Study: Touch on the Shoulder, Bet on the Market

Can some forms of physical contact make you more likely to exhibit risk-taking behavior? So maybe the meltdown is mom's fault.
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Can some forms of physical contact make you more likely to exhibit risk-taking behavior? So maybe the meltdown is mom's fault.

What's to blame for our economic woes?

Is it Bush, Dodd, too much regulation, too little regulation, a wild-card-like religion ... or maybe a comforting, maternal pat on the shoulder?

That might be the conclusion of two researchers at Columbia University and the University of Alberta, who find that physical contact increased feelings of security and, in turn, stimulated risk-taking. It's a somewhat humorous finding that, on first glance, seems preposterous and on second glance seems slightly less so.

Here's the logic from the first of their three-part experiment:

Sixty-seven undergraduate business students were rounded up to take part in the psychology experiment ostensibly about "consumer behavior." Each student entered a room with a cubicle for a test that required making a series of hypothetical financial decisions, eventually deciding whether or not to take a risky gamble. As the students entered, some were greeted by a female experimenter who gave a friendly (and "approximately one-second") pat on the back to each participant.

Researchers found that those who received the pat on the back were "significantly more likely to select the risky gambles than those in the no-touch condition." Males and females were equally likely to exhibit this behavior.

In the second and third experiment (which used different sets of student samples) researchers tested variations, finding that being touched on the shoulder (deemed a "subtle comforting touch") by a female experimenter is more likely to embolden would-be financial risk-takers than a handshake.

Researchers concluded that, "minimal physical contact can exert a strong influence on decision-making and risk preferences of adults, possibly also outside the financial domain."

Even with the caveats, this study could be titled "College students who are roped into taking part in a psychology experiment are more likely to take risks with Monopoly money when they get patted on the back by a female experimenter." But belittling the research misses the intent and the pedigree.

Professors Jonathan Levav and Jennifer J. Argo cite previous research finding that physical contact — particularly maternal contact — may lead to more exploratory behavior among participants. These studies have shown that this security created by touch can influence subjects as diverse as an infant's desire to explore new settings to an adult's willingness to tip a waitress.