Science of People - Logo

The Surprising Power of Touch and Physical Contact

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

How much money would you spend on a pair of earbuds? $25.00? $100.00?

How about a pair that runs $14,995?!

There’s good news if you have that kind of money to spare. Beverly Hills artist Hugh Power runs the House of Gold and is dubbed the “real life Midas.” He can turn anything you might want into gold… but at a price.

What’s that? You don’t have that kind of cash?

That’s okay. Even if you don’t have tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, you too can have the Midas Touch. Okay, maybe it won’t transform objects into gold, but it can transform your power to connect and influence. In a new television series that premiered last fall titled, “How 2 Win”, you can learn not only the the power of touch but numerous other influence skills. A number of respected researchers, including UK psychologist Richard Wiseman of “Quirkology” fame, contribute to the episodes, providing the scientific underpinning of the content.  

In one such episode, the power of touch and the science behind it are explored.  Science Journalist Jeff Wise ran an experiment where a man named Vincent was introduced to random people in the park.  He shook their hand, smiled and said “hi, nice to meet you!” Wise then asked these people to look at Vincent, the way he was dressed, his general appearance and then asked Vincent to leave. Once out of sight and earshot, Wise asked the strangers to rate Vincent from 1 to 10 on the first impression he had made on them.  

The result?  

Most people rated our friend Vincent at a 5 or 6.  

Yikes! Poor Vincent.  

A 5 or a 6 is not likely to land Vincent a job, especially since our first impression is the anchor that weights the entire interview.  

Next, Wise repeated the experiment. Vincent was dressed the same, said the same things, his facial expressions were the same…everything was kept the same except one thing. This time, people rated Vincent an 8 or 9!  This is an amazing difference– almost double his initial first impression rating.  

But what changed?

The handshake.

In the first experiment, Vincent used a standard one-handed handshake.  

midas touch, how 2 win

In the second, he used his other hand to lightly touch the forearm of the other person.

midas touch, how 2 win

This is similar to research showing that waitresses receive higher tips when they lightly touch customers briefly (Van Barren et al., 2003). This is due to Oxytocin, the emotional bonding hormone. Human contact releases this hormone and subconsciously, we feel a stronger connection as a result.

Those strangers in the park who participated in Wise’s experiment with Vincent didn’t even realize this had happened. It was subconscious. This raises an important point that for this type of contact to work: it must be appropriate to the context, brief and subtle.
Nothing demonstrates this point more than the contrast in examples between two very different presidents. The left frame below shows President Reagan. His style and approach are understated as he briefly touches Mikhail Gorbachev on the right forearm, similar to our friend Vincent. The right frame, however, shows President George W. Bush coming up behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a G8 summit and grasping her on the shoulders.

midas touch, how 2 win

The picture says it all.  

Bush’s touch was not subtle, not brief and it certainly was not appropriate in that it was way outside the safe zone.  The general rule of thumb is the closer you are to the torso on your contact, the less appropriate it is.

Another president highlighted in multiple episodes of “How 2 Win” is president Lyndon Johnson. One factor of influence he used to his advantage was his physical presence. At 6’4”, Johnson frequently leveraged his stature to take command and physically dominate a space. The first two frames show him towering over his colleague as he drives home his point with his hand motion. The last shows him lean down slightly with his hand on the arm of his opponent, though I think it not likely that there is a lot of oxytocin being released in this scenario as his colleague is leaning further and further back on the desk.   

midas touch, how 2 win

I recall an example of my own a few years back where I was having dinner with a number of physicians participating in a clinical trial my company was sponsoring. During the break to have lunch, I sat down next to one doctor from China and as we were introducing ourselves, I touched him on the upper arm.  He immediately looked at my hand as he pulled away ever so slightly.  Not the first impression I wanted to make.  

This brings up my one caution with the “How 2 Win” series. While the information presented is science based, it is covered somewhat superficially leaving the viewer with the impression that if one just follows the various science rules, like the two-handed handshake experiment, that the result will always be as described. Context is king!  

Body language and the reaction to it are in a dynamic feedback loop and being able to assess the situation while simultaneously being authentic are the keys to success. 

On the “The Secrets of Lying” episode there is no discussion regarding the importance of clusters or signals, baselining, or that many of lying secrets could just as easily be due to nervousness or any number of factors.  In fact, research shows that people who begin looking for lying signals actually get worse at spotting lies than they were at baseline before training.  So take the information you see on “How 2 Win” as an interesting starting point for learning about influence but keep it at just that – a starting point.  To really learn these skills, more in depth research and experience are necessary to take these lessons and put them into practical contextual use.  That’s the only real way to mine for gold and get that Midas Touch!

This guest post is by Todd A. Fonseca, a twenty-year medical device executive, published author, columnist, international speaker and Science of People Certified Body Language Trainer specializing in developing leaders at all levels. You can follow him on Twitter and along with countless others, take advantage of the free content he offers on his website.

How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

Do you have a difficult boss? Colleague? Client? Learn how to transform your difficult relationship.
I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Get our latest insights and advice delivered to your inbox.

It’s a privilege to be in your inbox. We promise only to send the good stuff.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.