A gentle touch by another individual has a healing effect on the pain of social rejection. A research team tested the impact of a slow, affectionate touch against a fast, neutral touch following social rejection and found a specific relationship between gentle touch and social bonding.
The study tested the impact of a slow, affectionate touch against a fast, neutral touch following social rejection and found a specific relationship 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 (UCL Clinical, Education & Health Psychology).
In the study, 84 healthy women were led to believe that they were playing a computerized ball-tossing game with two other participants to measure their mental visualization skills. After throwing and catching the ball several times, they answered a questionnaire that included questions about needs often threatened by ostracism including the feelings of belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence and control.
The participants thought they were playing games with other study participants when in fact the other players were computer-generated. When the participants resumed the game after a ten minute break, the other players unexpectedly stop throwing balls at them after a couple of ball-tosses, causing them to feel socially excluded.
The participants were then blindfolded, and their left forearms were touched with a soft-bristled brush with either slow or fast speed. They then completed the same questionnaire, and the results were compared and controlled against a baseline.
Those touched at a slow speed had reduced feelings of the negativity and social exclusion induced by the game compared to those who received a fast, 'neutral' touch, even though general mood remained the same between touch conditions. Neither type of touch was sufficient to eliminate the negative effects of being ostracized.
"Mammals have a well-recognized 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. 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" added the senior author, Dr Katerina Fotopoulou (UCL Clinical, Education & Health Psychology).
The team said that further research is needed to specify the neuro-physiological mechanisms involved and future studies might consider the effect of skin-on-skin contact, social context and how results vary with temperature.
The complete study is published in Scientific Reports.