Understanding woman comforting her overwhelmed friend in the kitchen

The gentle touch of another may help ease the negative emotional effects of social exclusion, according to a new study at University College London (UCL).

Researchers tested the impact of a slow, affectionate touch against a fast, neutral touch following social rejection and found a connection between gentle touch and social bonding.

“As our social world is becoming increasingly visual and digital, it is easy to forget the power of touch in human relations. Yet we’ve shown for the first time that mere slow, gentle stroking by a stranger can reduce feelings of social exclusion after social rejection,” said lead author Mariana von Mohr at UCL.

The new findings follow on the heels of other research showing that affective social touch and in particular, gentle stroking of the skin, may be coded by a special physiological system linking the skin to the brain.

While a few other studies have investigated the buffering effects of social support on ostracism through the presence of friends, teddy bears and supportive text messages, this is the first to investigate social touch.

For the study, 84 healthy women were told they would be playing a computerized ball-tossing game with two other participants to measure their mental visualisation skills. Although the participants thought they were playing games with other study participants, the other players were actually computer-generated.

After throwing and catching the ball several times, the participants answered a questionnaire asking how they felt about ostracism, the feelings of belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence, and control.

When the participants went back to playing the game after a 10 minute break, the other players unexpectedly stopped throwing balls to them after a couple of ball-tosses, causing them to feel socially excluded.

Next, the women were blindfolded and their left forearms were touched with a soft-bristled brush on either slow or fast speed. They then completed the same questionnaire and the results were compared and controlled against a baseline.

Participants touched at a slow speed had reduced feelings of negativity and social exclusion caused by the game compared to those who received a fast, “neutral” touch, even though general mood remained the same among both groups. Neither type of touch was sufficient to eliminate all of the negative effects of being socially rejected.

“Mammals have a well-recognised need for closeness and attachment, so it wasn’t a big surprise that social support reduced the emotional pain of being excluded in social interactions,” said senior author Dr. Katerina Fotopoulou at UCL.

“What is interesting however is that social support was optimally conveyed only by a simple, yet specific, instance of touch. No words, or pictures were necessary, at least in the short term. This finding builds on evidence that the same kind of touch can have unique effects on physical pain and it can have implications for the role of touch in various mental and physical care settings”

The researchers say that more studies are needed to specify the neurophysiological mechanisms involved and that future studies might consider the effect of skin-on-skin contact, social context and how results vary with temperature.

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Source: University College London