The Language of Social Touch Is Intuitive and Quantifiable

Psychol Sci. 2022 Sep;33(9):1477-1494. doi: 10.1177/09567976211059801. Epub 2022 Aug 9.


Touch is a powerful communication tool, but we have a limited understanding of the role played by particular physical features of interpersonal touch communication. In this study, adults living in Sweden performed a task in which messages (attention, love, happiness, calming, sadness, and gratitude) were conveyed by a sender touching the forearm of a receiver, who interpreted the messages. Two experiments (N = 32, N = 20) showed that within close relationships, receivers could identify the intuitive touch expressions of the senders, and we characterized the physical features of the touches associated with successful communication. Facial expressions measured with electromyography varied by message but were uncorrelated with communication performance. We developed standardized touch expressions and quantified the physical features with 3D hand tracking. In two further experiments (N = 20, N = 16), these standardized expressions were conveyed by trained senders and were readily understood by strangers unacquainted with the senders. Thus, the possibility emerges of a standardized, intuitively understood language of social touch.

Keywords: communication; emotions; facial expressions; open data; open materials; social interaction; touch.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Emotions
  • Facial Expression
  • Happiness
  • Humans
  • Touch Perception*
  • Touch*

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.5630842.v2