My Hand On It: How Touch Can Make You More Persuasive

Photo by Sarah Schwab
Photo by Sarah Schwab
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The Challenge: We sometimes have a hard time communicating or connecting with others
The Science: A light touch on the shoulder or hand makes people more likely to collaborate with you
The Solution: Appropriate moments of touch can make you more persuasive

When we try to convince our fellow humans of something, we habitually resort to the methods of traditional rhetoric – though not necessarily in a conscious manner. According to Aristotle, compelling speakers harness a combination of pathos (emotional appeals), logos (factual arguments) and ethos (integrity and authority of the speaker) in order to gain an audience for their cause.

Although words can be powerful and literally touching – there is something that is able to influence people to an even stronger extent. Through a variety of studies, researchers have found that a brief casual touch, for example, on the shoulder or hand, can make others noticeable more “cooperative”.

Some examples:

  • Waitresses who touch their customers on the shoulder in passing while they bring the change receive larger tips.
  • When presenting product samples at department stores, bystanders tend to try the product more often when the presenter touches them on the hand as if by accident.
  • Petitions are signed with greater probability when passersby are briefly touched on the hand or shoulder.
  • Students are more inclined to come up to the blackboard to demonstrate a solution to a math assignment when the teacher has casually touched them beforehand.
  • People are more willing to help others with a boring task when the person pleading for help has touched them in passing before making the request.
  • Clients evaluate coaches better when the latter have touched the former casually at times throughout the coaching session.
  • When we try to mooch a cigarette, we´re more successful when he have briefly touched the donor prior to asking.

As of yet, there is no unified explanation as to why these short touches have such a strong effect on us. An interesting observation in that context: the effect also occurs when we do not consciously realize that we have been touched. Hypotheses range from the effect of positive childhood memories all the way to the notion that we implicitly assign a special status to those people whom we allow to touch us (E.g.: “I like those who are allowed to touch me”; or: “Those who are allowed to touch me must be important and/or powerful”).

Now, before you go out and frantically start to grope your fellow human beings, here are a few words of warning and classification:

  • Location: Only touching truly “neutral” body parts such as hand and shoulder led to the desired results. All other areas are strictly off-limits.
  • Culture: The question of who is allowed to touch whom is highly culture-specific. By way of example, the frequency of touching others in public tends to diminish from Southern to Northern Europe. In many Asian cultures, e.g., Japan, bodily contact among strangers is almost a taboo. In other cultures, e.g., in many Arab countries, it is forbidden for men and women to touch in public – while bodily contact among men is something that happens quite frequently. The studies cited above were all carried out in North America or Western Europe. Therefore, it is advised to expect positive effects only in corresponding cultures.
  • Gender: In the course of many studies, the following could be shown: women tolerate to be touched more frequently than men – and they are also influenced by being touched to a stronger extent, regardless of whether the touching person is male or female.

As such, choose wisely when and where to use this powerful persuasion technique. Additionally, please consider the following: It has been shown to work if and only if touch feels casual and “all natural”. Therefore, if you would feel uncomfortable using it, I advise you to leave it alone. To all others: Have fun experimenting!

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Nico Rose
Dr. Nico Rose is a German organizational psychologist. Recently, he was part of the 9th cohort of Penn´s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program (MAPP). In his day job, he´s Head of Employer Branding at Bertelsmann, Europe´s premier media corporation. Additionally, he works as a management coach and university lecturer. Nico has authored +40 professional articles and is a frequent interview partner for German magazines and online publications. Earlier, he worked for L’Oréal´s German branch. In 2012, his book “Lizenz zur Zufriedenheit” (License for Satisfaction) was published.
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