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

Conclusions and Outlook

Although psychologists have learned a great deal about the significance of touch, the scientific inquiry of touch is still in its infancy. One important complexity that has yet to be addressed is that touch is inherently a multisensory experience. During interpersonal touch, we typically experience tactile stimulation, but also changes in warmth, along with changes in what we see, hear, and smell. Nevertheless, inputs from other senses can have independent effects. For instance, merely being in a warm room or holding a warm drink can make people feel closer to others compared to when they are in a cold room or holding a cold drink (Williams & Bargh, 2008; see also IJzerman & Saddlemeyer, in press). More research is needed to establish whether and how warmth and other sensory experiences like smell, sounds, and vision contribute to the effects of touch (see Paladino, Mazzurega, Pavani, & Schubert, 2010, for a pioneering study on this topic).

Other important questions relate to the role of culture. Culture regulates how easily we can access interpersonal touch, by determining who is allowed to be touched by whom, which parts of the body can be touched, what touch means, how touch is ritualized in greetings (e.g., whether we kiss or shake hands with our friends), and so on. However, it is unclear to what degree we can attribute the influence of touch to psychological factors. As we have seen, some of the effects of touch are physiological, such as the release of oxytocin, and they are part of our biological hardware. These physiological processes may be resistant to cultural constraints. For instance, one study showed that individuals who consider touch inappropriate may still show physiological benefits from touch (Wilhelm et al., 2001). However, evidence of this kind remains limited. More research is therefore needed before we can draw firm conclusions about the role of culture in determining the physiological effects of touch.

Despite these limitations, insights from touch research could have many real-world applications. For instance, touch-based therapies may be useful in treating deficiencies in perspective taking (i.e. perceiving someone else’s thoughts and feelings), one of the core symptoms of autistic spectrum disorder (Baron-Cohen & Belmonte, 2005). Given that oxytocin (which is released upon touch) improves perspective-taking abilities among high-functioning autistics (Guastella et al., 2010; Hollander et al., 2007), touch-based interventions might be helpful to autistic individuals (see Escalona, Field, Singer-Strunck, Cullen, & Hartshorn, 2001). More broadly speaking, interpersonal touch may support health-promoting behaviors by enhancing compliance. Indeed, one study showed that when service staff at a home for the elderly touched the patients while verbally encouraging them to eat, these patients consumed more calories and protein up to five days after the touch (Eaton, Mitchell-Bonair, & Friedmann, 1986; for related findings, see Guéguen & Vion, 2009).

Incorporating interpersonal touch in educational and health systems may sometimes be difficult. Educators and health professionals may fear malpractice and abuse charges ( Field, 2001). Moreover, some individuals may prefer not to be touched, even when they might derive benefits from it (Wilhelm et al., 2001). Consequently, it seems useful to look for technological substitutes for interpersonal touch. The emerging fields of mediated social touch (Haans & IJsselsteijn, 2006) and affective haptics (Tsetserukou, Neviarouskaya, Prendinger, Kawakami, & Tachi, 2009) study and design haptic devices and systems that can elicit, enhance, or influence people's emotions. These efforts have produced devices that can mimic aspects of interpersonal touch, such as the "Huggy Pajama", a haptic jacket that gives wearers the tactile sensations of a hug whenever a sender hugs a doll-shaped device (Keng et al., 2008). Preliminary evidence suggests that at least some of the behavioral effects of mediated touch parallel the effects of interpersonal touch (Haans & IJsselsteijn, 2009).