The Importance of Comforting Touch
Comforting touches are intended to provide social support and comfort to a distressed other. Jones and Yarbrough (1985) found that most touches reflecting social support involved using the hand or an arm and were directed to one or two body parts. For example, patting someone on the shoulder, reaching out and squeezing someone’s arm, and giving someone a hug can all express comfort.
Hertenstein, Keltner, et al. (2006) conducted a study which discovered that people identified the emotions of someone who touched them from behind a curtain were related to expressing sympathy or comfort. Such touches include patting, stroking, and rubbing.
Dolin and Booth-Butterfield (1993) in study of nonverbal comforting behaviors, had college students describe how they would react if they were trying to comfort a roommate who was distressed over a recent romantic breakup. The students frequently mentioned that they would use touch to comfort their distressed roommates. In fact, the most common behavior mentioned was hugs, with 42% of the students saying that they would hug their roommates by either engaging in a full-body hug or hugging them around the shoulders.
Hugs are a prominent form of affectionate touch. This shows that the same form of touch can have different functions depending on the context. Hugs are likely to be interpreted as comforting only in the contexts in which the recipient is in need of comforting. The same is true for other types of potentially comforting touch, such as pats and handholding.
In Dolin and Booth-Butterfield’s study, pats which were defined as using short, repetitive movements such as patting the distressed roommate’s arm or shoulder, were mentioned by 27% of the students. Nearly 35% of the students mentioned other forms of touch, such as holding the person’s hand, stroking the roommate’s hair, or letting the roommate cry on their shoulder. This study clearly suggests that people perceive touch to be an important vehicle by which to express comfort and social support.