Physical Contact and Loneliness: Being Touched Reduces Perceptions of Loneliness
Heatley Tejada A., Dunbar R., Montero M.
© 2020, Springer Nature Switzerland AG. Objective: This article addresses the connection between loneliness and physical contact. Evolutionary and psychological research has shown that touch is an important part of bond-building and emotion communication; loneliness is intimately related to these elements as well. In this paper, we ask whether physical contact reduces feelings of loneliness —which might derive from evolutionary ancient bonding mechanisms—despite a cultural context that is relatively non-tactile. Method: An experimental study (40 participants, 13 males) tested for observable effects of touch on loneliness scores in a low-contact culture to analyse whether they respond positively to that stimulus despite cultural training against it. Results: Participants exposed to physical contact reported significantly lower neglect scores from their close relationships in a short loneliness scale, thus suggesting that there is an underlying mechanism that persists despite enculturation. The effects were particularly strong among single people, which could mean that lower loneliness among married people might be partly explained by the regular availability of physical contact. Participants in the experimental condition also showed a faster reduction in heart rate, interpreted as a sign of physiological wellbeing. Conclusions: These findings help to specify mechanisms within the evolutionary theoretical framework of loneliness that link internal feelings to environmental cues. This article aims at contributing to a more complex discussion on the interactions between emotions, cultural practices and psychological well-being.