Touch is a powerful force in any social interaction.  There is much research to demonstrate the beneficial effect of touch.  For example, several studies have found that touch can help bond, increase tips, and develop a connection between others.  However, recent research has demonstrated that in a competitive situation, touch can be considered negative and may be considered as a way of exerting dominance.

Take for example in the recent election cycle.  After Mitt Romney’s son made the comment about wanting to take a swing at Obama, Romney’s son then tried to exert dominance in the third debate by patting President Obama on the back.  President Obama then responded by touching Romney’s son at the end on the back.  Politicians are very astute in their knowledge of touch and constantly jockey to get the last “touch.”

Recently, researchers have proven this exact point. Jeroen Camps and his colleagues had 74 student participants perform a maze challenge in a race against a partner. The race was a competition.  In some of the experiment, the partner patted the losing subject on the shoulder three times, smiled and wished them good luck on the next one.  The control group didn’t have the touching of the shoulder.  Next the subjects entered into a game that required cooperation — the Dictator Game.

The revealing finding was that participants who’d been patted on the shoulder shared…[less] with their partner, suggesting that touch can backfire when it’s performed in a competitive context, perhaps because it’s interpreted as a gesture of dominance. Interestingly, there was no link between participants’ awareness of whether they’d been touched and their sharing behaviour; participants who remembered the touch rated it as neutral; and the partner wasn’t rated as more unpleasant in the touch condition. All of which suggests the adverse effect of touch on later cooperation was probably non-conscious.

A second study was similar but this time participants and their partner…either competed against each other on a puzzle or they cooperated. Again, afterwards, the partner wished them luck, smiled, and either did or didn’t pat them on the shoulder at the end, before they both moved to another room to play the dictator game. The results were clear – in a competitive context, touched participants subsequently shared fewer movie-prize credits with their partner, compared with those participants who weren’t touched. By contrast, in the cooperative context, touched participants went on to be more generous with their partner, as compared with participants who weren’t touched. (Camps, J., Tuteleers, C., Stouten, J., and Nelissen, J. (2012). A situational touch: How touch affects people’s decision behaviour. Social Influence, 1-14 DOI:10.1080/15534510.2012.719479; BPS Digest)

“Despite what some people might think, touching someone else may thus not always have desirable social consequences,” the researchers said. “A simple tap on the shoulder, even with the best intent, will do nothing but harm when used in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The ramifications for touch can be significant in negotiations and mediation.  You have to be careful to think about whether you are in a competitive negotiation or cooperative process.  Many negotiations in the litigation context can be extremely competitive and win-lose zero sum game.  On the other hand, if you are negotiating a joint venture in a cooperative setting or assisting as a mediator, touch might be beneficial.  The importance of this research is that you must be careful to analyze the situation before first engaging in touch.  Then consider what the effect might be on the other and how they might interpret that touch.

By Steven G. Mehta