Can We Touch?Physical contact remains vital to health, even as we do less of it. The rules of engagement aren’t necessarily changing—they’re just starting to be heard.
RICHARD BAKER / GETTY
Tiffany Field has spent decades trying to get people to touch one another more.
Her efforts started with premature babies, when she found that basic human touch led them to quickly gain weight. An initial small study, published in the journal Pediatrics in 1986, showed that just 10 days of “body stroking and passive movements of the limbs” for less than an hour led babies to grow 47 percent faster. They averaged fewer days in the hospital and accrued $3,000 less in medical bills. The effect has been replicated multiple times.
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Field, a developmental psychologist by training, went on to found the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. She was a pioneer in highlighting the effects of “touch deprivation” among kids, famously those in orphanages. She explained to me that the effects are pervasive, influencing so many bodily systems that kids are diagnosed with “failure to thrive,” resulting in permanent physical and cognitive impairment, smaller stature, and social withdrawal later in life—which often includes aversion to physical contact.
Physical touch doesn’t make adults larger, but its effects are still coming to light. Field has published similar findings about the benefits of touch in full-term infants, and then children and pregnant women, adults with chronic pain, and people in retirement homes. Studies that involved as little as 15 daily minutes found that touch alone, even devoid of the other supportive qualities it usually signifies, seems to have myriad benefits.
The hug, specifically, has been repeatedly linked to good health. In a more recent study that made headlines about hugs helping the immune system, researchers led by the psychologist Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University isolated 400 people in a hotel and exposed them to a cold virus. People who had supportive social interactions had fewer and less severe symptoms. Physical touch (specifically hugging) seemed to account for about a third of that effect. (The researchers conclude: “These data suggest that hugging may act as an effective means of conveying support.”) Cohen and his colleagues continued to show other health benefits of physical contact, such as a 2018 reveal in the journal PLOS titled “Receiving a Hug Is Associated With the Attenuation of Negative Mood That Occurs on Days With Interpersonal Conflict.”Read: Should teachers be allowed to touch students?
Part of the reason this research didn’t happen sooner is that it was seen as extremely obvious. Yet even as evidence of the importance of physical touch has piled up, the world has been moving in the opposite direction. “You don’t see people touching each other anymore, in large part because they’re all on their phones and iPads and computers,” Field said. “It’s very disturbing to see parents doing less touching of kids, if they’re just sitting there on screens.”
The dissonance of people benefiting from touch but doing less of it is only made more confusing by statements like Joe Biden’s. In a video posted to his Twitter account last week, a response to widespread concerns about excessive hugging and incidents of hair sniffing and the like during his time as vice president, the likely 2020 presidential candidate said he had no intention of making anyone uncomfortable. He then pivoted to claim that people are less open to being touched: “Social norms have begun to change. They’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it, I get it. I hear what they’re saying. I understand it.”
The explanation raises the question: Are boundaries changing? (And does Biden get it?)
The research is clear on that fact that people both need and react well to physical touch—in controlled environments. There is no evidence that people like to be touched any less than in previous generations, only that negatively received touch is more openly vocalized. What’s new is that people who didn’t appreciate being touched in previous decades, or who were always made uncomfortable by it, especially from people in positions of power, are empowered to process the fact that it’s not something they need to put up with. They have platforms for speaking up, channels for recourse, and supportive listeners to cushion the blowback.
“There is a lot of research on how touch is hierarchical, and males can touch females but not vice versa,” Field said, noting that caretakers in nursing homes tend to touch female residents much more than males, and the latter are at higher risk of touch deprivation. “I think some of that is reflected in what’s going on, where people are seeing the hierarchical aspect of the touch and not the supportive aspect.”