Monday, October 29, 2012

When not to pat someone on the shoulder

Physical touch can be surprisingly persuasive. From diners giving larger tips to waiters who touch them, to people being more helpful to strangers who pat them lightly on the arm, the literature has tended to paint a positive picture of the emotional influence of social touch. But now a study out of Belgium has documented what you might call the dark side of social touching. This isn't about unwanted groping, which is always inappropriate. It's about the fact that context is everything for light social touches, with the new research showing that even a friendly pat on the shoulder can have an adverse effect if it's performed in the wrong situation.

Jeroen Camps and his colleagues had 74 student participants perform a maze challenge in a race against a partner. The outcome was fixed so the participant won by a tiny margin, and then, as the pair left the room, the partner (actually a male or female stooge planted by the researchers) patted the participant on the shoulder lightly three times, smiled gently and wished them good luck for the next task. For participants in the control condition, all this was the same but without the shoulder patting. Next, the participants and their partner went to another room and completed "the dictator game", a simple economic game that involved the participant choosing how many movie-prize credits to share with their partner.

The revealing finding was that participants who'd been patted on the shoulder shared fewer credits with their partner, suggesting that touch can backfire when it's performed in a competitive context, perhaps because it's interpreted as a gesture of dominance. Interestingly, there was no link between participants' awareness of whether they'd been touched and their sharing behaviour; participants who remembered the touch rated it as neutral; and the partner wasn't rated as more unpleasant in the touch condition. All of which suggests the adverse effect of touch on later cooperation was probably non-conscious.

A second study was similar but this time participants and their partner (another stooge, always female) either competed against each other on a puzzle or they cooperated. Again, afterwards, the partner wished them luck, smiled, and either did or didn't pat them on the shoulder at the end, before they both moved to another room to play the dictator game. The results were clear - in a competitive context, touched participants subsequently shared fewer movie-prize credits with their partner, compared with those participants who weren't touched. By contrast, in the cooperative context, touched participants went on to be more generous with their partner, as compared with participants who weren't touched.

"Despite what some people might think, touching someone else may thus not always have desirable social consequences," the researchers said. "A simple tap on the shoulder, even with the best intent, will do nothing but harm when used in the wrong place at the wrong time."

A limitation of the research is the use of a shoulder pat. It could be argued that this is a form of touch with specific connotations, depending on the context. For instance, maybe it is construed as condescending in a competitive situation. By contrast, a lot of the earlier research on the benefits of touch have tended to use a simple, light touch on the arm, which is perhaps a more neutral gesture.

What do you think? Are there any instances when you've been touched lightly (in a non-sexual way) and it's irritated you? Or times that it's endeared you to the toucher? Was it the context that made the difference?


Camps, J., Tuteleers, C., Stouten, J., and Nelissen, J. (2012). A situational touch: How touch affects people's decision behaviour. Social Influence, 1-14 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2012.719479

--Further reading--
The power of a light touch on the arm
Why is a touch on the arm so persuasive?

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

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