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  • Writer's pictureRebekka Mikkola

The Touch Test – Global Survey Reveals a Touch Deprived World

The results from the Touch Test, the world’s largest survey about attitudes and experiences of touch, have been released in a world radically changed by COVID-19.

The study, carried out in partnership between BBC Radio 4 and the Wellcome Collection, showed that improved wellbeing and decreased levels of loneliness were associated with positive attitudes towards touch.

The survey took place from the 21st January to the 30th March 2020, and had around 40,000 participants spanning 112 countries. Only the tail-end of the survey covered the time that the UK entered lockdown. Academics including Professor Michael Banissy from Goldsmiths, University of London, Professor Katerina Fotopoulou from UCL, and Dr Natalie Bowling from the University of Greenwich developed the online questionnaire and analysed results.

Ten Key Findings from the Touch Test

  • 79% of people enjoy receiving touch from a friend.

  • 72% of people have positive attitudes in relation to touch. This shows that the majority of people like giving or receiving touch.

  • 61% of people reported positive effects on their sleep, after receiving a hug from a partner before going to sleep.

  • 54% of people said they didn’t have enough touch in their lives.

  • 46% of people wouldn’t be happy using haptic technology to shake hands with someone through their computer.

  • 43% of people feel that we aren’t able to touch enough, due to societal norms. This ties in with the touch taboo theory, whereby widespread fears have arisen around touch in society. For example, doctors are afraid to hug patients due to accusations of harassment and teachers won’t apply plasters when a child hurts themselves.

  • Consent and lack of social interaction – the two main reasons provided for why we don’t touch enough.

  • ‘Comforting’ and ‘Warm’ – Two of the most common words associated with touch.

  • Extraversion – people who enjoy touch scored higher for this personality trait, in addition to agreeableness and openness to new experiences. Over and above any other factors in the test (which included age, gender and geographical location), personality had the largest effect on people’s feelings towards touch.

  • Relationship style – people who are more comfortable being independent in their relationships, and find it more challenging to become close emotionally, had less positive feelings towards touch.

Touch Deprivation Analysis

One of the most significant findings was the number of people suffering from touch deprivation. This is the largest survey of its kind and provides a global snapshot from 112 countries of touch deprivation, which in itself makes it unique. The Touch Test showed that 54% of respondents are touch deprived.

Interestingly this survey ended in March 2020, so it only just clipped the start of lockdowns around the world. During lockdown this number is likely to have increased. In fact, research carried out by Dr Tiffany Field and her colleagues in April 2020, showed that 60% of the 260 people in their survey were touch deprived during the lockdown. The paper states that, “Touch deprivation is a widespread COVID-19 lockdown experience. Its relationship to health problems, negative mood states, sleep disturbances and posttraumatic stress symptoms highlights the need for decreasing touch deprivation.

How does the Touch Test’s figure compare with previous studies? There have only been a few studies quantifying touch deprivation and they have typically been conducted in a single country. As such it’s difficult to compare like for like, given the Touch Test’s global scope. However, Ria Beßler (Bessler), and colleagues used a new tool to measure touch deprivation at a German university in 2019. From a sample of 110 students, 72.7% of people were touch deprived. Professor Kory Floyd conducted a survey of around 1,500 people in the US, and the results showed that 75% of adults agreed that, “Americans are in a state of affection hunger.” You can read more information about this research here.

The studies in Germany and the US have a larger percentage of people either classifying as touch deprived, or agreeing that people were in a state of affection hunger. This is unsurprising as both Germany and the US rank quite highly on the list of touch deprived countries.

The reason why the Touch Test had a lower percentage of 54% is because it included countries that are more tactile. In The Loneliness Cure, Professor Floyd explains that, “The closer people are to the equator, the hotter their climates are and the higher contact their cultures are.” It therefore might be possible that the Touch Test had numerous respondents from countries closer to the equator, and this is something that can be explored in more detail when the data is released.

To find out if you may be suffering from touch deprivation during the pandemic, you can read our blog about the signs of touch deprivation.

Commentary on the Touch Test

In a comment released by the BBC Media Centre, Claudia Hammond, who is presenting The Touch Test on BBC Radio 4, said, “The response we had to the study shows what a critical topic touch is in society today and now with social distancing and the pandemic, touch has taken on a new resonance. These results show that our likes and dislikes around touch are nuanced and vary from person to person. Half of the people who took part in the study feel even before the pandemic today’s society does not provide enough opportunities for interpersonal touch. But it’s clear that not everybody wants more touch. Personal preference is foremost when it comes to touch.”

In the same BBC Media Centre release, Professor Michael Banissy said, “This is the largest study of its kind and provides the most detailed source of insight that we have on contemporary attitudes and experiences of touch. It indicates the importance of touch in our lives, and shows the crucial role that individual differences play in this.”

More Information

The results of the Touch Test are being presented and discussed by BBC Radio 4 from Monday 5th – Friday 9th October 2020. The BBC has also increased its coverage of touch to coincide with these results, and a few resources have been included below.

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