Monday, November 30, 2015

Topography of Social Touching Depends on Emotional Bonds Between Humans

Touch is a powerful tool for communicating positive emotions. However, it has remained unknown to what extent social touch would maintain and establish social bonds. We asked a total of 1,368 people from five countries to reveal, using an Internet-based topographical self-reporting tool, those parts of their body that they would allow relatives, friends, and strangers to touch. These body regions formed relationship-specific maps in which the total area was directly related to the strength of the emotional bond between the participant and the touching person. Cultural influences were minor. We suggest that these relation-specific bodily patterns of social touch constitute an important mechanism supporting the maintenance of human social bonds.

…In all tested cultures, the higher the emotional bond, the larger the bodily area available for touching, with no statistically significant differences in the slopes of the regression lines between cultures. TAM-based social networks were concordant, and the social network members clustered consistently across different cultures, which further corroborates the relative consistency of social touch across the studied cultures. However, because of Internet-based data acquisition, the sample comprised relatively young well-educated participants and more female than male subjects. As the connection between emotional bond and TI was similar in the United Kingdom (with equal proportion of male and female subjects with a wide age range) and other countries (with more female subjects and a restricted age range), we contend that our results are not, in general, confounded by sampling bias.

Altogether, the present findings point toward universality and biological basis of the touch-driven bonding behavior, which is, however, modulated by cultural factors: Whereas the primary mechanism for maintaining closeness of social bonds via regulating the spatial patterns of touch (i.e., association with TI and emotional bond) seems biologically determined and minimally influenced by culture, our data suggest that cultural conventions may up- or down-regulate the average magnitude of social touching (, ). However, it must be noted that, even though the studied countries reside thousands of kilometers apart and vary significantly with respect to majority languages and cultural conventions, they can still be considered as primarily Western cultures. The present data cannot thus confirm whether the association between touching and social bonding would hold in all possible cultures.

Female, rather than opposite-sex, touch was, in general, evaluated as more pleasant, and it was consequently allowed on larger bodily areas. It is known that females allow themselves to be touched on a larger bodily area than males (see also ref. ) and that female same-sex touch is allowed without discomfort on most of the body surface. Our findings agree with a number of early behavioral studies outlining females as touching and being touched more often (meta-analysis in ref. ). The reason for this sex difference remains unclear. Primate studies indicate that female grooming relationships are fairly stable () and that relationship quality, serviced by grooming behavior, and longevity in female baboons do not correlate (). Together, these findings support social touching, as a human equivalent of grooming, as a predominantly feminine-appropriate behavior ()…

Below:   Relationship-specific TAMs across all studied countries (N = 1,368 individuals). The blue-outlined black areas highlight the taboo zones, where a person with that relationship is not allowed to touch. The data are thresholded at P < 0.05, FDR-corrected. Color bar indicates the t statistic range. Blue and red labels signify male and female subjects, respectively.

Below:  Associations between touchability and social network layer (Left), emotional bond (Middle), and lapse since last meeting a person (Right). The data are thresholded at P < 0.05, FDR corrected. Color bar indicates the r statistic range.

Below:  Sex differences of TI for male (Left) and female (Right) subjects. Red and blue bars indicate female and male touchers, respectively.

Below:  Relationship-dependent SD maps for touching allowances (Left; from experiment 2) and t-maps for hedonic (A), tactile (B), and nociceptive (C) sensitivity from experiment 3. The r values show correlations between the relationship-dependent touching-allowance map and each of the sensitivity maps.

Full article at:

aDepartment of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering, School of Science, Aalto University, 00076 Espoo, Finland;
bDepartment of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Ox1 3UD Oxford, United Kingdom;
cDepartment of Computer Science, Aalto University, 00076 Espoo, Finland;
dTurku PET Centre, and Department of Psychology, University of Turku, 20014 Turku, Finland
1To whom correspondence may be addressed. Email: if.otlaa@othelivus.ailuuj or ;  if.otlaa@irah.attiir.
Contributed by Riitta Hari, September 29, 2015 (sent for review April 28, 2015; reviewed by Jon H. Kaas, HÃ¥kan Olausson, and Gabriele Schino)

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