During graduate school, I became an avid swing dancer. Since women traditionally “follow,” I quickly discovered that partner dancing isn’t just about fancy footwork or thrilling aerials—it’s primarily about connecting to your partner. Even if both dancers are “doing it right,” the dance feels very distinctly different when both people are deeply attuned to the most subtle nuances of each other’s movements. Ultimately, partner dancing is an exercise in non-verbal communication—a form of silent listening, done primarily through touch.
So I was excited to discover that scientists were studying touch as a mode of emotional communication.
How the study was done
Scientists at DePauw University ran an experiment to study whether specific emotions could be conveyed through only touch. 248 students were recruited to either touch or be touched for 5 seconds by a partner they didn’t know. The person touched was blindfolded so they couldn’t use facial expressions or body language as visual cues, and was unaware of whether the person touching them was male or female. The toucher was instructed to try to communicate one of 8 specific emotions: fear, happiness, anger, sadness, love, disgust, gratitude or sympathy. Both participants remained silent so auditory cues couldn’t be used.
Afterward, both partners were asked to choose the emotion conveyed from the list of 8 emotions, plus a choice of “none of these is correct” so they wouldn’t be forced to report an emotion they hadn’t felt.
The Scientists’ surprise
How accurate were they at interpreting the emotions being conveyed? The scientists had expected around 11% accuracy, which is a normal accuracy ate for mere chance or guessing. Instead, the blindfolded people reported the correct emotion between 50-78% of the time, which is on par with the accuracy rates in studies of verbal and facial emotion.
Why does touch matter in daily life?
Touch is a regular part of communication in more intimate relationships such as family, Significant Others, and close friends. Yet when have you really stopped and thought about what you were communicating before you touched someone? Without realizing it, you could be conveying stress, anxiety, fear, frustration, or anger. Given the vulnerable nature of close intimate relationships, these unconscious communications can leave a greater impact than you’d realized.
This is especially true for children.
If you have kids, you’ve probably noticed that they’re mirrors for all your own emotions. Children are still developing their sense of Self, boundaries and safety, so any additional information that communicates stress or fear can significantly increase their own anxiety and fear.
When can touch be better than words?
1) Young children have limited verbal skills, and logical functioning isn’t online yet. Touch can be a great way of communicating directly with your child’s nervous system, without the need for verbal comprehension.
2) Physical pain from situations such as childbirth, hospitalization, injury, or ongoing acute pain can often impair rational thought and verbal function. Through touch, you can give someone a sense of support, empathy, and care that they can tangibly feel. (This is doubly true if it’s a young child who’s in pain.)
3) Couples can benefit greatly from touch as a means of deepening the physical connection, trust, and partnership. This can be especially helpful before starting a difficult conversation, or to re-establish trust and connection after a conflict.
So next time you’re about to touch someone, pause first
What exactly do you want to convey to the person? If, for example, your intention is to communicate safety to a crying child, but you’re feeling worried, take a moment to center yourself before you touch them. A touch sends as much information as facial expressions do, so make sure you’re keeping your message clear.
As with partner dancing, the way you touch the other person is far more important than the words (or steps) you use.