Maintaining social bonds via touching: A cross-cultural study

Juulia T. Suvilehto

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisCollection of Articles


Touching is the most intimate way of social interaction and also the first way of communicating between the mother and the infant. In non-human primates social touching is also the primary way of maintaining social relationships. The extant research suggests that social relationships also govern the use of social touch in humans, but the role of social touch in human bonding in different reproductive, affiliative, and kinship-based relationships remains unresolved. This Thesis investigates social touching across different kin-based and affiliative relationships in different cultures. This was done by using Internet-based surveys where participants from Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom indicated where they would allow different members of their social network to touch them. Topographical organization of bodily regions triggering sexual arousal in romantic relationships was established in a separate study. Finally, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging was used to reveal the neural correlates of experiencing and anticipating touch from different individuals. We found that touch is used in relationship-specific manner. The bodily area where touching was allowed was linearly dependent on the emotional bond with the toucher. Moreover, the results indicate that the use of social touch is culturally universal and culture-specific variation is minimal. In romantic relationships, genitals and chest area had the highest potency for eliciting sexual arousal, but partner's touch to practically any bodily area could elicit significant sexual arousal. Finally, neuroimaging data established that relationship-specific information regarding social touch is represented already in the early sensory cortices. These findings highlight the central role of social touch in human relationships. Together with earlier work these results suggest that humans do use social touch to establish and maintain social relationships, both in romantic pair bonds and in the wider social network.
Translated title of the contributionKosketuksen käyttö sosiaalisten suhteiden ylläpidossa
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor's degree
Awarding Institution
  • Aalto University
  • Sams, Mikko, Supervising Professor
  • Nummenmaa, Lauri, Thesis Advisor
Print ISBNs978-952-60-8263-9
Electronic ISBNs978-952-60-8264-6
Publication statusPublished - 2018
MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)


  • social touch
  • tactile
  • emotional bond
  • social network


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