Time to Get Touchy?


If you are in sales, do you touch your customers? In these litigious days, perhaps not. But there’s research that shows a woman’s light touch on a subject’s shoulder caused a change in risk-taking behavior. (Sorry, guys, it only worked for female touchers.) Research by Jonathan Levav of Columbia University and Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta explored the relationship between being touched and subsequent behavior:

In the first experiment, a woman showed subjects to their seats while lightly — and fleetingly — touching the back of their shoulder. Once seated, subjects were asked to make a series of decisions about whether they would prefer to receive a set amount of money or gamble for the chance to win more money (if they lost the gamble they would get nothing). A second group of subjects was asked to make the same set of choices between a sure thing and a gamble but were not touched.

The effect of the touch was notable: people who received a light pat on the back chose the riskier option 50 percent more often than those who received no touch. [Emphasis added. From Columbia Business School – A Touch of Risk.]

Additional experiments showed that handshakes did not have the same effect as the light touch on the shoulder. And while a male touch did not have a significant effect on behavior, the effect of the female touch on male and female subjects was equal.

While this experiment tested financial risk taking, I think it’s no big leap to imagine applying this to a broader range of sales activities. Many purchase decisions involve some element of risk – perhaps the product won’t work as advertised, or the vacation won’t be worth the price – and an increase in the feeling of security on the part of the prospect could help assuage those fears.

While obviously legal and cultural factors come into play when there is physical contact in a business relationship, it certainly seems like a quick touch on the back of the shoulder will be acceptable in most cases. So, Neuromarketing readers, do YOU use touch in a business context?

  1. Mark says


    a recent experiment in Australia showed that even the mere presence of an attractive female will significantly increase risk taking in younger males. (Yeh, I know it sounds obvious, but the boffins wanted to really understand what was going on, and conducted a proper scientific test.)

    Touching would probably all but guarantee a sale.

    Now I know why all those promotion stands feature attractive young people.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I agree, Mark, that attractive females can make men impatient, increase risk-taking, and so on. This is likely due to triggering a “mating” frame of mind. Women tend to be unaffected by images of attractive women or even attractive men.

      It appears that the “light touch” phenomenon is more maternal in nature since it affects both men and women equally.


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