Gentle touch reduces emotional pain, feelings of ostracism


A slow, tender touch of another individual relieves the effects of social exclusion, one of the most emotionally painful human experiences, according to a University College London study. A slow touch against the skin performed at a speed of 3 centimeters per second acts as a buffer against ostracism.

Mammals have a need for social bonding. Prolonged detachment and solitude result in early death and higher vulnerability for depression. In non-human mammals, physical touch lessens stress.

This positive effect is also evident in humans. Physical touch can help patients with fibromyalgia, a syndrome that affects the muscles and leads to sleep problems and rheumatoid arthritis, a type of arthritis that induces loss of function in joints.

Social touch has been linked with expressing different purposes and emotions. Stroking has been linked to compassion and love.

New research revealed there are certain C-tactile afferent fibers, a category of nerve fibers that innervate the skin, that react to gentle touches. C-tactile afferents are located in the hairy parts of the skin, and react cautiously to slow touching of the skin.

While past studies implied that a slow touch affects the brain, there have been no studies that examine how touch influences the pain associated with social exclusion.

The University College London study was the first study to examine social touch, as three previous investigations only examined the result of social support on ostracism through spending time with friends, hugging teddy bears and receiving sympathetic text messages.

Researchers recruited 84 women via the University College London psychology subject pool. They hypothesized that a slow, stirring touch would reduce the unhappiness caused by ostracism more than a fast, indifferent touch.

The women were informed that they would play an online ball-tossing game against two other participants to assess their mental ingenuity skills.

The women were unaware that their two opponents were computer-developed. They were told that they could throw to whomever they wanted. Each woman had her photograph taken to perpetuate this deceit.

Before playing the game, participants answered demographic questions. They then played the Cyberball-inclusion game for around three minutes. The Cyberball-inclusion game resembled a 30 ball-tosses game, where all participants were given an equal number of ball-tosses.

After the game, participants were given 28 statements such as “I felt I belonged to the group” or “I felt liked.” Participants measured how comfortable they felt with each statement.

After a 10-minute break, participants resumed playing the Cyberball-exclusion game for three minutes. While they were presented the ball the first two times, the participants were rejected in the remaining ball-tosses. After the game finished, participants were blindfolded. An analyst stroked the participants’ left forearms for 70 seconds with a brush. Half of the participants were stroked slowly, which was at 3 centimeters per second and known as CT-optimal speed. The other half were stroked fast, which was at 18 centimeters per second, not CT-optimal speed. Participants then rated how comfortable they felt with the same 28 statements.

Participants who were touched at slow speeds had declining feelings of distress compared to participants who were touched at fast speeds.

Neither a gentle touch nor a hurried touch was enough to completely erase the unpleasant effects of being excluded.

Researchers said that there were several limitations in this study. While this study only had female participants, it is worth stating that women and men seem to respond differently to physical affection. Future studies should assess whether the current findings are also applicable to men.

The effectiveness of a gentle touch also depended on whether a romantic partner delivered the touch. In this study, the analyst did not have a romantic relationship with any of the participants.

The study utilized soft brushes to administer the touch, not actual skin-to-skin contact. The use of soft brushes allowed researchers to detect differences in skin temperature, sweating rates and unpleasant feelings. Future studies should examine if skin-to-skin contact triggers the same reaction to feelings of ostracism as brush-to-skin contact.

Future studies should also examine if results differ with temperature fluctuations. Social exclusion is linked with an experience of “coldness.” A thorough study would have a room with decreasing temperature, which would cause the individual to have a growing want for warm foods and drinks. A gentle touch could offer some type of “warm” solace.

Carlos Acero, a junior who is pursuing a double major in journalism and communications, said he is not surprised by the study’s results.

“I definitely believe there is a link between physical touch and the relief of emotional pain. Physical touch means you have an emotional connection with another person. When you touch or hug someone, it relieves stress. That’s why they have spas and massages, because these treatments release pain,” he said.

However, Amira Assad, a senior majoring in corporate communications, said she disagrees with the study.

“Physical touch gets uncomfortable. I see myself as an independent person, and physical touch can invade personal space. I feel like sometimes you need to be by yourself,” she said.

Katerina Fotopoulou, an associate professor of psychology at University College London, said this study can help hospitals.

By realizing that touch alleviates pain, hospitals could begin creating programs that implement its relaxing effect on patients.