Social touching

by Atharva Dhole, Alisha Matreja, and Kunal Shah

  1. Product 1: video
  2. Product 2: blog post

Product 1: video

Product 2: blog post

Source: imgur.
Source: imgur.

We have all had those moments where either we’ve awkwardly touched someone or been on the receiving end of what we would consider a little too much contact. Everyone has limits to their own personal space, but generally people have similar ideas as to who can touch them and where, from complete strangers to immediate family members. Human interaction is very complex and involves multiple factors such as facial expressions, tones, and words, all of which can drastically change how someone views you. However, one of the biggest factors influencing human interaction is touch. In order to build strong interpersonal relationships, one has to keep in mind that there is a limit to how much touching someone may be comfortable with. There is generally an unspoken level of acceptable touching, which varies depending upon the relationship between the individuals. In order to gauge what humans are generally comfortable with, researchers from Oxford University in England and Aalto University in Finland conducted the largest study to date regarding physical contact in order to develop a “touchability index”.

This “touchability index” maps where people feel most comfortable being touched depending on their relationship with the person touching them. More than 1,300 men and women from the UK, France, Italy, Russia, and Finland were asked to identify parts of their body where they would consider it appropriate and inappropriate to be touched by people of varying relationships with respect to themselves.

On the body map pictured below (Figure 1), the darker areas signify parts of the body that subjects felt uncomfortable being touched while the lighter areas represent where subjects felt that touch was acceptable. Most of the results were as expected. From a personal standpoint, we would agree with what the “touchability index” portrays, as would many other individuals since touch is a universal construct influenced mainly by societal exposure. This exposure primarily comes from watching others from a young age and learning through our own experiences.

Figure 1 Figure 1: Touch area maps of varying relationships made with the data of 1,368 individuals across various countries in Western Europe. The blue-outlined black areas are taboo zones, where it is not acceptable for a person of that relationship to touch. The lighter the area, the more comfortable someone is being touched there, while the darkest areas represent where participants are not comfortable being touched. The blue labels represent male relationships while red labels represent female relationships. Source: Suvilehtoa et. al., 2015.

A local psychologist - who asked to remain anonymous - expanded on the subject further and explained to us that humans are pre-wired to the sense of touch and that touching is an integral part of maintaining social relationships. The psychologist elaborated by stating how humans actually crave physical interactions in various forms from a comforting hug to a lustful kiss or even a respectful handshake. He spoke about how studies have shown that touch plays an rudimentary role in communication, bonding, and the health and wellbeing of individuals. It is here that the knowledge gained regarding acceptable touching is used. Without it, maintaining meaningful relationships would be nearly impossible. The psychologist was quick to note that those affected with mental disorders are at a disadvantage in developing relationships due to this shortcoming. He further explained exactly how difficult it is for someone who suffers from such disorders to understand what is appropriate in regards to touching.

When it comes to mental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the social cues vary drastically and are interpreted differently due to abnormalities in the brain and the chemicals throughout the human body. This adds a sense of frustration in the daily lives of those affected, predominantly by making it difficult for them to understand societal norms and expectations. Even though people have attempted to understand the limitations these individuals face, the psychologist stated that this is not always the case. For the instances where others are not as accepting and willing to work with those affected by a mental disorder, the psychologist proposed that this study, along with ones that are similar to it, could aid in teaching those with mental disorders about the guidelines regarding what forms of touching are acceptable. He weighed in further by explaining that this in turn could slowly help alleviate societal struggles and aid intellectually disabled individuals in gaining and maintaining social relationships.

On the other hand, he emphasized that it is important to remember that such limitations and issues are twofold, and that those with mental disabilities might also have issues with being touched in addition to issues with touching others. As with any patient he has dealt with, the psychologist mentioned that every single human being is different no matter how they develop and maintain relationships - another important factor to remember when it comes to touching others as well. As humans we are trained to adapt given specific situations and environments; however, when one cannot comprehend what the standard for adaptations to be based off of is, more challenges come into consideration that can only be alleviated by individualized attention, such as that provided by psychologist. It is evident that this study only provides a basis which requires further research in order to articulate actual, practical uses for this type of information.

Touch is an unspoken language. It conveys emotion, transfers information, and even facilitates social cues. While there is a tacit understanding of what is considered an “appropriate touch,” those restraints are largely misunderstood and mostly overlooked due to the fact that touching is an instinctive behavior that is ingrained within us. There is an immeasurable amount of information that can be conveyed through the simple act of touching and this is carried with us from the moment we’re born till we our last breath. Developing and refining a better understanding of social touch will allow us to take a step towards better self-awareness of our own social construct. By doing so, we come to understand the direct influence our tactile force has on shaping our relationships. Touch has a power unlike that of the other senses; maybe that is why in moments of unbearable sorrow or overzealous bliss, touch is a language that speaks louder than words.


  1. Suvilehto JT, Glerean E, Dunbar RIM, Hari R, Nummenmaa L. Topography of social touching depends on emotional bonds between humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2015;112: 13811–13816. doi:10.1073/pnas.1519231112