We all know the value of human touch. It’s one of the defining cornerstones of our existence since our birth — the connection between mother and infant. The importance of maternal physical contact and nurturing has been demonstrated time and time again in previous research.
But what we don’t always realize is the impact simple human touch has on another person. A handshake, a touch of the shoulder — these things matter in more ways than we may realize. Could human touch increase our sense of security, as prior studies have suggested, which in turn could make us to make more risky decisions?
That’s what two researchers (Levav & Argo, 2010) set to find out in a series of three experiments…
The main hypothesis we tested is that certain forms of physical contact will evoke a sense of security in experimental participants, and that this sense of security, in turn, will increase their willingness to make risky financial decisions.
Subjects were undergraduate students at an American university and participated in three different experiments that explored their risk-taking in financial decisions. Subjects selected more risky investments when they received a light pat on the shoulder from a female researcher while getting instructions for the experiment. Those investments were more risky than those chosen by subjects who were not touched by the female researcher.
The researchers also studied the effects of other kinds of touch, including a handshake, and whether there was any difference between being touched on the shoulder by a male researcher versus a female researcher. Being given a handshake (instead of a shoulder touch) or being touched by a male researcher resulted in subjects choosing less risky investments than those who were touched on the shoulder by a female researcher. This effect was found regardless of whether the subject was male or female — both genders were impact by a female’s touch, but not a male’s.
The researchers suggest that subtle physical contact by a female increased participants’ feelings of security, which may have resulted in a greater willingness to take risks.
The three experiments we have reported demonstrate an association between certain kinds of physical contact and financial risk taking. This association was observed despite the subtlety of the manipulation: a momentary touch on the shoulder.
We suggest that a simple pat on the back of the shoulder — by a female — in a way that connotes support may evoke feelings that are similar to the sense of security afforded by a mother’s comforting touch in infancy. Although the comfort in the case of our studies was illusory, the data indicate that our participants perceived a real sense of security and that it led them to take greater financial risk than untouched participants did.
More generally, our findings suggest that minimal physical contact can exert a strong influence on decision making and risk preferences of adults, possibly also outside the financial domain.
Limitations of this study include the usual limitations we find from many of the journal articles published in Psychological Science — it was done on undergraduate college students in an artificial, contrived laboratory setting.
College students are not representative of the population in general. It may be that younger people are more sensitive and susceptible to touch than older, more experienced individuals. Artificial laboratory settings don’t always translate to the real world when real money and real risk-taking decisions have a real impact on our everyday lives. It remains to be seen whether these findings translate to outside the lab, and to a more diverse population (Oddly, the journal article makes absolutely no mention of limitations of the current research).
Read the news article: A Woman’s Touch Can Be Risky
Levav, J. & Argo, J.J. (2010). Physical Contact and Financial Risk Taking. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610369493.