How the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our touch behaviour

The impact of social distancing on human interactions and on our sense of touch was the topic of interest that gathered international researchers at the 4th interdisciplinary socialBRIDGES event on June 29, 2021, organized and hosted by the Institute of Psychology at the Universität der Bundeswehr München in co-operation with the International Association for Study on Affective Touch (IASAT).

It has now been over a year since a handshake has become an improper greeting custom, that a hug is a gesture that requires caution, where our friends cannot be welcomed by a kiss on the cheek, and we are advised to avoid touching surfaces and objects in public spaces. The everyday life practical applications of the infection prevention and control measures in the times of COVID-19 has made us aware of the crucial meaning of touch in our life, as well as of the possible consequences of the lack of it. The 4th socialBRIDGES event on social distancing and touch was co-organised by Prof. Merle Fairhurst and Dr. Rochelle Ackerley. Prof. Fairhurst has been researching the effects of lockdown measures on physical and mental health in an ongoing large-scale international study since the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe. The one-day event brought together international experts from a total of 12 research institutions, across a broad range of disciplines who presented their latest findings on the pandemic-induced changes in human communication as well as in the touch-regulated perception of the world.

Similarities and differences in touch behaviour

Touch is a non-verbal way to communicate our thoughts and emotions that most people understand instinctively and that does not have to be learned, the conference’s co-organiser Dr. Rochelle Ackerley (CNRS - Aix-Marseille University) highlighted in her opening talk. The sense of touch plays a defining role in our interactions with other people as well as with our surroundings in general; as the infection prevention measures have influenced both of these areas, they also have significantly changed our everyday touch behaviour.

Presenting their in-depth studies on physical contact, the interdisciplinary speakers uncovered new viewpoints and interpretations of the COVID-19 crisis developments inside societies as well as in a wider international perspective. Isobel Sigley, a social and cultural sciences researcher representing Loughborough University, has demonstrated how varying degrees of touch hunger in different population groups indicate a presence of social injustice based on race, gender or class. An international study by Prof. Ilona Croy (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena) and Dr. Agnieszka Sorokowska (Wroclaw University) involving 9000 participants from 41 countries has shown a direct relation of different countries’ cross-cultural differences in touch behaviour towards strangers to differences in the COVID-19 spreading rates in these countries. Despite of all their diversity though, people worldwide are showing similar responses in their interpersonal touch behaviours. In her talk, Yasemin Abra (Universität der Bundeswehr München) pointed out that the fear of close contact with strangers resulted in larger interpersonal space and conversely that we long for and rate the touch of a loved one as more pleasant. Additionally, with data from Germany and Great Britain, she showed that this interpersonal distance was significantly shorter for German study participants.



Screenshots from the self-help HandsOn app

The solution is in our hands

Many of the participating international experts highlighted the pandemic-induced fear of touch on the one hand, with restrictions of physical contact taking a toll on physical as well as mental wellbeing of people worldwide. A long-term unsatisfied hunger for touch can have a negative impact on the development of children as well as on health of grown-ups, Prof. Francis McGlone (Liverpool John Moores University) stressed in his keynote talk. Analysing the current results of her research, Prof. Merle Fairhurst drew attention to the fact that even while not being alone at home during a lockdown, a person still can feel a lack of specific type of touch by a specific person that is not possible to get in this situation and therefore experience negative consequences of touch hunger on physical, as well as on an emotional, level. A possible solution for the restriction-filled times during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as for our increasingly touchless society in general, include the benefits of new technology, as presented by Ali Najm (Cyprus University of Technology). The interactive self-help smartphone app HandsOn, co-developed with Prof. Merle Fairhurst, guides its users towards greater mindfulness and awareness of  touch experiences while developing their ability to control it for the benefits of own wellbeing, using informative short videos, mindfulness and relaxation exercises as well as a daily diary feature. “This app presents opportunities for personal self-reflection, but also an exciting potential for large-scale citizen science projects as well as integrated into more traditional empirical research, for instance, in the investigation of neurophysiological disorders”, Najm concluded. Among the first citizen science projects carried out with the help of the HandsOn app are two studies by master students in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at the Universität der Bundeswehr München, one of them dealing with body disorders like anorexia or bulimia and the other investigating attachment, touch behaviour and habits of teenagers.

Every truly illuminating discussion ends with some more questions still waiting to be explored. This is true for the 4th socialBRIDGES conference as well. “How do our different types of touch work together and what further tools besides our HandsOn app could be used to study touch? These, for instance, are two of the key questions that touch research should look deeper into”, Prof. Fairhurst concluded looking back at the insightful event.

Team Social Bridges 4 29.06.2021 1.jpg

The team SocialBRIDGES at the Institute of Psychology,  Universität der Bundeswehr München. Jyothisa Mathew, Prof. Merle Fairhurst, Dr. Olga Lantukhova.

(Photo by: Lt. Lena Nesrin Gürke)

You are welcome to explore the findings of the past conferences on the YouTube channel and on the website of Social BRIDGES.

Conference summary in German language (by Olga Lantukhova) on the central news page of the Universität der Bundeswehr München and on the news page of the Institute for Psychology, Universität der Bundeswehr München

The HandsOn app developer team would like to invite new users to try the app now and to do good for own wellbeing and for science by providing us feedback and improvement suggestions.


Text summary by Olga Lantukhova

Teaser photo: Marina Reich/Unsplash