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Cogn Emot. 2011 Feb;25(2):295-306. doi: 10.1080/02699931.2010.492957.

The effect of relationship status on communicating emotions through touch.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, P2.13, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AZ, UK.


Research into emotional communication to date has largely focused on facial and vocal expressions. In contrast, recent studies by Hertenstein, Keltner, App, Bulleit, and Jaskolka (2006) and Hertenstein, Holmes, McCullough, and Keltner (2009) exploring nonverbal communication of emotion discovered that people could identify anger, disgust, fear, gratitude, happiness, love, sadness and sympathy from the experience of being touched on either the arm or body by a stranger, without seeing the touch. The study showed that strangers were unable to communicate the self-focused emotions embarrassment, envy and pride, or the universal emotion surprise. Literature relating to touch indicates that the interpretation of a tactile experience is significantly influenced by the relationship between the touchers (Coan, Schaefer, & Davidson, 2006). The present study compared the ability of romantic couples and strangers to communicate emotions solely via touch. Results showed that both strangers and romantic couples were able to communicate universal and prosocial emotions, whereas only romantic couples were able to communicate the self-focused emotions envy and pride.

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