Topography of social touching depends on emotional bonds between humans.
Suvilehto JT., Glerean E., Dunbar RIM., Hari R., Nummenmaa L.
Nonhuman primates use social touch for maintenance and reinforcement of social structures, yet the role of social touch in human bonding in different reproductive, affiliative, and kinship-based relationships remains unresolved. Here we reveal quantified, relationship-specific maps of bodily regions where social touch is allowed in a large cross-cultural dataset (N = 1,368 from Finland, France, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom). Participants were shown front and back silhouettes of human bodies with a word denoting one member of their social network. They were asked to color, on separate trials, the bodily regions where each individual in their social network would be allowed to touch them. Across all tested cultures, the total bodily area where touching was allowed was linearly dependent (mean r(2) = 0.54) on the emotional bond with the toucher, but independent of when that person was last encountered. Close acquaintances and family members were touched for more reasons than less familiar individuals. The bodily area others are allowed to touch thus represented, in a parametric fashion, the strength of the relationship-specific emotional bond. We propose that the spatial patterns of human social touch reflect an important mechanism supporting the maintenance of social bonds.