Q: I’ve heard that some physical touch can be a way of bonding with another person, not just in romance but in business (handshakes, pats on the back, etc.). How do I pull that off without seeming creepy?
A: Well first of all, touch can be powerful, for good or bad. I recommend being very careful about who you touch and how, especially in a professional setting. That having been said, some physical touch can be helpful and friendly. The research actually mentions one way that you can avoid disgusting people with physical touch – smell good.
A group of researchers in Sweden sought to examine the relationship between two senses: olfactory (smell) and tactile (touch).
- The researchers pointed out that odors can actually change how we perceive flavors, sounds, and pictures, but no research had yet been done on touch.
- The results of their experiments were published in the journal PLOS ONE in 2014.
In this experiment, the researchers just wanted to examine how a person’s innate disgust sensitivity interacted with their perceptions of odors. This information would be useful for the actual experiment.
30 participants filled out a questionnaire regarding their disgust sensitivity.
This is exactly what it sounds like. Some people are more sensitive to disgusting things than others.
Then, the participants were exposed to various odors in different concentrations. The odors were:
- Civette (feces smell)
Then, participants rated each smell on:
The whole point of this was to determine what concentration of each odor to use in the main experiment.
They did a statistical test to find out what concentration of each odor would be rated at around the same level of intensity to the average person.
This is actually really important. If they did a comparison of different odors, but one odor was used in a high concentration, it might be rated as unpleasant just because it’s too intense (a lower intensity might be rated as pleasant).
As you might guess, those who were more sensitive to disgust rated the Civette (feces) smell worse than those who weren’t so sensitive to disgust.
Now that they knew what concentrations to use for all the odors, they moved on to the fun part.
The experimenters actually got a robotic device with a soft watercolor brush attached to the end. The watercolor brush was made of fine, smooth, goat’s hair.
The robot was designed to brush against someone’s arm at a smooth, consistent rate.
The reason they used a robot instead of a person’s touch is that there’s a possibility that a person might have caused a bigger effect than a fragrance.
Also, a robot can deliver a brush stroke at a consistent pressure. If you must know, the robot delivered brush strokes at two different velocities:
- A velocity of 3 cm/s and a vertical force of 0.4N
- A velocity of 30 cm/s and a vertical force of 0.4N
- These scientists weren’t messing around!
45 participants came to the lab, sat in a chair, and placed their left arm on a pillow next to the chair.
Then, the robot stroked their arm.
Immediately before the robot stroked their arm, participants were exposed to one of three different fragrances from a small bottle under their noses:
- Civette (feces smell)
- Odorless control
This happened three times. Participants would get one block of 6 brush strokes for each odor.
After each block, participants would rate how intense and pleasant the brush strokes were.
When participants were brushed on the arm while smelling rose, they rated the strokes as pleasant.
When participants were brushed on the arm while smelling Civette, they rated the strokes as unpleasant.
- When they were smelling the odorless bottle, they rated the strokes as neutral.
- Brush strokes while experiencing any odor was rated at the same intensity (the odorless control was rated as less intense).
This might seem like an obvious result, but not all “obvious” things are shown to be true in a laboratory.
Getting a light, soft brush on the arm was rated as pleasant with a good smell, but unpleasant with a bad smell.
Where am I going with this? According to these results, there’s one surefire way to ensure that physically touching someone else will disgust them: if you smell bad.
Thus, making sure your odor is pleasant is the first step to avoiding this unfortunate possibility.
Croy, I., D’Angelo, S., & Olausson, H. (2014). Reduced pleasant touch appraisal in the presence of a disgusting odor. PLOS ONE, 9(3), 1-7. Link: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0092975