One of the first lessons children learn in school is to keep their hands to themselves. The reason seems clear: no one wants to be touched inappropriately by a classmate—or a teacher.
But a growing body of research points to constructive methods of touching as well. Much of this research has focused on the positive effects of touch in close relationships—its role in forming secure, soothing attachments between an infant and a parent, for instance. Now a study has found that certain kinds of touch between strangers can provide a useful and effective means of communicating positive reinforcement.
As he reports in the August issue of Social Psychology of Education, French psycholo¬gist Nicolas Guéguen instructed the professor of a 120-person statistics class to give the same verbal encouragement to any student who volunteered to solve a problem at the front of his classroom. But to a randomly selected group of students within the class, the professor also gave a slight tap on the upper arm when speaking to them. Guéguen compared the volunteer rate of those who were touched to those who were not, and found that students who were touched were significantly more likely to volunteer again. In fact, roughly 28 percent of those who were touched volunteered again, compared with about nine percent of those who were not.
Drawing on previous research in the field, Guéguen speculates that a touch to the arm may have infused participants with a feeling of self-confidence that motivated their positive behavior. “It is possible that touching, coming from a high-status person, is perceived as a sign of distinction,” he writes. “The effect would have been to overcome the inhibition of correcting the exercise in front of his/her classmates.”
Of course, as Guéguen notes, “touching tends to have become taboo in the American school system,” and valid fears about abu¬sive forms of touching rightfully limit contact within the classroom. But these findings suggest that as we define and redefine the limits for this contact, we should not neglect the sense of comfort and confidence that might come through the right kinds of touch between strangers.