The Psychology Of Touch: Persuade Anyone With Just Your Hand

Every day, you’re faced with a list of requests—often from strangers:

  • Will you register to vote?
  • Would you like to add a drink to your order?
  • Help us save the whales?
  • Watch my stuff while I use the restroom?
  • Can I have your phone number?

As I walk around Portland, I can confidently say I face all but one of these questions every day. I’ll let you guess which one that is…

The requests are annoying but easy to avoid. I’ve gotten skilled at just saying, “No, I don’t want to.” If the requester looks particularly eager, I might pretend I’m on my phone as I walk by.

Somehow, though, I still find myself saying yes to various requests once in a while.

Think about the last time this happened to you. You said yes to a request you’d normally say no to. What was different about that interaction? What did the other person do to persuade you?

Chances are, you don’t remember. The interaction didn’t seem different from any other. That’s because what they did differently was hardly noticeable—it didn’t even register. Based on an enormous body of psychological research on behavior and compliance, though, I can make a pretty good guess at what it was:

They touched you.

It was nothing invasive or aggressive; you would have remembered that. One or two light touches completely changed your view of the person asking you for [insert random / annoying request here]. It briefly altered your brain’s chemistry and made you think, “Hey, why not?”

If you’ve ever found it hard to get someone to help you with a simple request (*cough* spouse, kids, co-works, business associates, etc.), take note. This trick is so simple, you can master it in less than 10 minutes. And the results could be life-changing—better jobs, more money, stronger relationships, more success, etc.

Why Physical Touch Increases Compliance

For decades, researchers and businesses alike have been fascinated by the psychology of physical touch. Researchers want to know more about how and why humans behave certain ways, and businesses want to know how to use that information to, well, make more money.

The result? Mountains of studies proving a simple touch at the right moment can drastically increase the odds a request you make will be accepted.

It’s been shown to increase tips for restaurant servers[1], get people to take surveys[2], persuade subjects to share personal details[3], solicit help finding a lost object[3], and get people to sign petitions. Those are just a few examples of what the right touch can do. It’s even been shown to increase compliance after someone has already said yes[4]—for example, actually finishing a long survey instead of just starting and abandoning it.

The question, though, is why? Why does touch—something you probably think of as an intrusion—get you to do something you’d normally resist?

The answer is both simple and complex. Simple because we’re social creatures conditioned to respond positively to those who embrace us. But complex because of what happens when they do.

When someone touches you properly, you hardly notice it at all, but what happens inside your body is a massive change. Physical contact releases dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin in your brain[5]—the happy chemicals. At the same time, it lowers your cortisol levels—the stress hormone—which slows your heart rate, reduces feelings of stress, and lessens the fight or flight reaction you may be having. Basically, you relax.

All of this—from a single touch—puts you in the mood to listen and builds immediate rapport with the person who’s asking you for something. In the blink of an eye, you’re relaxed and ready to comply instead of annoyed and ready to flee.

That is, as long as you do it right…

How To Properly Use Touch To Get What You Want

When you ask for something—especially from a stranger—a light touch can be the difference between a cold “no” and a warm “yes.” But only if you do it right.

As you’ve read this article, you’ve probably thought back to times when someone touched you in a way you didn’t like. It might have seemed manipulative, insincere, dominating, or downright inappropriate. You might never forget these moments. You scrunch your face in disdain as you recall.

But remember, a successful touch is one you hardly notice. It’s placed at just the right time, and in just the right way, with a sincerity that puts you at ease.

So, what’s the difference between a touch you’ll never forget and one you’ll never remember? The answer lies in how you deliver it.

Here’s how to apply the touch that will turn a stubborn “no” into a happy “yes”:

  1. It must be welcomed by the person receiving it. You might be thinking, “What? Am I supposed to ask if I can touch them?” No, this isn’t necessary, but their body language should clearly show they’re open to it. If they’re standing tall and have a positive (or neutral) facial expression, they’re showing a posture that indicates they’re open to being touched. If they’re hunched over, focused away from you, or crossing their arms, these are signs of a closed posture[6]. They will not be receptive to touch. Always respect body language. A quick way to test is to offer a handshake. If they accept, you’re golden. If not, stay back!
  2. It must be delivered to the upper arm. This is the rule for touching someone you don’t know well. In Western culture, the space between the elbow and the shoulder is generally considered the “safe zone.” If you don’t intimately know the person you’re talking to, don’t wander outside of this zone! For best results, deliver this touch with an accompanying handshake.
  3. It must be quick and nondescript. Touch as a tool of persuasion doesn’t work if it’s noticed. Practice getting used to doing it with people you’re very comfortable with. Don’t linger for more than a moment. Imagine someone clearly thinking about their actions and watching their arm extend to touch you. How awkward would that be?
  4. It must be done from very close range. This helps to make your touch nondescript. You should be no more than 3/4 of an arm’s length from the person. That way, you’re never awkwardly reaching. Again, being close enough for a handshake is a good rule of thumb.
  5. It must be delivered with confidence. Humans are incredibly good at reading confidence and, and we’re naturally comfortable around people who exhibit it. Insecurity makes us uncomfortable. When you go for it, go for it. But never go for it if the rest of your body language is projecting insecurity.
  6. It must be delivered with eye contact. Eye contact will help you seem confident and sincere. It will also keep you from drawing attention to the light touch you’re delivering, which could make things awkward if you’re not actually confident and sincere!
  7. It must be delivered without pressure. The right time to touch is during a first introduction or as you’re already headed towards a yes. If you’re actively explaining and trying to persuade someone who’s not open to your request, you’re too late. It will come off as unwelcome and manipulative.
  8. It must be delivered with a smile. Remember, most communication between people is completely non-verbal—posture, facial expression, tone of voice. No matter what you’re saying, make sure the rest of your body is delivering a welcoming vibe before you touch.

A light touch, delivered at the right time, is a powerful force that’s both welcoming and persuasive. You can use it just as well to get your children to behave as you can to strike an important business deal or get a stranger to help you look for your lost car keys.

But the line between a welcome and an unwelcome touch is narrow, so be sure to carefully follow the steps above as you practice and improve.

Do This In The Next 10 Minutes

Challenge time! Put this concept to the test by making a request using these tips in your next face to face interaction. Then, come back and tell us how it worked for you.

[1] The Midas Touch: The Effects of Interpersonal Touch On Restaurant Tipping
[2] Increasing Compliance With A Request: Two Touches Are More Effective Than One
[3] The Use Of Interpersonal Touch In Securing Compliance
[4] Post-Compliance Touch: An Incentive for Task Performance
[5] Physical Intimacy
[6] H/T to Vanessa Van Edwards at Science Of People for her work on decoding body language