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Romantic couples have the ability to distinguish a broad variety of emotions purely through the sensory modality of touch

12 July 2010 

A collaborative study between Institute of Psychiatry, (IoP), King’s College London (KCL) and City University London has discovered that romantic couples are better at interpreting emotions through touch than strangers, even managing to accurately communicate ambiguous emotions such as envy, embarrassment and pride.

The researchers tested 30 couples, each with a stranger and their respective romantic partner. Participants were separated by an opaque curtain and had to communicate universal emotions (anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise), prosocial emotions (gratitude, love, sympathy) and self-focused emotions (envy, embarrassment, pride) to the forearm of the corresponding participant, without any auditory or visual clues.

The study supported previous findings (Hertenstein et al., 2006; 2009) that strangers could communicate universal and prosocial emotions via touch, as well as documenting the communication of an additional emotion, embarrassment. In contrast, couples were able to communicate all universal, prosocial and the three different self-focused emotions at levels well above chance. The project demonstrates that the success of interpreting emotions correctly via touch is influenced by the relationship between the person giving and the person receiving the touch.

Despite the higher accuracy of communication shown by couples, analysis of the types of touch used revealed that couples and strangers tended to use much the same touch actions for specific emotions, including the self-focused emotions that were decoded by couples only.

Ms Erin Thompson, a PhD student from the IoP, said: 'It is likely that the same cues are being interpreted differently due to relationship status, which is an exciting new finding deserving of further exploration. It would be fascinating to discover whether this finding extends to other relationships, such as parents and children, or long-term friends, or whether sexual intimacy makes a difference.'

Ms Thompson hopes that the research can be utilised in further studies wishing to learn about advancements in emotional communication: 'The findings could be utilised in couples therapy, or even if just to encourage individuals to work on intimate partnerships whilst undergoing therapy.'

The study supports the notion of touch as a diverse and adaptable modality, provides possibilities for future experiments in this field, and possesses relevance for many different disciplines. Our findings extend the literature on the communication of emotion; the nature of particular relationships appears to have the ability to diminish the ambiguity of emotional expression via touch.

The paper was published in July's edition of Cognition and Emotion. "Romantic couples have the ability to distinguish a broad variety of emotions purely through the sensory modality of touch"

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