By Merle Fairhurst, Justin Sulik, David Moore, Wenhan Sun, Anton Varlamov, Francis McGlone

Affective touch, like a hug or a gentle caress, is how we typically initiate communicative exchanges with those we love. These forms of touch are thought to communicate these positive intents through an evolutionarily old class of nerve fibres, tuned to human, social touch; that is they are preferentially activated at skin temperature at gentle stroking velocities. However these all important C-tactile afferents and the affective system that underpins social touch may in fact govern not only approach but also avoidance behaviours. In this talk, we present interim results from the only global, longitudinal study investigating changes in touch behaviour and the impact on well-being during the COVID pandemic. We first describe the effects of social distancing during the pandemic on wellbeing as these relate to a longing for touch. We then describe how we have captured two types of behaviour, on the one hand a longing for familiar “safe” touch and avoidance of touch from a stranger and importantly how where we are touched and by whom seems to determine perceived pleasantness. We then introduce the new jpsych tool developed for the study and which is now implemented in the gorilla.sc online experimentation platform. In a post-COVID and indeed #metoo world where touch is so often conceptualised as either “good” or “bad”, more than ever we need to better understand the way that touch drives both types of behaviour as well as the mechanisms that underpin them.