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  • Writer's pictureJiah Hwang

The 5 Senses Series: The Effect of Touch

By: Jiah Hwang


Author’s Note

Handshakes, a pat on the back, a ruffle of your hair. Those are all simple actions you could incorporate into your daily habits when you interact with those you’re close with to form closer bonds or first to set an amiable impression at one’s first interaction. In my personal experience, I would associate friends that consistently greeted me with a warm hug or linked arms with me while walking to be kind and comforting — even causing me to overlook some of their mistakes. Although how we perceive and react to touch may be subjective based on one’s experience and background, for the majority of people, a few simple touches can drastically make a relationship sprout and grow strong.


Reviewed Research Article: “That human touch that means so much: Exploring the tactile dimension of social life”


Summary

Acts of interpersonal touch have been on a decline over time, with more cases of “changing cultural views and new technology.” The authors emphasize this by setting the scene of people spending more time behind their screens and limiting real human interaction to the point where we are more sensitive to the idea of unsolicited touching. For instance, people view it as intrusive due to being “unhygienic” or even “sexual harassment.”


There was a myriad of experiments conducted to show the credibility and benefits of touch, so here is a list of the significant tests that focused on proving the positive effects that touch has on relationships:


  1. Sharing resources

April Crusco of the University of Mississippi and Christopher Wetzel of Rhodes College conducted an experiment regarding the amount of tips given to 3 different waitresses. When a waitress went to collect change for the customer, one was instructed to touch the customer on the shoulder briefly, one on their hand briefly, and the last was told not to touch the customer. 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.

Proves: Even light touches make people open up more easily and make them feel more confident in sharing their resources.

  1. Motivation

Researchers observed the 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, which focused on how two or more players would touch while celebrating, such as “high fives, head slaps, or team huddles.” They then calculated the correlation between the frequency of these touches with positive basketball performance, which resulted in a positive correlation, with the reason for this correlation being a rise in the amount of cooperation observed during the game after said touching.

Proves: Touch among basketball players helps increase team cooperation, which in turn reflects on the positive outcome of the game.

  1. Early Development

American psychologist Harry Harlow studied the effect separation from their mothers has on baby Rhesus monkeys by raising them in isolation in a cage with one “monkey” made of metal wire with a feeding bottle and the other emptyhanded and wrapped in terrycloth. Even while starving, the monkeys would prefer the terrycloth mother, despite the mother.

Proves: Intimate body contact is the foremost important factor in the bond between a mother and her child.



Results

“Touch is inherently a multisensory experience,” as in, when we experience interpersonal touch, it affects the other four sensory details surrounding us: vision, hearing, smell, and taste. Therefore, we cannot cover all of the possible effects that different purposes of touch have on those senses in one research article. One’s cultural identity is also a big factor in the boundaries of touching to create bonds, as some cultures may be more aversive to touch. Yet, there is a possibility that touching can have the same effect on them despite their inherent culture, religion, etc.. Despite all these unresearched limitations, we know for a fact that touch can help with a myriad of fields already, such as treating the elderly, autistic individuals, and more. Some questions later raised were if haptic technology (technology that can replicate the feelings of touch by applying pressure, vibration, etc..), such as a haptic jacket, could ever replace touch as technology continues to develop in this society.



Review

Although I first went into reviewing this article believing that it would cover one singular experiment to support a more specific claim about the benefits of touch, I believe it was pleasantly surprising and refreshing to see a more holistic analysis of both the positive and negative aspects of touch and more condensed versions detailing the testing procedures, as there were several mentioned.


  1. Again regarding the various times these different experiments were held, the authors themselves first mentioned how the evolution of time and technology had changed the majority’s perception and openness to the act of interpersonal touch. However, many of the tests they mention to help them reach their final claim are very outdated. For example, the experiment of Harry Harlow and the monkeys was conducted in the early 1950s, and the experiment of tipping the waitresses was conducted in 1984. Although this should not completely discredit the claims made in this research article, I believe that more proof from recent experiments held would make the results more accurate and trustworthy.

  2. To build upon the question of the potential use of haptic technology, the authors themselves state how haptic technology would most likely be used to help those that will undoubtedly be touch deprived rather than to replace the act of touching for those that are capable of acting upon it themselves. However, I question if the knowledge of knowing that the touch is ingenuine and is just programmed to act like touching would have an impact on the usual effects that touching promotes. For instance, touching triggers the release of the chemical oxytocin in your brain, which is the “love chemical” that causes stress levels to decrease. More oxytocin is known to make you into a more generous and loving person, which helps you succeed at making healthy and long-lasting social connections. In fact, there was an experiment conducted by researchers at Berkeley (Dignity Health) where strangers were paired up and separated by a barrier with only a small hole through it so that no one could decipher emotions by reading one’s facial expressions. The experiment was to communicate 12 different emotions through touching one’s arms through the hole, and the results were better than anticipated, with the testing subjects accurately detecting the emotions of gratitude, sympathy, and love with 55-60% accuracy. Here, the question of whether or not that accuracy will stay in place even when using haptic technology is raised as well.




Bibliography

Holland, Taylor Mallory. “Facts About Touch: How Human Contact Affects Your Health and Relationships.” Dignity Health, Dignity Health, 28 April 2018, https://www.dignityhealth.org/articles/facts-about-touch-how-human-contact-affects-your-health-and-relationships. Accessed 1 June 2023.

Tjew-A-Sin, Mandy, and Matthew Hertenstein. “(PDF) That human touch that means so much: Exploring the tactile dimension of social life.” ResearchGate, January 2013, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257037688_That_human_touch_that_means_so_much_Exploring_the_tactile_dimension_of_social_life. Accessed 1 June 2023.

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