Alright, I confess, you may not be able to tell if a potential partner is good boyfriend (or girlfriend) material from the way he (or she) feels, but you’d be surprised what you can tell from the way they touch. Recent research examining the emotional communication through touch revealed that people are able to identify a host of emotions through tactile stimulation alone. These include positive emotions like happiness, gratitude, sympathy, and love, as well as negative emotions like anger, fear, disgust, and sadness.1,2 Perhaps even more surprising is that this isn’t just something that happens between relationship partners; perfect strangers are also capable of communicating emotions via touch. So, should you be in the habit of letting unfamiliar others touch you, odds are you’ll be able to clearly perceive their intent!
If you are finding this hard to believe, try thinking about the different ways you have been touched (I’m referring to nonsexual touching, so keep your mind out of the gutter). Friends may pat you on the back in celebration. Fellow travelers may poke you with their elbow as you jockey for arm-rest domination. Teachers may put their hand on your shoulder as a sign of support. And lovers may gently touch the small of your back to convey interest. We use cues like location, pressure, and duration of a touch to help us perceive its intent. And it appears that people are so attuned to haptic (i.e., skin) stimulation that we can identify a repertoire of feelings ranging from distress to elation without much conscious thought.
Researchers have extended this work to examine whether romantic partners have an advantage in communicating emotions through touch. What they found was that there is little difference in the ability of partners and strangers to communicate emotions like those listed above. However, intimate partners can detect emotions like envy and pride through touch, that strangers are not able to perceive.3 Although results did not definitively explain this discrepancy, researchers believe that these emotional states are more difficult to discern because they are “self-focused.” That is, they are derived from one’s internal/personal standards. Close relationship partners may be more adept at picking up on these subtle, fine-grained cues as a result of their greater experience, knowledge, and understanding of the individual.
Looking for a reason to touch your partner more? Beyond the enhanced emotional communication, researchers have also found that touching leads to greater closeness as well as enhanced well-being.4 In fact, just holding hands with a loved one can reduce stress responses,5 and regular touching can lower blood pressure and increase oxytocin (a hormone that promotes pair bonding).6
I guess there are only a handful of lucky ladies who know whether or not Ryan Gosling makes good boyfriend material, but if you are fortunate enough to be touched by him, you may very well be able to feel the love (or fear…depending upon how much of a super fan/stalker you are)!
If you’d like to learn more about our book, please click here (or download it here). Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.
1Hertenstein, M. J., Holmes, R., McCullough, M., & Keltner, D. (2009). The communication of emotion via touch. Emotion, 9, 566-573.
2Hertenstein, M. J., Keltner, D., App, B., Bulleit, B. A., & Jaskolka, A. R. (2006). Touch communicates distinct emotions. Emotion, 6, 528-533.
3Thompson, E. H., & Hampton, J. A. (2011). The effect of relationship status on communicating emotions through touch. Cognition and Emotion, 25(2), 295-306.
4Debrot, A., Schoebi, D., Perrez, M., & Horn, A. B., (2013). Touch as an interpersonal emotion regulation process in couples’ daily lives: The mediating role of psychological intimacy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(10), 1373–1385.
5Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science, 17, 1032-1039.
6Holt-Lunstad, J., Birmingham, W. A., & Light, K. C. (2008). Influence of a “warm touch” support enhancement intervention among married couples on ambulatory blood pressure, oxytocin, alpha amylase, and cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, 976-985.
Dr. Sadie Leder-Elder – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder-Elder’s research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.