Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
What is the first sense that you learned to use? Touch. It starts conveying information to the brain before birth, before the eye can see or the ear can hear.
What is your largest sense organ? Your skin. Up to 18% of your body weight.
Why do primates groom each other? According to Robin Dunbar, not just to be clean. The amount of time some species spend, up to 20% of their waking hours, goes far beyond the requirements for staying clean and nit-free. By spending time touching each other, primates build alliances, help each other respond to threats, and then help each other calm down. New mothers who need to spend lots of time nursing their young tend to take that time from sleep rather than from the time they spend grooming others.
What does interpersonal touch contribute to human life? Researchers such as Alberto Gallace, Charles Spence, and Robin Dunbar believe that interpersonal touch plays an important role in our emotional well-being, conveys emotion more powerfully than language, helps us calm down from stress arousal, and enhances trust between individuals.Celebrating Touch
Today, January 17, 2011, is my 30th wedding anniversary. I could speak volumes about what it means to be together for that many years — the shared history that we’ve built up, the ability to understand each other’s moods and anticipate each other’s needs, the goals we’ve met together, and the sense of sanctuary at home. Marriage is better, by far, than it was 30 years ago.
Of all the benefits of being together, the one that rises to the top of my mind is the way my husband taught me to enjoy being touched. I’ll pass him sitting at the breakfast table in the morning, and his arms open up to invite me in. He puts his hand on my foot when we’re sitting together on the couch, maybe even takes off my slipper and rubs my foot (bliss!). No day is complete without a goodnight hug and kiss.
Researcher Tiffany Field says that many people may be suffering from a shortage of tactile stimulation, something she calls touch hunger. There are certainly major differences in the amount of touch experienced in different cultures, even in different families. In a research project in the 1960’s, Sidney Jourard counted the number of touches among people sitting with friends in coffee houses. In Puerto Rico, people touched each other on average 180 times per hour, in London on average zero times. I don’t remember much about childhood touch experiences, but I can tell a lot from the difference between hugging my mother and my godmother today. My mother twists her body to turn a hug into a hip bump. My godmother gives a full frontal embrace. My sister and I agree that we had to learn to enjoy being hugged as adults.
That’s part of what I celebrate. So my childhood experience was not full of comfortable touch? So I used to feel uncomfortable being hugged? With my husband’s help, I changed that. Ah, the ability to learn!Touch is Calming
Touch is often more effective than words when one or the other of us is upset. Words induce a cognitive response, perhaps leading to arguing and often exacerbating the negative feeling. Touch can just show understanding and acceptance, requiring no response and leading to physiological calming. In Robin Dunbar’s words, “Social grooming has a number of physiological effects that include a reduction in the heart rate and a lowering of behavioural indices of stress.” He was talking about primates, but the same physiological effects accompany affectionate touch between humans.Kathleen Light and colleagues studied premenopausal women and found that frequent hugs with spouses are associated with lower blood pressure and higher oxytocin levels.
I’ve included a link to a paper by Grewen and colleagues in the references. They studied 38 couples, some with high levels of mutual support, some with lower levels. The relationships they found among stress hormones, oxytocin, and blood pressure were a little too complicated to summarize here, including differences in the responses of men and women. What I found most intriguing was the support they found for their hypothesis that “frequent positive partner interactions have cumulative long-term effects.” These included higher levels of oxytocin, which seem to lead to greater partner bonding, thus creating a positive feedback loop. All those hugs add up.
Touch and Trust
So is touch just important in families? No, actually, it can have an effect on the way people work together in groups, or even the way people react with strangers. Gallace and Spence report research that showed that people tended to tip a waitress more after she lightly touched a person’s hand or shoulder.
Researchers Kraus, Huang, and Keltner found interpersonal touch associated with both cooperative behaviors and season performance when they studied basketball players in the NBA.
They collected data about the frequency and duration of touch among NBA team members — high fives, chest bumps, hugs, and so on — in an early-season game for each of thirty teams. They also collected data about frequency of cooperative behaviors, such as talking to each other, pointing, gesturing, passing, helping team members escape defenders, and so on. Finally they collected performance indicators across the season for players and team members.
From their abstract:
“Consistent with hypotheses, early season touch predicted greater performance for individuals as well as teams later in the season. Additional analyses confirmed that touch predicted improved performance even after accounting for player status, preseason expectations, and early season performance. Moreover, coded cooperative behaviors between teammates explained the association between touch and team performance.”
What a fun way to study the impact of touch on performance! Research and watching basketball at the same time. Some basketball players know things about touch that the rest of us may not. For more about touch, see the guest post by Dacher Keltner on Jeremy McCarthy’s blog. Also, Iris Marie Bloom wrote an earlier PositivePsychologyNews.com article, The Power of Touch Beyond Pain and Pleasure.
I’ve uncovered a few key findings in my search on interpersonal touch:
- When it feels good, it calms us down, lowering the physiological response to stress.
- It builds trust.
- Small touches make a difference. It’s easier to calm somebody down by touching them than by talking to them.
- Touching the people that matter to you affectionately is a habit that can be built. Even if at first it feels funny, you can learn to enjoy it.
Feed that touch hunger!
For a discussion with Robin Dunbar, see the short video, We can only ever have 150 friends at most.
Several researchers looked at the relationship between touch and oxytocin. Dunbar thinks perhaps researchers are overstating the role of oxytocin, and that other endorphins are also involved in the responses to touch: “One explanation would thus be that the oxytocin/vasopressin route provides a mechanism allowing two individuals to be interested in each other. For most species, this may be sufficient to facilitate pairbonded relationships. But in primates, an additional endorphin route seems to be needed to sustain the longer term, more intense relationships characteristic of these species.”
Field, T. (2003). Touch. The MIT Press.
Gallace, A. & Spence, C. (2010). The science of interpersonal touch: An overview. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 34, 246–259. Abstract.
Grewen, K. M., Girdler, S. S., Amico, J., & Light, K. C. (2005). Effects of Partner Support on Resting Oxytocin, Cortisol, Norepinephrine, and Blood Pressure Before and After Warm Partner Contact. Psychosomatic Medicine, 67, 531–538.
Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner T., & Kirschbaum C, Ehlert U. Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biol Psychatry 2003;54:1389 –98.
Kraus, M. W., Huang, C. & Keltner, D. (2010). Tactile Communication, Cooperation, and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA. Emotion, 10(5), 745–749.
Light, K. C., Grewen, K. M. & Amico, J.A., 2005. More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biol. Psychol. 69, 5–21.
McCarthy, Jeremy (2010). Hands-on Research: The Benefits of Touch. A guest blog post by Dacher Keltner.
Reina, D. S. (1995). Developing trust in work teams: The impact of touch. Developments In Business Simulation & Experiential Exercises, Volume 22, 1995
The quantitative and the qualitative results partially support the hypothesis that physical touch significantly and positively impacts trust among members of work teams in the context of an adventure training when compared with no-touch work teams in the same context and that there are significant differences in the impact of touch on trust between men and women.
- Macaques Grooming in Borneo courtesy of David Dennis
- Hand over hand courtesy of Kathryn Britton
- Aren and André — I love this picture by Jennifer Weisbord of André Gustavus and Aren Cohen right after they married. When I looked for a picture of a couple hugging, it kept coming to mind. So I asked for permission to reuse it here, which was graciously given. This picture was used earlier by Aren Cohen in her PositivePsychologyNews.com article: How Sweet It Is…. Visit Jennifer’s site – she has other lovely pictures of couples touching.
- Mutual calming touch starts early. This is my only picture of myself with my father, who died when I was 2 years old. Notice that I’m holding his thumb!
- Basketball celebration courtesy of J Rosenfeld