We’ve all felt excluded at least once or twice in our lives—I don’t care if you were the most popular person in school or if you pride yourself on being the glue that keeps your friends together. Think back to that one time you weren’t picked for a team in gym class; when you didn’t get an invite to that beach trip; or when you felt like the third wheel on an outing with your two friends. Did feelings of pain and rejection just come rushing back to you? Yeah… sorry about that. But now try to remember how you confronted or solved those feelings. Did you resort to occupying yourself with social media? Or finding someone else to hang out with? Or maybe you didn’t have to do anything—because someone came rushing to your aid, gave you a gentle hug, and left you feeling good as new.

When we face social rejection, we often feel disconnected, unwanted, and even unloved—so it makes sense that a hug or even a pat on the back from someone would make us feel better. And a new study “The soothing function of touch: affective touch reduces feelings of social exclusion” from UCL confirms just that, as they’ve found that the gentle touch of another effectively soothes painful effects of social exclusion. Recent findings that simple touch, or more particularly gentle stroking, may create a special coding system between the skin and the brain precede this study, as well as others that have explored effects of social support. But this particular research tested the different effects of slow, affectionate touches and quick, neutral touches.

In order to do so, researchers recruited 84 healthy women and led them all to believe they were simply playing a computerized game with two other participants, which involved throwing and catching a ball back and forth. After several go’s, the subjects then answered questions related to needs typically threatened by exclusion such as feelings of belonging, self-esteem, and meaningful existence. After a 10-minute break, they began playing the game again; but this time, the other players (which were really computer-generated) unexpectedly stopped throwing the ball to the real participant—this was designed to induce social exclusion. Immediately following, the participants were blindfolded while an experimenter stroked marked areas of their forearms for 70 seconds, either slowly or quickly. They then answered the same questions as before.

Researchers took both sets of questionnaires, compared them to one another and controlled them against a baseline. They found that those touched at a slow speed had reduced feelings of negativity as well as social exclusion brought on by the game compared to those who were administered a fast, neutral touch. Neither the slow or quick touch, however, successfully eliminated all negative effects of the social exclusion.

The team was not surprised in the slightest by their results: “The current findings supported our predictions. Slow touch, which was perceived as more pleasant than fast touch, was able to buffer to a degree the effects of interpersonal threatening experiences such as ostracism,” they explain in their paper. “Moreover, we found that affective touch did not have a more general effect on improving affect post-exclusion. Instead, it appears that affective touch is particularly effective in reducing feelings of social exclusion.”

When we’re not the ones being excluded, it’s fairly easy to simplify the effects of social exclusion—but the second it happens to us, those negative feelings all come flooding back. The truth is that social exclusion can do a lot of harm; however, it’s consolation to know that an easy fix is at our disposal: human touch, as explained by lead author Mariana von Mohr of UCL Clinical, Education and Health Psychology: “As our social world is becoming increasingly visual and digital, it is easy to forget the power of touch in human relations. Yet we’ve shown for the first time that mere slow, gentle stroking by a stranger can reduce feelings of social exclusion after social rejection.”

Sources: UCL “Gentle Touch Soothes Pain of Social Rejection.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 18 October 2017. <http://neurosciencenews.com/touch-social-rejection-7764/>.

“The soothing function of touch: affective touch reduces feelings of social exclusion” by Mariana von Mohr, Louise P. Kirsch & Aikaterini Fotopoulou in Scientific Reports. Published online October 18 2017