Posted in Miscellany

how well can we communicate emotions purely through touch?

A 2006 study by Matthew Hertenstein demonstrated that strangers could accurately communicate the ‘universal’ emotions of anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy, purely through touches to the forearm, but not the ‘prosocial’ emotions of surprise, happiness and sadness, nor the ‘self-focused’ emotions of embarrassment, envy and pride. Now Erin Thompson and James Hampton have added to this nascent literature by comparing the accuracy of touch-based emotional communication between strangers and between those who are romantically involved.

Yes, the romantic couples did communicate better, especially self-focused feelings. But how isn’t obvious. When looking at the tapes, researchers didn’t see them appear to do anything differently. Perhaps it’s the subtle clues that we can pick up from our partners almost instantly, like thoughts.



Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

3 thoughts on “how well can we communicate emotions purely through touch?

  1. How interesting. I am a big forearm toucher – it’s such a disarming gesture and one that instantly promotes gentle, non-intrusive solidarity. I hadn’t thought of its communicating more than that, but I can see how it could, and particularly with someone you know well and love.

  2. I’ve started touching people’s forearms when talking sometimes. I agree that it’s a lovely way to connect unobtrusively.

    I also wondered how those emotions are categorized. I’m guessing that the categories mean something other than the plain meaning of the word, because those don’t make much sense as ways of distinguishing those feelings.

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