That human touch that means so much: Exploring the tactile dimension of social life

If Fiske is correct, touch may render people more willing to share resources. April Crusco of the University of Mississippi and Christopher Wetzel of Rhodes College (1984) conducted a famous test of this idea, in which they examined the effects of touch on tipping behaviour. They conducted the research among diners of two restaurants in a small college town in the American south, where one of three waitresses served the diners. After a waitress collected a diner's money, she went to get change (in the early 1980s, most people presumably paid in cash). At this point, the researchers instructed the waitresses to touch the diners briefly on the shoulder or the palm of the hand, or to not touch the diners at all. 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. These beneficial effects of a brief touch have since been observed for many other behaviors, such as signing a petition (Willis & Hamm, 1980), returning lost money (Kleinke, 1977), helping to pick up dropped items (Guéguen & Fischer-Lokou, 2003), volunteering for charity (Goldman, Kiyohara, & Pfannensteil, 1985), and looking after a dog (Guéguen & Fischer-Lokou, 2002).

Some particularly provocative studies have examined the effects of touch on courtship behavior. One study (Guéguen, 2007, Experiment 1) took place in a French nightclub. During slow romantic songs, an attractive 20-year-old male went up to a young woman and said, "Hello. My name is Antoine. Do you want to dance?". When he made his request, the man either touched the woman lightly on her forearm or refrained from touching her. While 43% of the women who were not touched accepted the invitation, 65% of the women who were touched agreed to dance. In a parallel study, an attractive male tried to obtain phone numbers from young women on the street. Of the women who were not touched, 10% provided their phone number, compared to 19% of the women who were touched (Guéguen, 2007, Experiment 2). These findings suggest that touch can be a powerful catalyst of romantic liaisons.

Equally notable are findings that touch can motivate people to work harder on shared tasks (e.g., Steward & Lupfer, 1987; Guéguen, 2004). One recent study on this topic examined touches exchanged between members of basketball teams (Kraus, Huang, & Keltner, 2010). The researchers observed touch 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. The focus was on touches among two or more players who were celebrating a positive play that helped their team, including behaviors such as high fives, head slaps, or team huddles. The researchers then related the frequency of these touches to basketball performance during the subsequent NBA season. The results showed that early season touch predicted season performance. This relation held even when the researchers statistically controlled for player salary, preseason expectations, and early season performance. Indeed, the only measure that could account for the relation between touch and performance was the amount of cooperation that was observed during the game. These findings suggest that touch among basketball players is a strong indicator of trusting and cooperative attitudes, which may facilitate team performance.

The prosocial tendencies induced by touch may sometimes have harmful effects. In cultures that encourage recklessness and irresponsibility, touch may amplify the destructive behavior. One study showed that customers in US public taverns who were briefly touched by a waitress ordered more drinks and consumed more alcohol than customers who were not touched (Kaufman & Mahoney, 1999). Another recent study showed that men playing an investment game made riskier decisions after a woman pat them lightly on the shoulder (Levav & Argo, 2010). Interpersonal touch may thus lead people to pursue riskier strategies, particularly when these strategies are socially sanctioned.

Although touch may smooth social interactions and help people bond with others, people may feel unnerved when others get too familiar with them in a purely professional setting (Leander, Chartrand & Bargh, 2012). Thus, the social benefits of touch are likely to materialize only in appropriate situations.