You’re in a crowded subway car on a Tuesday morning, or perhaps on a city bus. Still-sleepy commuters, lulled by vibrations, remain hushed, yet silently broadcast their thoughts.
A toddler in his stroller looks warily at his fellow passengers, brows stitched with concern. He turns to his mom for reassurance, reaching out a small hand. She quietly takes it, squeezes, and releases. He relaxes, smiles, turns away — then back to mom. She takes his hand again: squeeze and release.
A young woman in her 20, wearing a skirt and blazer, sits stiffly, a leather-bound portfolio on her lap. She repeatedly pushes a few blonde wisps off her face, then touches her neck, her subconscious movements both revealing and relieving her anxiety about her 9 a.m. interview.
A couple propped against a pole share messages of affection; she rubs his arms with her hands, he nuzzles his face in her hair.
A middle-aged woman, squished into a corner, assuredly bumps the young man beside her with her elbow and hip. The message is clear; he instantly adjusts to make room.
Probing our ability to communicate nonverbally is hardly a new psychological tack; researchers have long documented the complex emotions and desires that our posture, motions, and expressions reveal.
Yet until recently, the idea that people can impart and interpret emotional content via another nonverbal modality — touch— seemed iffy, even to researchers, such as DePauw University psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, who study it.
In 2009, Hertenstein demonstrated that we have an innate ability to decode emotions via touch alone. In a series of studies, Hertenstein had volunteers attempt to communicate a list of emotions to a blindfolded stranger solely through touch. Many participants were apprehensive about the experiment. “This is a touch-phobic society,” he says. “We’re not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.”
But touch they did— it was, after all, for science. The results suggest that for all our caution about touching, we come equipped with an ability to send and receive emotional signals solely by doing so.
Participants communicated eight distinct emotions — anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness — with accuracy rates as high as 78 percent. “I was surprised,” Hertenstein admits. “I thought the accuracy would be at chance level,” about 25 percent.
Previous studies by Hertenstein and others have produced similar findings abroad, including in Spain (where people were better at communicating via touch than in America) and the U.K. research has also been conducted in Pakistan and Turkey. “Everywhere we’ve studied this, people seem able to do it,” he says.
Read more: Rick Chillot, PsychologyToday