A recent research study on touch and touch avoidance explored how people feel about being touched by strangers, friends, parents, members of one’s own sex and members of the opposite sex.
The study found women with social anxiety are less comfortable with physical contact than are men with social anxiety, and men in relationships with socially anxious women tend to be less comfortable with physical touch in the relationship as well.
The study, “Discomfort and avoidance of touch: new insights on the emotional deficits of social anxiety,” involved 128 heterosexual couples with an average relationship length of about one year and eight months.
The researchers also investigated the influence of social anxiety on physical contact within a romantic relationship, and the role gender may play in the interaction between social anxiety and touch or touch avoidance.
In order to investigate these factors, the researchers asked each participant to complete three assessments. The first assessment, the Social Interaction Anxiety Scale, was used to measure subjects’ “fear and avoidance of social interactions because of possible scrutiny by other people.”
The second assessment, the Touch Avoidance Measure, was used to evaluate each subject’s touch behavior and perceptions. This survey includes statements such as “I find it difficult to be touched by a member of my own sex.” Respondents are asked to select a number on a five-point scale that ranges from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”
The third assessment, the Touch Test, was used to measure each subject’s “comfort with expressing and receiving touch from parents, friends and strangers in a variety of situations.” The Touch Test includes questions such as “How comfortable would you feel hugging a friend of the opposite sex?” Respondents provide their answers on a five-point scale ranging from “very uncomfortable” to “very comfortable.”
According to the researchers, the data showed that close to 26 percent of the couples included at least one person who met the criterion for a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder.
In addition, they found women scored higher on the Social Interaction Anxiety Scale than men, and women with social anxiety reported more touch avoidance—feeling less comfortable with physical touch—than their male counterparts.
The study’s authors also discovered that when the female relationship partner was the person with social anxiety, it had a greater effect on the male partner’s comfort with touch within the relationship than when the roles were reversed and the male partner was the person with social anxiety.
“Women, but not men, experienced more discomfort being touched or touching and more avoidance of physical contact when they were high in social anxiety,” state the study’s authors. “Also, the effect of being paired up with a [socially anxious] romantic partner on discomfort and avoidance of touch was more powerful and robust for men compared to women.”
Authors: Todd Kashdan, James Doorley, Melissa Stiksma and Matthew Hertenstein. Sources: Department of Psychology, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia; and DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana. Originally published online in November 2016 in Cognition and Emotion.