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When NBA Players Touch Teammates More, They Win More

The power of fist bumps, high fives, chest bumps, head slaps, hugs, and huddles

I've blogged before about research on the power of "non-sexual touching," notably evidence that when waitresses touch both male and female customers on the arm or wrist, they tend to be rewarded with bigger tips.  I also wrote about a study showing that when either women or men are touched lightly on the back by women, they tend to take bigger financial risks. That second study showed that touching by men had no effect.  Now there is a new study that shows the power of nonsexual touch among male professional basketball players.  You can read the pre-publication version here.

It is called : "Tactile Communication, Cooperation, and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA" and was published by Michael W. Kraus, Cassy Huang, and Dacher Keltner in a well-respected peer reviewed journal called Emotion earlier this year (Volume 10, pages 745-749).

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In brief, here is how they set-up the paper; these are opening two paragraphs:

Some nonhuman primates spend upward of 20% of their waking hours grooming, a behavior primates rely upon to reconcile following conflict, to reward cooperative acts of food sharing, to maintain close proximity with caretakers, and to soothe (de Waal, 1989; Harlow, 1958). In humans, touch may be even more vital to trust, cooperation, and group functioning. Touch is the most highly developed sense at birth, and preceded language in hominid evolution (Burgoon, Buller, & Woodall, 1996). With brief, 1-second touches to the forearm, strangers can communicate prosocial emotions essential to cooperation within groups—gratitude, sympathy, and love—at rates of accuracy seven times as high as chance (Hertenstein, Keltner, App, Bulleit, & Jaskolka, 2006). Touch also promotes trust, a central component of long-term cooperative bonds (Craig, Chen, Bandy, & Reiman, 2000; Sung et al., 2007; Williams & Bargh, 2008).

Guided by recent analyses of the social functions of touch (Hertenstein, 2002), we tested two hypotheses. First, we expected touch early in the season to predict both individual and team performance later on in the season. Second, we expected that touch would predict improved team performance through enhancing cooperative behaviors between teammates.

I love that. As I always tell doctoral students, and I emphasized during the years that I edited academic journals.  A research paper is not a murder mystery.  The reader should know what you are studying and why by the end of the second paragraph -- this is a nice example.

Kraus and his colleagues go onto explain their research method a bit later:

Coding of the tactile communication of 294 players from all 30 National Basketball Association (NBA) teams yielded the data to test our hypotheses. Each team’s tactile behavior was coded during one game played within the first 2 months of the start of the 2008–2009 NBA regular season. Games were coded for physical touch and cooperation by two separate teams of coders.

They explain:

We focused our analysis on 12 distinct types of touch that occurred when two or more players were in the midst of celebrating a positive play that helped their team (e.g., making a shot). These celebratory touches included fist bumps, high fives, chest bumps, leaping shoulder bumps, chest punches, head slaps, head grabs, low fives, high tens, full hugs, half hugs, and team huddles.On average, a player touched other teammates (M = 1.80, SD = 2.05) for a little less than 2 seconds during the game, or about one tenth of a second for every minute played.

They also had coders rate the amount of cooperation by each player studied during that same early season game:

[t]he following behaviors were considered expressions of cooperation and trust: talking to teammates during games, pointing or gesturing to one’s teammates, passing the basketball to a teammate who is less closely defended by the opposing team, helping other teammates on defense, helping other teammates escape defensive pressure (e.g., setting screens), and any other behaviors displaying a reliance on one’s teammates at the expense of one’s individual performance. In contrast, the following behaviors were considered expressions of a lack of cooperation and trust: taking shots when one is closely defended by the opposing team, holding the basketball without passing to teammates, shooting the basketball excessively, and any other behavior displaying reliance primarily on one’s self rather than on one’s teammates.

Karaus and his coauthors then used these imperfect but intriguing measures of touching and cooperation to predict the subsequent performance of players and their teams later in the season; I won't go into all the analysis they did, but the authors did at least a decent job of ruling out alternative explanations for the link between touching and performance such as players salaries, early season performance, and expert's expectations about the prospects for team performance in 2008-2009.  And they still got some rather amazing findings:

1. Players who touched their teammates more had higher "Win scores," defined as "a performance measure that accounts for the positive impact a player has on his team’s success (rebounds, points, assists, blocks, steals) while also accounting for the amount of the team’s possessions that player uses (turnovers, shot attempts). "

2. Teams where players touched teammates more also enjoyed significantly superior team performance than those where players touch teammates less (the authors used a more complicated measure of team performance than win-loss record, it took into account multiple factors like scoring efficiency and assists, and other measures, which correlated .84 with the number of wins that season.

3. The authors present further analyses suggesting that the increased cooperation among teams where players engage in more "fist bumps, high fives, chest bumps, leaping shoulder bumps, chest punches, head slaps, head grabs, low fives, high tens, full hugs, half hugs, and team huddles" explain why touching is linked to individual and team performance.

Now, to be clear, as the authors point out, this an imperfect study. They only looked at touching in one game for each team.  So there is plenty to complain about if you want to picky.  But I would add two reminders before we all get too critical.  The first is that there is no reason I can see to expect that the weaknesses in this study would inflate the effects of touching; rather, quite the opposite.  The second is that the touching and cooperation were coded by multiple independent coders who did not know the researchers' hypotheses or the patterns they were looking for, and there was very high agreement (over 80%) among them.

As the researchers emphasize. more research is needed, but this study at least suggests that it is worth doing.  It is at least strong enough to increase rather decrease my confidence in the the touching-cooperation-team performance link.   And the way it plays out in different settings might require some careful adjustments in research methods and employee behavior.  For example,  basketball is setting where touch is clearly more socially acceptable than in the offices that many of us work in.  So if you and your sales or project team all of a sudden decide to start doing high-fives, group hugs, and chest bumps, it might backfire given local norms.  Perhaps a more reasonable inference is that, given what is socially acceptable where you work, touching on the high side of the observed natural range just might help.

I would love to hear reader's comments ont his research, as it is quite intriguing to me. Follow me on Twitter at work_matters.

See my recent books, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the best... and learn from the worst and The No Asshole Rule: How to build a civilized workplace and survive on that isn't, both New York Times bestsellers.

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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