The Importance of Physical Touch

Jan 06, 2014 • Research, Science

social grooming in primates

Humans may not pick parasites from one another like our other primate cousins do, but we certainly continue to engage in a lot of behaviors that achieve very similar ends. If you’ve ever given a friend a shoulder rub, played with their hair, or squeezed their hand during a trying moment, you’ve done it, too. In a piece for the BBC, Jason Goldman writes about the importance of touch among humans and its connection to grooming behaviors in other species:

But grooming, and related forms of social physical contact, hasn’t gone away entirely. […] Indeed, words don’t always make adequate tools for communicating our feelings. Far more can be said by a heartfelt hug or squeeze on the shoulder after a friend suffers the loss of a relative than through words.

In the same way, one’s love and desire for a partner can be conveyed with a seductive stroke far more effectively than even the words “I want you” ever could. Indeed, Dunbar writes, “the physical stimulation of touch tells us more about the inner feelings of the ‘groomer’, and in a more direct way” than words are able. And those forms of touch stimulate within us the same endorphin release that chimpanzees enjoy during social grooming.

[…] In one study, US psychologists investigated social grooming in humans by asking participants to indicate their closest emotional relationship and report behaviours such as running their fingers through the person’s hair, wiping away their tears, scratching their back and non-sexual massage. They found levels of relationship satisfaction and trust were both positively correlated with self-reported grooming frequency among romantic partners. And one finding hinted at a causal relationship: people who were more anxious about their relationships “groomed” their partners more often than those who felt more secure with their partners, suggesting that grooming may serve to reduce relationship-related anxiety and to promote the development of romantic bonds. The pattern was true both for men and women.

Read it. Contemplate it. And reach out and touch those you care about. (In a way that is appropriate to them, please!)

Header image by adamisher.