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* This Greater Good section, Research Digests, offers short summaries of recent studies on happiness, empathy, compassion, and more. Quick to read, easy to digest—we review the research so you don’t have to! Subscribe to the Research Digests RSS feed to receive future digests.


Is Touch the Language of Romance?

"The Effect of Relationship Status on Communicating Emotions Through Touch"

Thompson, E., Hampton, J. Cognition and Emotion, February 2011, Vol. 25 (2), 295-306.

This study suggests that romantic partners—more so than strangers—can effectively communicate emotions to each other simply through the act of touch. Thirty couples were seated at opposite sides of a table with a curtain between them so they couldn’t see each other. One member of each couple was instructed to convey emotions such as anger, happiness, and love to their romantic partner through various forms of touch, including handshakes, hitting, lifting, massaging, patting, rubbing, and tickling. The person being touched had to identify the emotion their partner was communicating. Then each partner had to communicate these emotions to a stranger (a member of another couple).

Participants succeeded in communicating an emotion to their romantic partner 51 percent of the time, while only succeeding 38 percent of the time with strangers. The difference was especially strong when it came to emotions that were more “self-focused,” like envy, pride, and embarrassment—people had a much harder time conveying these emotions to a stranger than to their partner. The authors suggest that while touch is an effective way to convey emotions, its success depends on the kind of relationship between the people on the giving and receiving end of a touch. —Raymond Firmalino

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Fear of Being Envied Makes People Help Others

"Warding Off the Evil Eye: When the Fear of Being Envied Increases Prosocial Behavior"

Van de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., Pieters, R. Psychological Science, October 2010, Vol. 21 (11), 1671-1677.

This study suggests that being the object of envy may actually motivate us to be kind to others. Participants completed a test and were told that a partner (who was actually working with the researchers) completed the same test and received the same final score. The participants received a financial reward for taking the test, and in some cases, they were told that their partner received the same reward. In other cases, they were told that their partner did not receive a reward but knew that they had. When there was this inequality between them, participants were led to believe that the partner either felt “malicious envy,” meaning that they wanted to pull the participant down with them, or “benign envy,” meaning that they were inspired to improve their own lot.

Participants who believed their partner was maliciously envious of them were the most likely to offer advice to that person and to help pick up something that person had dropped. The researchers argue that fear of malicious envy motivates people to be nice to others in an attempt to appease them, and that this increases group unity: People who are better-off look out for those worse-off, and the less fortunate have their lot improved. —Neha John-Henderson

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