Since we published Greater Good Executive Editor Dacher Keltner’s recent essay and video on the science of touch, we’ve had lots of readers write to thank us for calling attention to the profound and varied benefits of simple human contact.
Now here’s an interesting twist on the touch research: In a paper just published in the journal Sex Roles, Dacher and Matt Hertenstein, a former student of his who’s now a professor at DePauw University, have found revealing differences in the ways men and women communicate and understand different emotions via touch.
The study revisits an experiment Dacher describes in his Greater Good essay: Two strangers are placed in a room together, separated by a barrier. One of them sticks their arm through a hole in the barrier; the other tries to convey one of 12 emotions to that person only by touching their forearm. After each attempt, the touched person has to guess which emotion their partner was trying to communicate.
Originally, Dacher and Matt found that men and women were equally accurate in their ability to detect emotion through touch.
But in this study, they analyzed their data to determine whether there were any differences when it came to individual emotions.
They found significant gender differences for three emotions: compassion, anger, and happiness. And those differences seem to reinforce certain stereotypes about men and women.
Consider compassion. When both partners in the experiment were men, if one tried to convey compassion, the odds of the other recognizing that emotion were no better than if he’d just randomly guessed an emotion from the list of 12 choices. But when at least one of the partners was female, the odds of detecting compassion were much better than chance—62 percent, in fact.
Similarly, participants communicated anger at greater-than-chance levels only when one of the partners was male (again at about 62 percent accuracy). Participants were most accurate at detecting anger when both members of the pair were male.
And happiness was communicated successfully only when both members of the pair were women.
The other emotions that participants could successfully communicate—fear, disgust, love, and gratitude—were understandable regardless of the gender pairing, whether it was a man touching a man, a man touching a woman, a woman touching a man, or a woman touching another woman.
So why might Dacher and Matt have seen such gender differences?
They speculate that successfully communicating compassion might be skewed toward women since, according to evolutionary theory, women throughout human history have taken on a disproportionate amount of the caretaking for their offspring; indeed, other research has found that women report experiencing more compassion than men do.
They were also unsurprised that men would be more skilled at communicating and detecting anger, as studies show that men consistently report experiencing and expressing more anger than women. And in other research, participants more accurately and more quickly detect male facial expressions of anger than female ones.
And research has also suggested that women would be more skilled at communicating happiness than men: Studies show that women report experiencing more happiness than men and smile more, share emotions more, and experience positive emotions more than men.
Of course, these corroborate prevalent stereotypes about the sexes. But Dacher and Matt also allow that those stereotypes might have helped to drive some of their results rather than the other way around.
They note that when they asked the people being touched in the experiment to guess whether the person touching them was a man or woman, they were usually correct: Depending on the gender of each participant, the touched person could identify the gender of the toucher anywhere between 70 and 96 percent of the time.
As a result, Dacher and Matt say it’s possible that the touched person’s knowledge of their partner’s gender may have affected the meaning they assigned to the touch. For example, they may have been more likely to interpret a gesture from a woman as a signal of compassion while interpreting the same gesture from a man as a different emotion.
In some subtle, perhaps subconscious way, these stereotypes may have been making the participants more likely to select the emotions typically associated with the gender of the person touching them.
Overall, though, the study does challenge some existing beliefs that women are simply more emotionally intelligent than men—i.e., better at detecting and interpreting others’ emotions. Instead, it seems that each gender has its own advantage, depending on the emotion.