"Although the thought of the body's mortality fuels people's existential concerns," Sander Koole and his colleagues write, "the body itself may help people come to terms with their deepest fears."
What's their evidence? For an initial study, a female experimenter passed a pair of questionnaires measuring death angst and self-esteem to each of 61 participants (35 men) who took part. If she touched a participant gently on the back for one second as she passed them the papers, then afterwards they tended to report having less fear of death, as compared with if no physical contact was made. But crucially, this was only the case for participants with low self-esteem.
The researchers said this shows touch provides existential security to people with low self-esteem. Unfortunately, other explanations were not examined. For example, no information was provided about the experimenter's attractiveness, nor about the participants' loneliness or mood. Differences in male and female participants were not explored.
A second study was a bolt-on to the first. An additional 59 participants underwent the same procedure except they were asked about their fear of dentists rather than of death. A gentle touch from the experimenter made no difference to the dental fears of any of these participants, whether they had low self-esteem or not. This helps make the case that the effect of touch in the first study was specific to existential angst.
Next, 50 participants were asked to estimate the value of a metre-high teddy bear enclosed in a box and viewed through a plexiglass panel. Those who'd first been reminded of death and who had low self-esteem put a price on the bear of €23. In contrast, participants with high self-esteem who were reminded of death, and all participants not reminded of death, valued the teddy at just €13. This shows that thoughts of death "increased the desire for touch among individuals with low self-esteem," the researchers said.
Unfortunately we can't be confident this is true. Because there were no control conditions in which participants rated the value of other objects, we can't know if low self-esteem individuals reminded of death wouldn't have placed a higher value on any product.
In the last study, Koole and his team used an indirect measure of existential angst - people's racism. Past research has shown that death angst can make us more biased towards our in-group and more prejudiced towards perceived outsiders. Consistent with this, Koole and his colleagues found that low self-esteem Dutch participants (but not those with high self-esteem) reminded of death showed more evidence of prejudice when rating a typical Dutch person or a typical Muslim. But this was not the case if the low self-esteem participants were given the chance to touch a teddy bear as opposed to just look at it.
The researchers interpret this last result as showing that touching the bear reduced the low self-esteem participants' death angst, and so they showed less prejudice towards Muslims. It's a shame that the effect of handling other objects was not examined because we can't know for sure if the effect was due to the visceral comfort of touch or to the interest and distraction of handling any new product.
Based on what they admitted were "preliminary findings", Koole and his team suggested simulated touch could be an effective intervention for people with low self-esteem who have existential worries. Sceptical readers may feel their conclusions are premature and that more robust studies are required.
Koole SL, Tjew A Sin M, and Schneider IK (2013). Embodied Terror Management: Interpersonal Touch Alleviates Existential Concerns Among Individuals With Low Self-Esteem. Psychological science PMID: 24190907
This new paper builds on research published in 2011 that suggested touching a teddy could help people who feel socially excluded.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.