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Simple Touch Can Reduce Racial Prejudice

New research points to the power of physical contact to counteract unconscious bias.
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(Photo: Vadim Georgiev/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Vadim Georgiev/Shutterstock)

Racial prejudice is less overt than it once was, but it has hardly gone away. New research suggests it can be counteracted by a simple, gentle weapon: The power of human touch.

In two experiments, a research team led by psychologist Charles Seger of the University of East Anglia found an almost imperceptible touch by a member of a different race reduced implicit prejudice against members of that race.

“Even minor bodily overtures of friendship can have far-reaching consequences,” the researchers write in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology. Their results suggest the bias-reducing effects of physical contact “are automatic and outside conscious awareness.”

"Brief, casual interpersonal touch by an out-group member increased implicit positivity toward the toucher’s ethnic group as a whole."

The first of their experiments featured 76 Indiana University students, none of whom were black. They were greeted in the lab by an African-American woman who wore a Black History Month T-shirt “to heighten participants’ awareness of her racial identity.”

Each participant sat down in a cubicle containing a computer. Half of them “were given a casual, light touch on the shoulder for one to two seconds, as the experimenter leaned over the participant to type in their participant number.” The others “typed in their participant number themselves, while the experimenter stood immediately behind them without touching them.”

All then proceeded to perform a test designed to measure implicit, or unconscious, racism. They were asked to categorize a series of 144 words, which flashed briefly onto the computer screen, as either good or bad. (Example: “pleasant” is good, “disaster” is bad.) Photographs of faces—black and white men and women—popped up between the words.

Participants were asked to ignore the photos, but they were an essential part of the experiment. Researchers noted which faces were paired with longer response times for both positive and negative words. Taking longer to correctly identify a good word immediately after seeing a black face (or, conversely, moving especially quickly to identify a bad word) indicates implicit racism.

It turns out the brief physical contact made an impression. Those who had been touched by the black experimenter had more positive implicit attitudes toward blacks. Participants also filled out a survey designed to indicate explicit racist beliefs, but these were not influenced by being touched.

The second experiment expanded the format to a second ethnic group. This time, the participants—155 IU undergrads—were greeted by either an African-American or an Asian female experimenter. Again, half were touched briefly during the set-up period. Those greeted by the Asian woman had photos of Asians and whites flashed onto their screens between words.

The results confirmed those of the first experiment: “Brief, casual interpersonal touch by an out-group member increased implicit positivity toward the toucher’s ethnic group as a whole,” the researchers report. Attitudes toward whites were not affected.

Once again, measures of explicit prejudice were not affected by touch. What’s more, researchers found the magnitude of the effect was similar “whether or not participants recall being touched.” Both of these findings strongly suggest the effect occurred on an unconscious level.

Seger and his colleagues see this as another example of embodied cognition, in which bodily sensations influence our thought processes. “Interpersonal touch may serve as an embodied cue to an actual friendship with an out-group member,” they speculate. This signal of friendship may, in turn, lead to less prejudice toward that minority group.

The researchers emphasize that they used a specific form of touch—one that was non-threatening, non-sexual, and between people of equal social status. Other types of touch would likely send out different signals and produce different, less-positive results.

Nevertheless, the discovery that a simple instance of physical contact can reduce bias is certainly encouraging. Handshakes all around.