Are You Hungry for Touch in a Touch-Free World?
The right touch confers physical and psychological benefits.
Posted June 15, 2018
Imagine if you were never able to touch another person directly. In 1971, David Vetter was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). His body’s inability to cope with infection forced him to live in a specially constructed sterile plastic bubble until he died at age 12. Today, therapy allows children with SCID to lead normal lives. But such treatment was not yet available for David, who was able to observe and interact with others, but not enjoy the ordinary pleasures of direct physical hugs, kisses, and hand holding.
Being able to communicate with digital media has given us amazing opportunities to establish new relationships and maintain existing ones. The potential of Internet tools for enhancing social connectedness is virtually unlimited. Sadly, however, research has been documenting increasingly worrisome adverse impacts associated with greater reliance on social media. Researchers have been exploring concerns related to cyberbullying, anxiety, depression, adverse effects on relationships, and negative impacts on the development of interpersonal skills.
Understanding the paradox of the great potential to benefit personal communication and the realization of psychological and social harm traced to activity in cyberspace requires a great deal more research. Some effects likely result from exaggerated, even unrestrained, hostile behavior, security breaches, addiction, and permanence of content. Not yet adequately considered are the possible implications of fewer opportunities for desired pleasant touch. While texting, posting, and emailing connect us to others virtually, they don’t give us the physical closeness of actual touch. Although substantial research has investigated psychological impacts of unwanted touch, surprisingly little empirical attention has been devoted to uncovering the dynamics of wanted non-sexual touch.
Online communication is not the only reason many people are enjoying fewer experiences of everyday physical closeness. Smaller family size, high divorce rates, greater mobility, and more empty-nest homes have all contributed to greater physical distance and fewer occasions for touch. The social norms for acceptable touch have become less clear. We fear offending others or being misunderstood—or worse. Unfortunately, experiencing more of their social life in cyberspace, children and adolescents have fewer opportunities for learning healthy interpersonal skills, including the ability to interpret social cues accurately. Their lives entail fewer chances to learn to appreciate facial expressions, body language, and relevant contextual details. Without effective social abilities, greater sensitivity to unwanted touch is likely to make touch seem stressful and to promote reluctance to engage in physical contact.
Researchers have proposed a “touch hunger” hypothesis, arguing that a deficiency of everyday touch increases the need for touch (Field, 2010). Although empirical evidence is lacking, there are indicators suggesting that we are having fewer instances of everyday positive (non-sexual) touch. People are seeking alternative opportunities for touch, such as massage sessions, professional cuddling, and pet ownership. While such alternatives provide wanted touch, not all allow someone to touch another, and none satisfy the emotional value of touch in a meaningful relationship.
By living with fewer instances of meaningful, non-sexual touch, what are we missing? Research confirms what our intuitions and everyday observations suggest. Without the supportive touch of a hand or hug, a child might not have sufficient confidence to tackle new or daunting situations on the playground, in the classroom, or in a medical setting. Research has documented that at all ages, affectionate touch enhances psychological and physical well-being. Affectionate touch expresses positive emotions such as caring, love, fondness, support, and encouragement. Evidence is growing that receiving touch promotes physical well-being, in part by reducing stress and by encouraging healthy behaviors and coping strategies. Chronic stress is associated with higher risk for health problems and greater severity of illness. Greater cardiovascular reactivity to stress has been shown to be associated with the development of cardiovascular medical problems. Receiving caring touch is related to lower daily stress and lower stress reactivity. Touch has been shown also to reduce stress reactivity during stressful experiences. In one study, participants who had received affectionate touch experienced lower heart rate and blood pressure reactivity during a subsequent stressful task.
Essential to the beneficial impacts of touch is the interpretation of the touch as evidence of a positive relationship. Positive touch, even in the simple gesture of holding someone’s hand or in a spontaneous hug, reassures the recipient that someone cares. The receiver knows he or she is not alone. Not only is support available if needed, but in the event of failure, loss, or disappointment, acceptance and love will remain. In short, when understood as authentic, touch is the unmistakable connection to another. Affectionate physical touch stimulates pathways that activate areas in the brain associated with well-being and emotional awareness. Expressions of support without touch, as in social media, do not replace the beneficial power of the unique combination of physical stimulation and cognitive understanding of the social, relational meaning of actual touch. Viewing social touch in photos and videos online might yield vicarious pleasure, but pleasure doesn’t encompass the totality of physical and psychological benefits of actual touch.
As we spend less time in physical contact with one another, we risk becoming more distant and disconnected psychologically. Greater distance diminishes the closeness that keeps relationships healthy and engenders the interpersonal emotions of caring, compassion, and empathy. Distance makes it easier to depersonalize others and justify behaviors that would be unthinkable in their actual presence. Living with fewer tactile interchanges could mean greater stress, more conflict, loneliness, and depression. Improving the clarity of distinction between wanted and unwanted and appropriate and inappropriate touch is essential for people to be able to reach out to others in the most basic, healthy way. Affectionate touch ensures that we connect with others as an extension of ourselves, and assures us that we are extensions of them. Such connectedness reminds us that we share in the universal good, needs, and dreams that are inherent in the best of human experience.
CBS News. (2011). “Bubble boy” 40 years later: Look back at heartbreaking case. https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/bubble-boy-40-years-later-look-back-at-heartbreaking-case/
Field, T. (2010). Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: A review. Developmental Review, 30, 367-383.
Jakubiak, B. K., & Feeney, B. B. (2017). Affectionate touch to promote relational, psychological, and physical well-being in adulthood: A theoretical model and review of the research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21, 228-252.
Saunders, B., Riesel, A., Klawhohn, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2018). Interpersonal touch enhances cognitive control: A neurophysiological investigation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000412
Schirmer, A., Ng, T., & Epstein, R. P. (2018). Vicarious social touch biases gazing at faces and facial emotions. Emotion. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000393
Sehlstedt, I., Ignell, H., Wasling, H. B., Ackerley, R., Olausson, H., & Croy, I. (2016). Gentle touch perception across the lifespan. Psychology and Aging, 31, 176-184.