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Faculty Insights

Individual Differences in Interpersonal Touch

By Andrea Webb

October 15, 2014

Do you ever find yourself reaching out to touch other people during a conversation? Or perhaps you feel a bit uncomfortable when someone you don’t know touches your arm as they talk. Some people enjoy touch during interactions, while others strongly dislike it.
This project began as my first-year summer paper in the Ph.D. program at the School of Business. My co-author Joann Peck and I were interested in understanding how people differ in their preferences and use of touch with strangers, so we conducted a study to examine individuals’ comfort with interpersonal touch. We investigated what we call “intentional interpersonal touch,” which is when one person touches the arm, between the elbow and shoulder, of another person. This type of touch typically lasts for less than one second. We noticed that, with this type of touch, there are really two actions – you are either initiating touch or receiving touch. We found that people have different comfort levels for both initiating and receiving touch.

To understand these individual differences, we developed a scale that we call Comfort with Interpersonal Touch (CIT), designed to measure individual differences in interpersonal touch tendencies and preferences. The scale incorporates the distinction between initiating touch, which is the act of touching someone else, and receiving touch, which is the act of being touched by someone else. The CIT scale consists of six items designed to measure an individual’s comfort level with both dimensions of touch – initiating and receiving touch. For example, one item, written to determine the respondent’s preference regarding initiating touch, is: “When talking to people, I often touch them on the arm.” Another item, phrased to gauge a person’s preference for receiving touch, is: “I typically don’t mind receiving touch from another person.”
We measured participants’ levels of CIT and observed that people who are comfortable with reaching out and touching someone else tend to be more extroverted and assertive. In a retail context, these are the people who will seek out and enjoy interaction with salespeople. Individuals who are uncomfortable with touch tend to be more introverted and do not like crowded spaces. These preferences for touch impact how and what consumer services an individual will enjoy. For example, individuals uncomfortable with touch tend to not enjoy touch-related services, such as getting a haircut, having a massage, or going ballroom dancing, as compared to an individual comfortable with touch.
We conducted an activity as part of our study in which we provided a university tour to visitors, and the tour guides touched visitors on the arm during the walking tour of the campus. Only the visitors uncomfortable with touch evaluated the tour guide and the university campus less positively after being touched.
These results demonstrate that a consumer’s comfort level with interpersonal touch impacts his or her perception of an experience. Whether a service provider is a tour guide on a campus tour, a waiter in a restaurant, or a retail employee, the way that service provider interacts with a customer affects the customer’s experience. Managers of service providers in which personal interaction is important will likely find this research useful. While previous research has focused on the positive effects of interpersonal touch, our findings indicate that these effects depend, at least in part, on an individual’s comfort with interpersonal touch. An interpersonal touch, a seemingly minor act, can have major influences on consumer behavior – it all depends on an individual’s level of CIT.
Read the paper on the Journal of Consumer Psychology website.