Do we like being touched? BBC launches biggest ever study to find out in wake of #MeToo movement

Sarah Knapton
Claudia Hammond will launch the survey on BBC Radio 4s All In The Mind  - Rii Schroer

The biggest ever study into touch will find out whether millennials want less physical contact than previous generations, following modern movements like #MeToo.

Goldsmiths, University of London, has teamed up with the BBC to conduct a worldwide survey, asking a range of questions about how important touch is to people, how much they need it, and how comfortable they are with physical contact.

Researchers will then drill down into the answers to see whether people of varying nationalities, cultures, ages, disabilities, sexualities, and genders feel differently.

While city dwellers may think nothing of being squashed up next to strangers on public transport, the study may show that those who live in the countryside find such close contact intolerable. Or it may show the opposite. 

Experts say it is such a vastly under-researched area, that they are really not sure what the outcome will be. 

They may find that millennials are deeply uncomfortable with close contact following recent sex scandals, but older generations may feel equally awkward at modern displays of affection. 

The study will find out how touching has changed over recent decades  Credit: Getty Images Fee 

Professor Michael Banissy, from Goldsmiths, who helped develop the survey, said: “Touch is a fundamental part of human life. It has been reported that roughly 65 per cent of face-to-face interactions between parents involve tactile communication. 

“With the growth of important movements like #MeToo, it is vital that we are able to gain a contemporary insight into the attitudes and experiences of touch in modern society from diverse groups. 

“This includes knowing if people perceive attitudes to touch have changed over time. We are hoping that the Touch Test will enable us to do this, and will help us to inform new research on what touch means in the modern day.”

Small studies have shown the importance of touch. For example it’s now known that people feel less pain if they are holding hands with their partner, while diners are more likely to tip more if a waiter lightly touches their arm. 

It’s also been proven that people about to give a nerve-wracking public speech can be calmed down by the touch of a loved one. 

The Touch Test online questionnaire which goes live at 9am this morning, will also look into how touch impacts health and wellbeing, and how it relates to empathy, loneliness and the size of social networks.

It will ask whether contemporary society allows people to experience enough touch or leaves people feeling isolated and wanting more. 

And it will seek to find out what kind of physical contact is deemed appropriate or inappropriate in specific settings, such as during a doctor’s consultation or in therapy.

All In The Mind presenter Claudia Hammond  Credit: Rii Schroer, 

Claudia Hammond, BBC presenter and psychology lecturer, who is launching the project on Radio 4’s All In The Mind on January 21, told The Telegraph: “The whole purpose is to do research that would be really hard to do, unless you have this number of people taking part. 

“We're doing things like, do people think we touch enough? Do some people feel that they lack touch, does that make me feel isolated? And how does touch relate to sleep? Does touching help you to get sleep?

“We're going to look at attitudes towards compassion whether that varies for things like age, gender, and other factors.

"It's interesting to know where young people's attitudes to touch for example have changed. Last time we got a whole age range from 18 to 99.

“I think it will be very interesting to see what we find with age differences. Everyone's really confused now as to what they should do and what is appropriate and, so I think this is why it feels like such a contemporary topic to discuss.”

The study will even explore the kinds of materials that people like to touch and the results will be explored in a new BBC series, The Anatomy of Touch, in the autumn, as well as being published in scientific journals. 

The survey was commissioned by the Wellcome Collection, and marks the third scientific collaboration with Radio 4, having previously worked together investigating attitudes towards rest and loneliness, which involved 70,000 people across the world.

Ana Botella, Acting Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection, says “This is the third time we have worked with BBC Radio 4 on a nationwide survey, and each time we discover something new about people’s experiences of health and wellbeing in the 21st century.”

The questionnaire takes between 15 and 40 minutes depending on the answers given and is available at touchtest.org