A single act increases adults’ compliance with researchers. The same act makes students more likely to volunteer to solve math problems in front of others. Moreover, it makes four-year-olds more patient. What sounds like a miracle cure to everyday problems is actually the oldest trick in the book: human touch.
How do researchers know this? Here is one experiment. In a recently published study (Leonard et al., 2014), four and five year old children were asked to wait for ten minutes in front of candy. The experimenter told them to wait before eating the candy because he had to finish paperwork. How long would children wait before calling the experimenter in because they wanted to eat the candy earlier? Four-year-olds waited for about six minutes while five-year-olds waited for about eight minutes. The task was similar to the classic Marshmallow test shown in the video.
The positive effect of touch
However, it all depends on whether the experimenter gave children a friendly touch on the back during the request to wait. If she did, four-year-olds waited for seven minutes (versus 5 minutes without touch) and five-year-olds waited for nine minutes (versus seven minutes without touch). A simple, five-second-long touch made four-year-olds behave as patiently as five-year-olds. It’s surprising how simple and fast the intervention is.
Touch across the ages
This result nicely fits into a wider literature on the benefits of a friendly touch. Already back in the eighties Patterson and colleagues (1986) found that adults spent more time helping with the tedious task of scoring personality tests if they were touched by the experimenter. Interestingly, the touch on the shoulder was hardly ever reported as noteworthy. In the early noughties Gueguen picked this effect up and moved it to the real world. He showed that touch also increases adults’ willingness to help by watching after a large dog (Gueguen & Fisher-Loku, 2002) as well as students’ willingness to volunteer to solve a math problem in front of a class (Gueguen, 2004).
The reason underlying these effects remains a bit mysterious. Does the touch on the back reduce the anxiety of being faced with a new, possibly difficult, task? Does it increase the rapport between experimenter and experimental participant? Does it make time fly by because being touched feels good? Well, time will tell.
Touch your child?
There are obvious sexual connotations related to touching people, unfortunately this includes touching children. As a result, some schools in the UK have adopted a ‘no touch’ policy: teachers are never allowed to touch children. Research shows that such an approach comes at a cost: children behave less patiently when they are not touched. Should society deny itself the benefits of people innocently touching each other?
Guéguen N, & Fischer-Lokou J (2002). An evaluation of touch on a large request: a field setting. Psychological reports, 90 (1), 267-9 PMID: 11898995
Guéguen, N. (2004). Nonverbal Encouragement of Participation in a Course: the Effect of Touching Social Psychology of Education, 7 (1), 89-98 DOI: 10.1023/B:SPOE.0000010691.30834.14
Leonard JA, Berkowitz T, & Shusterman A (2014). The effect of friendly touch on delay-of-gratification in preschool children. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006), 1-11 PMID: 24666195
Patterson, M., Powell, J., & Lenihan, M. (1986). Touch, compliance, and interpersonal affect Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 10 (1), 41-50 DOI: 10.1007/BF00987204