction in the future.



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