Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Being touched

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How is our emotion affected by touch?

How can this knowledge help us improve our lives ?

Children dancing, Geneva

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Touch is an effective way of nonverbal communication that can be used to express our emotions. Touch is experienced throughout our lives, beginning at infancy. Our relationship with our mother, and her maternal touch paves the way for our future relationship experiences. In adulthood we use touch to express various emotions, with the primary emotion being intimacy. There has been gender difference in the expressions of emotion through touch which will be expanded on later in the chapter, along with all the key concepts mentioned above.

Define[edit | edit source]

Emotion: Emotion plays an important role in the user’s experience of tactile perception. Emotions that are concerned with touch are usually basic emotions, the gut feelings. They are concerned with feelings of being threatened or feelings of security, with lust or disgust and being attracted or repulsed (McDonagh, Hekkert, Van Erp, & Gyi, 2004).

Touch: allows us to recognize objects, to differentiate them from other things. Through touch we are able to recognize whether an object is known or strange. To touch is to be touched. Physical interactions are two way interactions, both the user and the reciever expresses their character and feelings. Touch can vary in the actual movements one uses to touch, the intensity and degree of pressure one uses, the rate at which the skin is impressed upon or moved across, the abruptness, location, temperature and duration (Hertenstein, Holmes, McCullough, & Keltner, 2009).

Tactile perception: Determining the physical aspects of an object through active touch. It involves characteristics of the object, characteristics such as: texture, shape and size, balance, weight, temperature, dynamics and the properties of the material such as elasticity (McDonagh et al., 2004).

Tactile experience: Affective response of the individual to the physical aspects of an object through touch. It is portrayed through input to receptors that respond to pressure, temperature, pain, and the movement of hairs on the skin (McDonagh et al., 2004).


Touch and emotion[edit | edit source]

According to Hertenstein, Verkamp, Kerestes and Holmes (2006) touch can be two things, firstly the action of the object coming in contact with the skin and secondly the sensory system registering this information, which is the feeling. Communication through touch occurs when there are systematic changes in another person’s behaviour, feelings, perceptions or thoughts as a result of another person touch. For example, an individual has the ability to portray love to another individual through caressing another’s cheek (Hertenstein, Verkamp, Kerestes, & Holmes, 2006). Some argue that for touch to communicate emotion the behaviour must be intentionally displayed and deliberate and goal directed. However Hertenstein et al. (2006) argues that this isn’t the case, and that touch doesn’t have to be intentional to be able to transmit emotion. There are two different principles that concern the relationship between touch and feeling, the principle of equifinality and the principle of equipotentiality. The principle of equifinality is the belief that the same communicative message can be achieved through various different means, for example: anger can be conveyed through a push or a slap (Hertenstein et al., 2006). The principle of equipotentiality is the thought that the same type of physical touch can be related with very different consequences of meaning, for example: an arm around a shoulder could be interpreted as dominance, but could also be interpreted as loving (Hertenstein et al., 2006).

All communication is bidirectional, whether it be through touch, visual or voice, there is always constant interplay between communicators and each affects the others communicative signals (Hertenstein et al., 2006). The term emotion originates from the Latin “to move out”; conveying that one facet of emotion is action and movement. Research has indicated that caregivers communicate their emotions to their infants through touch and that through touch they can also transfer their own emotional state onto the infant (Hertenstein et al., 2006).

Emotions can be portrayed through touch directly as it has the ability to convey particular meanings for example, to soothe illustrates intent to calm, active illustrates happiness. Particular types of touch have the ability to evoke particular emotions. Emotional feelings, states and messages such as love and caring, empathy, sympathy, anger, and sense of security can all be communicated through touch. Touch has the ability to communicate and bring out meaning. The sensory elements of touch have the potential to induce glandular, neural, muscular and mental changes; the combination of these elements is what we refer to as touch (Stack, 2001).

Touch is thought to have two primacies, phylogenetic and ontogenetic (Hertenstein et al., 2006). Phylogenic primacy refers to the evolutionary history of our species and how nonverbal communication, especially touch, preceded language in evolutionary time (Hertenstein et al., 2006). It is argued that people have the tendency to rely and use nonverbal communication more heavily, especially in times of stress, due to our evolutionary heritage (Hertenstein et al., 2006). Ontogenetic primacy re fers to the importance of nonverbal communication at the beginning of an individual’s life, with particular importance on tactile stimulation (Hertenstein et al., 2006). This is due to when the infant is born; touch is their most developed sensory modality and continues to play a fundamental role through the rest of the years of the individual's life. Through actions such as grasping, holding and nursing infants develop a rhythm and a sense of space and time through repeated contact and separations from their caregiver (Hertenstein et al., 2006).

Neuroimaging studies have suggested that touch activates the brain regions such as the insula and the anterior cingulated, which are implicated in emotional processing. Humans as well as non humans show a preference for tactile partners who are stable. Tactile contact which results in stress relief appears more effective if touch is concentrated on only a few partners and not spread out (Schimer et al., 2011). A trusted individual has the ability to be able to induce an automatic reduction in arousal and stress, illustrating that perceived closeness alone can impact emotional and cognitive processes. These findings suggest that actual physical contact can be seen as maximal closeness and elicit a variety of effects from mere presence (Schirmer, et al., 2011). Naturally occurring closeness generally requires physical closeness and typically occurs between those individuals who have an established relationship, such as friends, or a social context which defines the relationship, such as a waiter. The research by Schimer et al. (2011) was also able to infer that touch influences ongoing information processing in a bottom up manner.

The study of touch and emotion is best researched though the method of self report, as individuals are able to express how they are feeling and report this feeling when they are touched. Other methods prove to be a little more difficult, unless they are able to be observed. But even then the individual is still the only one that knows what they are feelings and the observer can only just to decipher this emotion(Hertenstein et al., 2006).

The study of touch has been impended as there are a variety of factors that concern the action such as a lot of physical action takes place in private thus making it difficult for researchers to access it to study. Also touch is very complex and can vary in action e.g. stroking, rubbing, hitting, patting and pinching and can also vary in temperature, intensity, velocity, location, frequency and duration. In a study by Morris (1971) it was discovered that there were 457 different types of body contact in the one study. Lastly, proscriptions against touch make it more and more difficult to study touch among humans in the laboratory (Hertenstein et al., 2006).

Hertenstein et al. (2009) describes touch as being the simplest and most straightforward of all the sensory systems and is the most fundamental means of contact with the world. Touch plays a role throughout our life, whether it is as a child concerning the cognitive, physical and social development or in adulthood through flirting, soothing, expressing power, playing or maintain proximity between the child and parent

Infancy[edit | edit source]

During the early years of development it can be said that touch can regulate behavioural and physiological reactions (Stack,
The Touch of Hands (7015509987)
2001). Touch can aid in controlling the arousal of the behavioural state of the infant, such as alertness and drowsiness. Touch also has the ability to be an effective stimulus for soothing newborns (Stack, 2001).

The somesthetic system, which is the kinesthetic and cutaneous processes, is the earliest sensory systems to develop in the human embryo. Somesthesis collectively includes kinesthetic sensitivity, which is the spatial position and movement information that is derived from the mechanical stimulation of the muscles and joints. It also involves cutaneous sensitivity which is the sensitivity of the skin to pressure, temperature, pain and touch. The fetus responds to vibroacoustic stimulation whilst developing in the womb (Stack, 2001).

Through the work with dyads it has been shown that rhythmic touch is preferred over non-rhythmic touch, and that infants respond more when touch is added along with the presence of face and voice. Wolff (1963) conducted research that studied the development of smiling and found that pat-a-cake became an effective stimulus for smiling between the fourth and sixth week of life, which reinforces that touch can elicited specific responses. Other games with infants that can elicit this type of positive response involve alot of touching and physical contact such as tickle games, lap games, bouncing games and horsey games. It has been reported that maternal touch can facilitate and maintain attention during face to face interactions(Wolff, 1963). However, according to Toda and Fogel(1993), emotional responses must involve the whole body and the patterns of temporarily organized action in a context, and not be solely judged from facial expressions. Mothers tend to use more surface area, intensity and speed of touch when trying to maximize the smile on their infants face, and used a more active kind of touch such as tickling and lifting, which supports the notion that playful interactions involve heightened activity (Wolff, 1963).

Child-parent relationship[edit | edit source]

Attachment, relationship quality and future relationships all have a major dependence upon the mother infant relationship. The amount of physical contact within this relationship and the quality of this conflict are very important to this relationship (Stack, 2001). Higher levels of touch have been shown to be related with secure, positive relationships (Stack, 2001). Lack of intimate touch and relationships is arguably one of the factors responsible for issues with institutionalized children. Maternal bonding, attachment and deprivation can be crucial factors determined by the degree of sensory stimulations and experiences (Stack, 2001).

Through research it has been displayed that infants who receive the touch of an adult are more vocalized and smile more and spend less time crying than those infants who receive no touch (Hertenstein et al., 2006).

Through the use of studies using still-face paradigm, touch was also shown to decrease negative emotions and generate positive ones. In this type of study infants were subject to an expressionless and stationary facial display from an adult whilst also remaining silent, this type of condition usually results in negation infant emotionality. However Stack (2001) found that when the infant is touched during the still face paradigm they smile more and cry less compared to the infants who are not touched.


Attachment[edit | edit source]

Touch is a major component involved in attachment and affection; there are many examples of how touch is related to tender loving care. Including; being a new born and the breast, being held and cuddled, being rocked to sleep, stroked and swayed to reduce stress and calm a child to induce sleep and hugged out of affection and comfort (Stack, 2001).

Weiss, Wilson, Seed and Paul (2001) demonstrated that emotional and behavioural problems in children later on in life were associated with a mother’s harsh touch as an infant. Infants who received a more frequent and harsher touch at three months showed more destructive and aggressive behaviours than those who received a nurturing touch.


Adulthood[edit | edit source]

Army Sgt. Hector Jaime Sanchez, a communications Non-commissioned officer in charge, with Delta Battery, 4th Battalion, 5th Air Missile Defense Battalion, 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, embraces his 121103-A-DO086-276
The frequency of touch may wane after infancy however it still continues to play a major role in adulthood. All cultures around the world share the common understanding of the basic meaning of touch as it is a vital role in many human exchanges such as attachment, comfort and aggression (Hertenstein et al., 2006).

Touch is a source of social exchange which allows individuals to form strong attachments and alliances, negotiate status differences, express romantic and sexual interest and soothe and calm (Hertenstein and Keltner, 2011).

People communicate their emotions through various nonverbal channels, including facial expressions, body language and physical touch. Some of these outlets for emotions are better suited to convey messages than others. The types of information conveyed such as dominance, likability, mood and personality vary across different channels in accordance to efficacy (App, McIntosh, & Reed, 2011). Peoples ability to produced and identify emotional displays communicated through a variety of nonverbal means is a theory that dates back as early as Darwin (App, McIntosh and Reed, 2011). Nonverbal channels are often used simultaneously to communicate intentions and thoughts. Channels are correlated with specific types of emotional expressions, and thus are non-random. The research of App, McIntosh and Reed (2011) illustrates that touch was best able to convey love and sympathy emotions. This is shown a lot through the mother infant relationship and the importance of the maternal touch. The use of touch to convey love and sympathy has been documented to communicate intimacy and liking for ones partner. It has also been shown to reduce the behavioural and physiological markers of stress and to strengthen and increase current and future attachment security. The touch channel is often used more regularly to convey intimate-relationship emotions (App, McIntosh, & Reed, 2011).

Research has found that a tap on the hand or forearm can increase the likelihood of a positively appraised and supported interaction partner, for example a library an its personnel were rated more favorably when the guest had been gently and casually touched by the librarian when receiving there library card, strangers were more likely to conduct a favour when touched and diners were more likely to tip when the staff touched them in comparison to those who didn’t (Schirmer, et al., 2011). Psychophysiological investigations by Whitcher and Fisher (1979) have shown that a gentle touched during fear conditioning has the ability to reduce bodily arousal and emotional responses.

Touch has the ability to be able to communicate both negative and positive emotions. In research conducted by Hartenstein et al.(2006) it was suggested that touch only amplified the intensity of emotions displayed through facial expressions and voice. The participants interacted in a room where two strangers were separated by a barrier, however they were still able to reach through the hole and touch each other. The individual who touched the other individual was asked to choose from 12 emotions which emotion they thought the encoder was trying to communicate. Participants were able to decode disgust, anger, love, gratitude, fear, and sympathy at rates they were above coincidence level. However the emotional expressions of sadness, happiness, surprise, embarrassment, pride and envy didn’t have the same result. The research also illustrated that specific actions resulted in the encoding of specific emotions. Anger was associated with squeezing and hitting, sympathy was associated with patting and stroking, fear was linked with trembling and disgust was conveyed through a pushing motion (Hertenstein et al., 2009)


The study by Hertenstein et al. in 2009 provided evidence that touch expresses distinct emotions in a strong fashion. Touch was able to communicate at least eight emotions: fear, anger, sadness, happiness, love, disgust, sympathy ad gratitude. This study is much like the previous study and thus reiterates the same ideas and theory and backs up their claims. However something new occurred in this study, happiness and sadness were able to be communicated (Hertenstein et al., 2009).


Gender[edit | edit source]

Studies which have conducted research into the relationship between gender and emotion through touch have focused on stereotypes, verbalization of emotion, self reports, emotional expression, nonverbal decoding of emotions, physiology and emotional competence. These areas of focus have established several regular findings; females smile more, are stereotyped as being more emotional and cry more often, they are also better at decoding emotion and are more expressive of their own emotions. However males appear to initiate more touch than females (Hertenstein and Keltner, 2011).

Females v males[edit | edit source]

Hertenstein and Ketler (2011) found that women are more likely to perceive touch from the opposite gendered strangers as being unpleasant and an invasion of their privacy and personal space. The more a woman feels as if the touch they are receiving from a male stanger is sexual, the less they perceive this touch as friendly and warm (Hertenstein and Keltner,2011). This is the opposite case for men; they perceive a touch that is sexual from a female stranger as warm, friendly and pleasant (Hertenstein and Keltner, 2011). Sympathy was communicated accurately when one part of the dyad was female; dyads that contained both males communicated sympathy at a less-than-chance level. This result is consistent with studies in gender differences in self reports of empathy, compassion and interests in caretaking (Hertenstein and Keltner, 2011). Dyads containing both women were able to effectively communicate the emotion of happiness through touch, which is similar with findings that women experience more prosocial behaviours and share emotions more than men (Hertenstein and Keltner,2011). Anger was only communicated effectively when one part of the dyad contained a male, with the most accurate groups comprising of two males. This result is congruent with the findings that men have a tendency to show more aggressive behaviour than females and the stereotype that men are angrier (Hertenstein and Keltner, 2011).

Intimacy[edit | edit source]

French Kiss
Touch constitutes one of the first means of communicating and developing intimacy, especially touch leading to sexual intimacy. Touch is commonly cited as playing an important role in the major theories of intimacy, such as the arousal theory, the discrepancy arousal theory and the equilibrium theory, and is also noted as fundamental immediacy behaviour (Hertenstein et al., 2006).

Using the method of log taking, Jones and Yarbrough (1985) were able to identify three categories of touch which nearly always developed into an intimate experience. These three categories were touches that expressed sexual intent and attraction, such as holding or caressing the body or private parts, touch which expressed positive affection and general positive regard towards the other individual and lastly touches which communicated togetherness that usually involved body parts on the lower half of the body such as the knees touching. These types of touches were found to occur most commonly in close cross sex relationships (Hertenstein et al., 2006).


Morris (1971) discovered that there tends to be a specific sequence of behaviours that heterosexual romantic couples use to communicate their intimacy. The first three were non touch communication, eye to body, eye to eye and then small talk; however the other nine behaviours all included the action of touch. In the sequenced order they were; holding hands, arm over shoulder, arm around waist, kissing, touching the head with the hand, touching the body with the hand, mouth to breast contact, hand to genitals contact and lastly genitals to genitals or mouth to genitals contact. It is to be noted that the sequence of these behaviours did vary sometimes depending on the couple or some were skipped due to canonical forms of tactile communication such as dancing, handshaking or a goodnight kiss on a date (Hertenstein et al., 2006).


The quantity and the quality of touch can reflect the intimacy and happiness of a relationship. For example Beier and Strenberg (1977) videoed recently married couples whilst they were interviewed about their adjustment to married life. They discovered that those couples who reported the greatest amount of marital happiness touched one another more during the interview and kept their hands to themselves less, compared to those couples who reported low marital happiness.


Using touch to improve your life[edit | edit source]

Touch can be used in various forms to help us improve our lives. Starting at birth, if our mothers gently nurture us and form positive attachments with us, this can set the ground for a lot of our future social and personal relationships. Games with infants that involve touching the child, such as pat-a-cake, increase the happiness of the child and also help to strengthen the relationship between child and caregiver.

In adulthood, most individuals are aware which behaviours elicits which responses. For example, if you kick someone/something you are most likely to be angry, if someone hits you it will make you sad, when someone gives you a hug it is a sign of affection and kissing is a sign of intimacy and love. Trough the use of prosocial behaviour and positive behaviours, we are more likely to elicit positive emotional responses, not only from others but from ourselves.

In intimate relationships, happiness within the relationship can be improved through intimate touch. Intimacy itself can be led to through a sequence of physical touch, where both parties agree. In relationships that are a result of the social context, positive outcomes are more like to occur through gentle touch of the forearm or hand in causal conversation. However, it needs to be noted that men are more likely than women to view touch from the opposite sex as positive, with women viewing the though of a random man as unpleasant


Do it yourself conclusion[edit | edit source]

1 Touch is;

One single action

2 The principle of equifinality is ;

The idea that the same type of physical touch can be related with very different consequences of meaning
The idea that the same communicative message can be achieved through various different means

3 Touch has been shown to produce secure relationships, not only in infancy but aso in adulthood;


4 Women are more likely to percieve touch from a stranger of the opposite sex as ;


5 According to a study by Hertenstein et al., in 2011, women are more effective at portraying _________ through touch;


6 App, McIntosh and Reed suggest that touch is NOT the best way to communicate love;


7 According to the work by Hertenstein et al. in 2009 the action of squeezing and hitting was best associated with which emotion?;


8 Tactile experience is;

Determining the physical aspects of an object through touch
The response of the individual to the physical aspects of an object through touch

9 Communication is always bidirectional;


10 Touch is best researched through which design;


11 Harsh maternal touch as an infant can lead to behavioural issues later in life;


12 Research by Hertenstein et al., (2009) has shown that specific actions elicit ________;

Specific emotions
An array of emotions
None of the above

13 Touch is only capable for expressing positive emotions;


14 Through research using dyads it was found that men are best able to communicate _______ through touch;


15 Touch is not a fundamental intimacy behaviour;


References[edit | edit source]

App, B., McIntosh, D., & Reed, C. (2011). Nonverbal channel use in communication of emotion: How may depend on why. Emotion, 603-617.

Beier, E. G., & Sternberg, D. P. (1977). Marital communication. Journal of Communication, 92-97.

Hertenstein, M. J., Keltner, D., App, B., Bulleit, B., & Jaskolka, A. (2006). Touch communicates distinct emotions. Emotion, 528-533.

Hertenstein, M. J., Verkamp, J. M., Kerestes, A. M., & Holmes, R. M. (2006). The communicative functions of touch in humans, nonhuman primates, and rats: A review and synthesis of the empirical research. Genetic, Social and General Psychology Monographs, 5-94.

Hertenstein, M., & Keltner, D. (2011). Gender and the communication of emotion via touch. Sex Roles, 70-80.

Hertenstein, M., Holmes, R., McCullough, M., & Keltner, D. (2009). The communication of emotion via touch. Emotion, 566-573.

Jones, S. E., & Yarbrough, A. E. (1985). A naturalistic study of the meanings of touch. Communication Monographs, 19-56.

McDonagh, D., Hekkert, P., Van Erp, J., & Gyi, D. (2004). Design and Emotion. London: CRC Press.

Morris, D. (1971). Intimate behavior. New York: Random House.

Schirmer, A., Soon Teh, K., Wang, S., Vijayakumar, R., Ching, A., Nithianantham, D., Cheok, A. (2011). Squeeze me, but don't tease me: Human and mechanical touch enhance visual attention and emotion discrimination. Social Neuroscience, 219-230.

Stack, D. M. (2001). The salience of touch and physical contact during infancy: Unraveling some of the mysteries of the somesthetic sense. In G. Bremner, & A. Fogel, Blackwell Handbook of Infant Development (pp. 351-364). Malden: Blackwell Publishers.

Toda, S., & Fogel, A. (1993). Infant response to the still-face situation at 3 and 6 months. Developmental Psychology, 532-538.

Weiss, S. J., Wilson, P., Seed, J., & Paul, S. M. (2001). Early tactile experience of low birth weight children: Links to later mental health and social adaption. Infant and Child Development, 93-115.

Whitcher, S. J., & Fisher, J. D. (1979). Multidimensional reaction to therapeutic touch in a hospital setting. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 87-96.

Wolff, P. H. (1963). Observations on the early development of smiling. Determinants of Infant Behavior, 113-138.