Scientists Map Out The Awkwardness Of Physical Contact With Others

Tom Waterhouse/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Scientists from the University of Oxford and Aalto University, Finland, have created “body maps” that show where we feel most uncomfortable getting touched by different people.

Obviously, you probably don’t mind your partner's arm around your shoulder, but a stranger's arm in your face on the bus is probably not as enjoyable. That's because physical contact is hugely tied to social bonding and social structure. As Professor Robin Dunbar, a scientist who worked on the study, said in a statement: “Touch is universal. While culture does modulate how we experience it, generally we all respond to touching in the same ways. Even in an era of mobile communications and social media, touch is still important for establishing and maintaining the bonds between people.”

Using what they call an “Internet-based topographical self-reporting tool,” over 1,000 participants from Britain, Finland, France, Italy and Russia were given a series of drawings of human bodies and then asked to mark the areas where different people in their social network would be allowed to touch them. The social network extended from partners to various family members, right through to opposite sex acquaintances and strangers.

Image credit: Aalto University/University of Oxford

The general rule was: the more intimate the type of relationship, the more areas of the body it was okay to touch. Turns out no one likes strangers touching their sexy bits. However, the most interesting find from the study was the difference between male and females.

Overall, men were more closed off to physical touching, especially from other males and especially the head and feet. Never touch another dude’s head or feet. The male participants' “body maps” stayed fairly uniform unless they were getting touched by a partner, female friend or female acquaintance.

However, women showed a greater change in where there was a no-go zone based on their relationship. In females, as the relationships got closer, more areas of the arms, upper body and head were allowed physical contact.

Since the study also looked at five different countries (albeit all European cultures), it also found some cultural differences. Unsurprisingly, British people were overall the most uncomfortable being touched. However, across all of these Western cultures, there was a pretty definitive universality to where people don’t like getting touched by strangers (I’m sure you can guess).

“The results indicate that touching is an important means of maintaining social relationships. The touch space map is closely associated with the pleasure caused by touching. The greater the pleasure caused by touching a specific area of the body, the more selectively we allow others to touch it,” says researcher Juulia Suvilehto from Aalto University in a statement.

Main image credit: Tom Waterhouse/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)


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