Work Matters

Straight Talk and Solid Evidence About Organizational Life

Women Have The Midas Touch, Not Men

The Power of "Nonsexual Touching" By Women

Early in my career, I did research on the expression of emotion in organizational life.  My colleague Anat Rafaeli and I studied employees including 7/Eleven clerks, grocery store clerks in Israel, bill collectors and police interrogators (e.g., I blogged about our research on the good cop, bad cop methods here).  One of the findings that came from Anat's analysis if the 7/Eleven data is that both men and women respond positively to warmth and friendliness from women, but not necessarily from men. 

I remember an old study of waitresses that showed both male and female customers give bigger tips when they are lightly touched by a waitress.  My students at Stanford always giggle when I talk about the power of non-sexual touching, and the finding that both men and women appear to like being touched by women -- but not necessarily men.  The root of all this, at least some researchers argue, goes back to mothers, who early in life make most of us feel more secure -- and gain our compliance -- through physical warmth and affection.  Certainly, fathers play that role too, but across societies, women do most of the touching and holding of newborns.   And, of course, even the most affectionate father is incapable of breast-feeding!

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To return the research on waitresses, I just found it summarized in a 2010 article called called "The Science of Interpersonal Touch," which was published by Alberto Gallace and Charles Spence in the Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews (34:246-259),  They report, that in 1984, researchers Crusco and Wetzel:

"[E]xamined the effects of two types of touch in a restaurant setting. The waitresses in this study were instructed to briefly touch customers either on the hand, on the shoulder, or not to touch them at all as they were returning their change after they had received the bill. Crusco and Wetzel used the size of the tip given by the customer to the waitress as their independent variable. Surprisingly, the researchers found that the tipping rate of both male and female customers was significantly higher in both of the touching conditions than in the baseline no-touch condition (a phenomenon that has been labelled the ‘Midas touch’ effect)."

A brand new study follows in this tradition of research on the power of nonsexual touching by women.  A series of experiments by Jonathan Levav and Jennifer Argo just published in Psychological Science shows that both men and women who are lightly touched by a woman on the back are more likely to take bigger financial risk in an investment game than those not touched at all, or touched by a man.  Here is a nice summary of the study if you want to learn more. 

I always find such studies both instructive and amusing. I also think it is important to note that the new study in Psychological Science doesn't show that the touching by men has a negative effect, it just has no effect.  I find their explanation that this all goes back to the power of moms to be quite fascinating (and I cant think of a better one, perhaps you can).  As Levav and Argo suggest in the opening pages of their article, there is compelling research on both humans and animals that, when infants suffer from a lack of maternal physical contact early in life, they suffer physical and mental health problems for their rest of their lives.  The most famous studies were done by Harry Harlow on monkeys in 1950's-- which among other things-- found that a fake cloth mother seemed to be better for infant monkeys then one made of wire mesh or no mother at all (you can read Harlow's classic 1958 American Psychologist article here, I just re-read it and was frankly appalled and fascinated at the same time).

I wonder, what are some of the other practical implications of this research -- and does anything bother you about it? 

Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of five books including bestseller The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss (September, 2010).

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