London: Want to make someone feel welcome? A gentle touch of another individual may ease the effect of social rejection – one of the most emotionally painful human experiences, a study has found. The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, 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 discovery follows recent findings that affective social touch, and particularly gentle stroking of the skin, may be coded by a special physiological system linking the skin to the brain. Researchers from University College London in the UK led 84 healthy women to believe that they were playing a computerised ball-tossing game with two other participants to measure their mental visualisation 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 10 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.
Researchers found that 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 totally eliminate the negative effects of being ostracised, researchers said.
“As our social world is becoming increasingly visual and digital, it is easy to forget the power of touch in human relations,” said Mariana von Mohr from University College London in the UK. “Yet we have shown for the first time that mere slow, gentle stroking by a stranger can reduce feelings of social exclusion after social rejection,” said von Mohr.