Home All Touch and Trust

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, 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.

Macaques Grooming

Macaques Grooming

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.

An Early Touch

Hand over hand

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!

Mutual touch starts early

Mutual touch starts early

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.

Aren and André

Aren and André

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.

Basketball chest bump

Basketball chest bump

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!



Dunbar, R. (2010). The social role of touch in humans and primates: Behavioural function and neurobiological mechanisms. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 34, 260–268. Abstract.

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.

Field, T. (2000). Touch Therapy. Churchill Livingstone.

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

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Jeff 17 January 2011 - 12:07 pm


Its been a while. I am a huge hugger and my wife never was. I taught her to hug, so she says. I remember us out in the fields haying. We were on her grandfather’s farm. We were dating as teens and we’d take hugging breaks between baling hay. It would drive her Grandpa nuts. “Stop huggin’ and get to work!” You see, he was a very kind and loving man but NOT a hugger. That was eighteen years ago. Good times.

Anyway, your skin calculation is wrong…try 50%.


Aren Cohen 17 January 2011 - 1:22 pm


Thank you for such a wonderful article! I had never heard the term “touch hunger” before. I have read some interesting articles about children who were raised in orphanages and deprived of touch. It has serious and profound effects on the way they learn to relate, and often they present similar to autistic kids.

What I found most useful about your article was your conclusions. In my practice working with students, trust is a huge factor, as is managing stress. Your advice reminds me that things we might consider cliche, like giving “high-fives” and “a pat on the back” are in fact extremely important and go a long way in establishing rapport.


P.S. Thank you so much for using the photo of me and André for your article. Actually, as much as I love the picture, I was amused to find that in looking at it again, it seems to me such a modest touch. (Perhaps that is the real beauty of it!) André and I are super affectionate, and a more frequent pose is of our bodies closer together, his arm around my shoulder and my hand around his waist, a pose that echoes many of the photographs of my maternal grandparents!

Kathryn Britton 17 January 2011 - 2:01 pm


Love your story about hugging between bales.

I suspect we’re talking about different measurements. Here’s from the article by Gallace & Spence: “To put this into some kind of perspective, note that the average adult male will have around 18,000 square centimeters of skin, constituting about 16–18% of his body weight …” So according to what measurement is skin 50%?


Kathryn Britton 17 January 2011 - 2:29 pm

Yes, it is a picture of a modest touch. A little touch can make a big difference.

Your comment about infants and touch reminds me of the research in the 1950s by Harry Harlow with baby monkeys, who tended to prefer the terry cloth pseudo-mother to the wire one, even though the wire one had the food. We share touch hunger with other animals. Gallace and Spence open their article with this quotation from Harlow:

‘‘We believe that contact comfort has long served the animal kingdom as a motivating agent for affectional responses.’’ (Harlow, 1958, p. 676).

One of the ideas in the Resilience book was that we need to learn our own ways to calm ourselves down. I had an experience with my daughter described here that made me realize that concept needs extending to the others around us. You may find your students need different approaches, but at least including touch in your collection of things to try makes sense.

Right before Christmas, I had a routine checkup with a doctor that I like very much. After he checked everything that needed checking, I gave him a copy of the Gratitude book as a Christmas present, in honor of all the things he has done for me. At the very end of the appointment, he surprised me with a big hug. Wow, did that feel good! I knew I was more to him than a name on the day’s checklist.

Thanks for chiming in, and good luck building trust.

Senia 17 January 2011 - 4:00 pm

Hi Kathryn,

I wonder how people react to a shortage of touch. I wonder what happens when people are in the state of touch hunger. I can imagine two different reactions: one is that people crave it more, and the other is that the desire for it decreases. For example, with the people in London not touching at a cafe, I would imagine if you ask them how mentally healthy they are and how comfortable with the other person, you’d likely get the same answers as if you ask the cafe patrons in Puerto Rico. I wonder if people decrease their need for touch over long unuse.

This is my single favorite of all your articles on PPND. It’s got tons of research and also the personal connection. Happy, happy anniversary.

And also – LOVE the pictures in this articles. They’re pictures of my favorite things: family (you and your dad, your wedding day, Aren and André on their wedding day), cute animals, and basketball!!

Wishing you both a wonderful anniversary and a wonderful next 30 years and more together!


george E Vaillant 17 January 2011 - 5:15 pm

Good job, Kathryn.
Your best so far.
I copied and saved it

Jeff 17 January 2011 - 6:25 pm


1. I am a redneck obviously to even have a haybale hugging story.
2. Imperial.


oz 17 January 2011 - 7:15 pm

Kathryn – It’s interesting – my partner and I are very “touchy” but I have to admit that I’m not a big toucher of other people. I went out with a male colleague from work for the first time the other day – and much to my discomfort I found out he’s a big “hugger”.

I suspect that it might be the level of intimacy that’s important

I think I rememeber seeing somewhere that the primal senses – touch and taste/smell have direct connections to the emotional parts of the brain -they bypass higher cortical centres – hence there power.

Happy inniversary – my parents celbrated their 52nd on the same day

Kathryn Britton 17 January 2011 - 7:24 pm


I wonder if relative levels of touch shows up in any comparative well-being studies, like those done by Timothy So and Felicia Huppert. I haven’t see it addressed directly in my reading so far. Tiffany Field certainly expressed great concern about the tendency of American society to withdraw from touch to avoid litigation — preschool teachers not touching children and so on. I’ll keep my eyes open to see if I come across anything relevant — and I suspect you will as well.

Thank you for the flower and all the good wishes. One set of grandparents reached their 60th wedding anniversary — but they started out a little younger than we did. Who knows?


Kathryn Britton 17 January 2011 - 7:29 pm


Your comment stimulated a dinner time conversation about the geographical location of rednecks — just southerners, or farmers anywhere? My uncles, who were cowboys in Idaho, had red faces up to the hat line, but I don’t remember red necks. I got indoor jobs in high school, but my brothers and cousins hoed beans and sugar beets. So I’m a once-removed red neck, I guess.



Kathryn Britton 17 January 2011 - 7:31 pm

Thank you, George.

I am honored that you saved it.

Did you all ask the men you studied for so long anything about how much they were used to being touched?


Kathryn Britton 17 January 2011 - 7:40 pm

Yes, there are a lot of interesting questions about comfort levels.

There were several studies, though, where experimenters had people touched — lightly — by strangers and then compared subsequent behavior with a control group that wasn’t touched. Probably big hugs wouldn’t have worked.

Your parents were probably married in the summer, rather than midwinter. But it did give me an opportunity to wear my opera cloak — and I haven’t had many such opportunities.


Margaret 17 January 2011 - 9:17 pm

Kathryn – first, Happy 30th Anniversary to you and your husband!!! And I love your perspective — it’s even better today than it was 30 years ago!

As you know I’m a hugger, primarily with family and friends and even some clients. Yet in the last 8 years I’ve also learned to not only greet but gentley touch each resident I “meet” on the way down the hall to my Dad’s room at the nursing home. For some people the touch brings a smile, for others no recognition at all, but it still feels good to me. Thank you for combining the science of touch with your own practical experience.

Kathryn Britton 17 January 2011 - 10:43 pm

Thanks for the idea, Margaret. I’m getting organized to go visit my mother, who lives cross country in an assisted living facility. I already tend to help out at the table when I’m visiting — tie bibs and fetch coffee — and help the people running the exercise classes hand things out and pick them back up. I’ll think about touching people gently along the way.


Jeremy McCarthy 18 January 2011 - 3:16 pm

Hi Kathryn, great article (and thanks for citing my blog as well.) There are a few other articles there on touch if anyone cares to dig: benefits of touch as a part of pampering, kangaroo care of infants, and an article in response to a research study that was done on the health benefits of massage.

I also just happened to be reading a book by psychologist Stella Resnick called “The Pleasure Zone” and she cited Lewis Thomas (who has written much about the field of medicine,) saying how something was lost with the invention of stethoscopes. Prior to stethoscopes a doctor used to lean down and press his ear to a patient’s chest. And while modern medical technology has brought many advantages to the practice of medicine, we have lost something important, the habit of doctors actually touching their patients while caring for them.

My colleagues in the spa industry are always interested in new research and perspectives on touch so I will spread your article as far and wide as I can!

Jeremy McCarthy 18 January 2011 - 3:59 pm

I should have mentioned I will also have another new article on touch going up in a few weeks. this one is about the fact that research on touch is basically exploding right now thanks to “haptic” technology. Thanks to new touch screen devices like the ipad, android and iphone, we are now using touch to interface with our world in an entirely new way and there is an incredible amount of research being done on how to use touch, not only to communicate but also as a sense organ to absorb information. The touch interface with our technology has to be a 2-way communication channel so we can both transmit and receive information through our sense of touch. There is fascinating work on this being done out of the haptics lab at University of Pennsylvania for example. It leads me to envision a future where rather than saying “high tech” has replaced “high touch” we will live in a world where both are completely intertwined.

Kathryn Britton 18 January 2011 - 5:22 pm

I’ve been reading a book by Lisa Sanders, MD, called Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis. She also bemoans the demise of hands-on examination, but seems to place it later in history than the stethoscope. Usually the stethoscope is involved in the most touching part of a medical examination. It has concerned me that my mother and other older friends say their doctors don’t touch them AT ALL, not even to listen to their hearts.

Thanks for spreading the word. There are lots of interesting questions when you get into communication that bypasses words.

With respect to your comment about touch research, how about attempts to add touch to virtual communication? Gallace and Spence write, for example,

“Another promising device that will probably soon hit the stage of marketing is the Time best invention of 2006 ‘Hug-Shirt’ (described here). This
device, which belongs to the category of ‘wearable interfaces’, according to the producers, allows a person to feel a hug from another user via a mobile network connection.”

Puts a whole new spin on teleconferences!


Jeremy McCarthy 18 January 2011 - 5:26 pm

Another great book is “A Cry Unheard: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness” and he also talks about the lack of touch in health care. In his career with cardiac patients he noticed the calming effect on his patients’ heart rates when the nurses palpated their pulse with their fingers as opposed to using the automatic sensors.

I hadn’t seen the hug t-shirt but that is a good example of how we will start seeing different applications of this haptic technology. Imagine being able to email someone a hug or other physical expression?

oz 19 January 2011 - 1:57 pm

Kathryn – call me old fashioned but a virtual hug from my partner would never replace the real thing. I suspect this is one of the problems in today’s world- technology is attempting to replace systems that have evolved over 1000’s of years.

Kathryn Britton 19 January 2011 - 2:29 pm

I hear you. I have trouble imagining being hugged remotely, and it doesn’t seem a bit appealing. But then, I don’t have a spouse serving overseas either.

Of course such an idea will have unintended consequences …


Aren Cohen 20 January 2011 - 11:16 am

Hi Kathryn, Hi Jeremy,

Your conversation about haptic technology and the hug shirt made me think of Temple Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures. If I am not mistaken, it is in that book that she talks about learning that as a person with Asperger’s syndrome (many of whom have a difficult time with the unpredictability of other people’s touch) she really loved using a machine she creating as a “hugging machine” to help calm cattle. Part of what was comforting, I believe, was her ability to regulate the strength/intensity of the hug. It is interesting that while she still suffered from “touch hunger,” as a result of her diagnosis she had very specific needs to control the sensory input.

It is strange to me to think that a hug-shirt would be a satisfactory substitute for a hug, but as Kathryn rightly pointed out, if your spouse is on the other side of the planet, perhaps intention and simulation is a good enough facsimile of the real thing. Again, it begs the question, how interconnected are touch and the intention of touch (both by the giver and, as demonstrated by Temple Grandin, the receiver too).

Also, I find it the investigation of haptic technology fascinating and I look forward to your article Jeremy. When I search for information on my iPhone, I still think of myself processing as processing the information through other senses (seeing, hearing). Also, I suppose that in this winter season, where I am often thwarted by my gloves when I try to make a phone call, or when I have difficulty typing an email, the “touch” part of my phone seems for troublesome than ideal. However, as I write this now on my keypad, I am thinking about how satisfying the touch and click of the keyboard is, and that that too is a touch experience. It’s like the iPad….. I would not want to try and write a book on an iPad keyboard, and clearly the folks at Apple are well aware that people are resistant to that because now there are mobile keyboard additions.

Kathryn, a belated congratulations on your anniversary. Wishing you many more years of love, joy and mutual discovery!


Kathryn Britton 20 January 2011 - 11:26 am

I wonder if the “hug shirt” might also be used as part of a long distance call involving other senses — which might help the person associate the sensory experience with the person on the other end of the line. It gives a whole new meaning to the words “virtual hug.” That’s speculation, of course.

Thanks for the good wishes!

Justin 25 January 2011 - 1:03 am

Small touches do make a difference, I try to incorporate that “Trust” factor at work with more high-fives, pat on the back, and hugs of course for celebrations. It really bridges that gap of disconnect at a work place.

Kathryn Britton 25 January 2011 - 9:18 am

Thanks, Justin. It’s always interesting to hear about actual experiences. Do you ever run into resistance to these touches, or is it pretty well accepted?

Stuart 3 February 2011 - 10:32 am

It’s great to hear others experiences of how they have had to learn to hug and touch each other. It has taken me years to be able to give and receive hugs from my friends and family, at university I lived with great friends who would always hug each other and used a lot of personal contact together. Even though I was very close with them I noticed that they did not seem to share these affections with me. It became clear that they could tell I felt uncomfortable with touching.

These experiences made me evaluate my feelings towards physical contact with friends and family. I was also lucky to marry a compulsive hugger, she has helped me so much.


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