Saturday at the CFI Summit

Well for the last talk before lunch I could see Bill Nye in profile a couple of tables away listening seriously.

In the afternoon Leonard Mlodinow talked about the unconscious mind. One item I can’t make any sense of, which is that touch increases trust, even (and especially) very slight unobtrusive touch. There was a study in France that involved (of course) a guy going up to a woman and saying “You’re very pretty and I have to go to work now but can I call you later?” The study found that if the guy touched the woman on the shoulder very lightly- he did better. Syd and I looked at each other and shook our heads. Mlodinow said the study had been replicated in other countries. (Which answered my first question.)

I seriously don’t get that. I could see it in an emergency situation, but a “yer hawt gimme your phone number” conversation? More trust because touching by a stranger?

I don’t understand that.

So that’s interesting. It’s interesting to be puzzled.


  1. chigau (違う) says

    Shaking hands is an acceptable way of touching a stranger.
    Anything else (other than dragging them out of the way of a speeding car) is not.

  2. says

    What was the speech Bill Nye was listening intently to?

    As for the touching thing… what? That quite literally makes zero sense. The exact opposite should be true.

    And replicated in other countries? What cultural factors are at play here? Is it possible that there’s just more trust to go around in the countries (like Sweden) where this was tested? What would be the results of this test in a place like the US?

    I want to see the peer reviews on this one. I want to see the results replicated independently, with all possible variables accounted for. Because I do not believe it… at all. It isn’t just counter-intuitive… it’s counter-everything!

    So yeah… my skepticism on that one is extremely heavy. I basically want to see it for myself, because I can’t believe it.

  3. heliobates says

    Touch and trust? Paul Zak has written a lot about the oxytocin response. Might be related.

  4. stevewatson says

    Jesus Christ, there’s now a Billy Graham banner ad. Oh well, it’s a change from the Mormons.

    Back to the subject under discussion: surely it would depend on how much of a touchy-feely sort of person one is? Anyone touching me beyond certain boundaries (which vary with the person, but for strangers the boundary is approx. the handshake) makes me want to be somewhere else.

    Did they check whether the women gave the guys her *real* phone number?

  5. Suido says

    Context, context, context. How much is the listener first put at ease by the speaker, prior to the speaker touching them on the shoulder? How do you quantify that and control for biases based on appearance, affability, loquaciousness, wit, etc?

    If it works in an emergency I can see it also working in a non-threatening social situation as well, since the same physiological reaction may be triggered without the particular situational stimulus that it evolved for. The key there being ‘non-threatening’. As soon as any creepy warning flags appear, a touch is likely to have the opposite effect.

    Ultimately, it’s research that’s probably going to be misused by con-artists, salespeople, and creeps – the people with largely overlapping venn diagrams.

  6. eigenperson says

    The touch thing makes total sense to me.

    Extroverts seem to like touching other people, so presumably many of them like being touched as well. Maybe that makes them more likely to give out their number. Introverts don’t like being touched by strangers, but they probably weren’t about to give the random stranger their number anyway.

  7. Claire Ramsey says

    I’d like to see the methods and analysis sections of that research report. And. . . did they check ‘touch leads to trust’ between two men? two women? when a woman approaches a man? when an old overweight woman approaches a man?

    Many questions remain unanswered. And even if the research holds up, it does not mean that all women welcome such approaches and reward their male interlocutors w/trust.

  8. A. Noyd says

    One item I can’t make any sense of, which is that touch increases trust, even (and especially) very slight unobtrusive touch.

    Fuck that. I get, at best, seriously irritated with people who touch me. Trust them? Hell no. They’re signaling they’re horrible, touchy people who don’t understand they’re supposed to keep their parts to themselves. And there’s no such thing as an unobtrusive touch.

  9. Shatterface says

    Ultimately, it’s research that’s probably going to be misused by con-artists, salespeople, and creeps – the people with largely overlapping venn diagrams.

    It’s research that is going to confirm what ‘con-artists, salespeople and creeps’ already know: it has been a recognised sales technique for decades, as has echoing body posture and tone of voice.

    Seriously, you are only just hearing about this?

  10. says

    No, people aren’t only just hearing about this. They’re only just discovering that something they find unpleasant and a marker of people who only want something from them actually works on other people. That’s what doing research like this is about, testing whether what “everybody knows” is true or the myth that many people think it is.

  11. says

    Shatterface – about the study, yes, I think so. I did know that about marketers, but since I hate it, it’s always puzzled me

    Nate – I think it was the lunch talk rather than (as I said) the one before lunch. That was Katherine Stewart on the Good News Clubs – which is fascinating and FUCKING TERRIFYING. Katherine’s great.

  12. says

    Bleh. I can haz write good.

    I think I was wrong, I think it was the lunch talk, which was K Stewart. (Who cares. I dunno, but someone might yell at me sometime.)

    Yes it will be on video. I think I walked in front of the camera without ducking once.

  13. Anton Mates says

    The French study in question wasn’t actually about whether touching increased trust; it was about whether touching increased compliance. The authors’ own interpretation was that unsolicited touch is a dominance signal, usually done toward people of lower status. They had some statistical evidence (kind of marginal, IMO) that perceptions of dominance mediated the women’s willingness to comply. Their preferred explanation of this was that the women found dominant men more attractive, but it seems to me you could also speculate that they found dominant men more intimidating and were more hesitant to refuse them point-blank. Or maybe the men who touched them seemed more eager and invested in the interaction.. Or maybe it was *trust*. Or…shrug. You can download the paper here.

    As for being replicated in other countries…well, the devil’s in the details. Was he referring to studies of this same exact phenomenon, or just general “touching makes people happier/friendlier/more compliant” studies? Because I’m not seeing many published papers citing this study yet, and at first glance none of them seem to discuss a replication of it.

    So it kinda sounds like Mlodinow was speaking a little…loosely here.

  14. H2s says

    The touch thing is pretty well known. PUAs call it “kino”. Always creeps me out when I see someone consciously do it.
    Basically, it’s violating a boundary, “but, oh no one would do that, would they, so I must have indicated that I wanted them to touch me, oh, I must really trust them”. The same logic applies to much more serious boundary violations – it’s one thing contributing to the “Was I really raped?” phenomenon…

  15. says

    It’s possible there’s a strong correlation between women who are likely to say yes, and those who are positively influenced by touching. While many women will be repelled by touching, they’ll probably be the women who would say “hell no” regardless, and so will not affect the aggregate statistics.

  16. keri says

    Thank you, Anton!

    My instinctive response to the study was to ask if it was more about compliance than trust, specifically. It seems to me that if there’s no touching involved, the person being asked can dismiss the other no harm no foul. If it’s a more aggressive touching, the person being asked would react more strongly to it and reject the other. But a slight touch isn’t aggressive enough to immediately reject, yet is still more intimidating than no touching at all, so a phone number is given, perhaps to make the other go away or to prevent more aggressive touching.

    This assumes that all touching is unwanted (I suppose some people wouldn’t mind or would feel comfortable enough with the other to accept it?), but could be misconstrued as trust rather than simple compliance.

    And, of course, I jumped to this conclusion because it’s something I do nearly every day at work – try to balance between being a welcoming guest relations person at a museum and protecting myself and my workplace from people who will take advantage of my role.
    (I’ve only had to ban one person from the place, luckily, but that was pretty terrifying. I can’t assume that someone is bad news because they’re poor or homeless, so I’m friendly and polite to everyone who comes in, and by the time I realize that the person I’m talking to IS bad news, I don’t always feel safe to immediately shut them down and kick them out. The one we banned actually returned twice after I called security to remove him from the premises for harassment and making threatening remarks about killing people. The second time was to announce that he’d just got out of jail for assault and wanted to let me know. That was, frankly, fucking terrifying, and I’m glad my security guards are top notch and that it’s only been the one guy in 3 years.)

  17. johnthedrunkard says

    How long before the ‘Pick Up’ industry cooks up a pseudo-Darwinian evo-psych rationalization? Then watch the hordes of yobs practicing their ‘compliance touch’ techniques on every telephone pole and mailbox.

    Does any vestige of heterosexuality survive? Remember? When men and women actually talked to each other, and looked at each other, without every moment being subsumed in fear, rage, manipulation and acquisition? And then rode off together on their unicorns?

  18. quixote says

    Anton’s link didn’t work for me, but I found another link to what I think is the same article. Courtship Compliance: the effect of touch on women’s behavior. Nicolas Gueguen, 2007. From the abstract: “…high score of dominance was associated with tactile contact. The link between touch and the dominant position of the male was used to explain these results theoretically.”

    Shorter Gueguen: I think bullying women works!

    The author, judging by a search using Google Scholar, also has such titles as: “Bust size and hitchhiking: A field study.”


  19. Anton Mates says

    Whoops, sorry, and thanks to quixote. I was trying to post that same link but included my university’s proxy server.

    Also worth noting–I don’t think there’s anything about the touch being “unobtrusive” in this study. That point comes, I believe, from other studies on wait staff (if they touch a patron lightly while taking their order, the patron tends to tip more.) The majority of patrons did not even remember that they had been touched, when asked afterwards.

    Obviously (I would think), we can’t just assume that the same phenomenon would occur in this study. Your likelihood of noticing a touch could be very different if it’s coming from a probably-young, probably-female waitperson serving you in a restaurant, vs a guy in a nightclub who walks up and blatantly flirts with female-you.

  20. Pen says

    I expect it is very culturally specific. It’s worth remembering that it’s normal to greet strangers by shaking hands, but also for French women to greet even slight social acquaintances of both sexes with a kiss on each cheek (3 kisses in some regions). It seems quite plausible to me that this finding is true in France but not necessarily transferable. Come to think of it, I have a feeling I’m more inclined to touch people in various situations when speaking French and keep a good distance when speaking English.

  21. Pen says

    After probing more deeply into my French side, I think i perceive touch as a sign of sincerity and strong feeling in others and probably touch others when I really mean something. It might be surprise, fear, pleasure, an ardently held political view, or I suppose, though the situation has never arise, ‘I would really, really love to meet up with you’.

  22. Latverian Diplomat says

    Were the women giving their numbers, and did they verify that the numbers were real?

    Because one confounding factor I could see is that touch leads more women to give a fake number than a simple no as an answer.

  23. footface says

    But how do you make sure the talker-to/shoulder-toucher isn’t unconsciously modifying his voice, expression, posture, etc. when he’s shoulder-touching? Maybe when he shoulder-touches he’s giving off friendlier vibes? Maybe the positive/trusting/compliant response of (some) shoulder-touchees is a result of things other than shoulder touching. In other words, how can this be double-blind? The guy KNOWS whether he’s touching or not touching.

  24. ismenia says

    I once had a stange man put his arm around my shoulders in central London. His body language was so familiar that at first I thought he must know me and I was trying to place him. He trying to get me to go in a particluar direction. It was very disorientating. I was going the way he wanted anyway. At first I just pulled away and felt very uncomfortable but then I went up to him. He was talking to a friend by this time. I got really angry with him and told him how creepy his behaviour was (NB this was a very public place, if it had not been I would have just got away quickly).

    After talking to him I was shaking and made sure that he was not following me and that I had not been relieved of my wallet and phone. Touching is a common ploy with thieves.

    Being touched my a stranger is odd and I can see why people just agree, because in the initial disorientation it’s easy to just act on autopilot and be polite. I had to pause and get my courage up before I switched to impolite.

  25. brianpansky says

    i didn’t read all the comments, but my immediate thoughts:

    touch increases trust… The study found that if the guy touched the woman on the shoulder very lightly- he did better.

    1) why is the word “trust” used? that isn’t the only factor that goes into deciding to give out a number. other things could be interest, playfulness, arousal…and it is possible the touch does nothing to increase “trust” for a different kind of situation. and i suspect the guy asking was friendly enough that any “trust” required was already present.

    2) i can actually understand the meager result. “he did better”, by what percentage? does it start at 1%, and only jump up to 5%? so i can understand this because it doesn’t indicate that it would work on everyone, or even that many people. just some unknown slice of the population.

    3) it’s a pure binary, and claiming it increases “trust” in some doesn’t tell us if it increased discomfort, distrust, or even hate in others.

    4) the “very lightly” thing kinda makes sense to me. it is relatively non-intrusive yet can still have the connection benefits that human contact can offer (possibly for some people, that is).

    5) not everyone should be expected to have the same personal boundaries as someone else. you can’t go around groping people’s butts and excuse yourself with “well I’D be ok with someone groping MY butt!” even if that is true! it just doesn’t work. i don’t like that this looks like the result is being given as advice that everyone should do. hands off please.

  26. Suido says

    @Shatterface, #11

    Seriously, you are only just hearing about this?

    As a general idea, no.

    That the idea has published evidence supporting it? That’s new to me.

  27. brianpansky says

    damn, anton! i should have thought of that. i’ve seen that some people are awful enough that they think being awful to others (like self proclaimed “alpha male” people) makes those others “like” them more. but compliance is more likely…

  28. Markita Lynda—threadrupt says

    I recall some study found that asking people for the time or for directions succeeded much more often if the requester touched them lightly on the arm, but I do not have a link to it. That was a few years ago.

    Here’s a different one, from 2002: request to look after a large and excited dog for a few minutes while the ‘owner’ steps into a store. Touched: 55% agree; not touched: 35% agree.

    And here’s a long and discursive article on communication by touch, from Psychology Today. It’s more interesting than most of their articles.

  29. Carlos Cabanita says

    The acceptance of casual touch is wildly different across cultures. Where I live, in southern Europe, touching is quite casual. The levels of contact we use with each other would be probably annoying in an Anglo-Saxonic environment. I don’t touch strange women, except for hanshaking, but, when one is introduced to me in an informal setting, I extend my hand and then then look to see if she is going to offer her face. Then we exchange two face kisses, usually with a mutual shoulder touch. Men and men and women and women touch each other a lot more too.
    All other things about body outonomy and consent remain true, it’s jus where one sets the limits that can change across cultures.
    That study could have very different results in, say, France and England.

  30. Carlos Cabanita says

    I say more. Toddlers and children in those stiff-necked societies as the white USA, the UK, Japan or China are born just as touchy-feelly as us Latins. Its just the cultures that are more repressive regarding touch.

  31. Minnow says

    I don’t find this counter intuitive at all and am surprised that so many people on here do and so strongly. Most people like to be touched, it is a very important p[art of communications, people who don’t like it at all are probably quite a small minority. Having said that, the ‘experiment’ doesn’t really prove anything, there is just no way to control or blind it effectively. Much more compelling is the circumstantial data mentioned by someone above that every salesperson who has ever lived has always known this. Not to mention every professional and amateur ‘hostess’.

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