Can’t touch this: The psychological effects of functional intimacy

New study finds that people desire social distance when in situations that require a professional’s touch.

Whether a nurse is prepping you for a shot at the doctor’s office or you are being patted down at the airport before catching a flight, functionally intimate situations are often unavoidable. While being touched in these professional settings might be necessary for your health or safety, the sensation of being touched by a stranger is obviously very different than being touched by a lover or friend.

How do people react when in these situations of unavoidable functional intimacy?

Ayelet Fishbach

In “Functional Intimacy: Needing—But Not Wanting—the Touch of a Stranger,” to be published in the forthcoming Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, University of Chicago Booth School of Business Professor Ayelet Fishbach explores the discomfort felt in a situation that requires functional intimacy, and shows that this discomfort leads recipients to want social distance from the intimacy-provider. This can negatively affect the service providers involved.

“When we stop smiling, talking, or looking at the nurses, cleaners, and TSA officials who serve us, we feel better but they likely feel worse—with potential costs to us for achieving our goals,” Fishbach said.

Fishbach teamed up with UC Berkeley’s Juliana Schroeder and University of North Carolina’s Chelsea Schein and Kurt Gray to conduct several experiments requiring intimate interactions.

“When recipients of functional intimacy act socially distant, it will lead service providers to feel isolated, potentially harming their future well-being,” Fishbach said. These service providers even “report feeling more dehumanized, and report more stress and burnout,” she said. The researchers used vignettes, a lab-based pulse-taking exercise, a medical procedure, and a hand-holding experiment to explore the effects of physical and psychological functional intimacy. After conducting this variety of experiments, they found that intimacy in close relationships has a much different impact on a person than intimacy experienced in professional settings.

“Functional intimacy induces discomfort, making people prefer greater social distance from their interaction partner,” said Fishbach. “Whereas intimacy for relational goals typically increases well-being and deepens social connection, intimacy for functional goals seems to produce discomfort and instead result in social distancing.”

For example, if you are being willingly touched by a romantic partner, you are likely to react positively and enjoy the experience. You are also more likely to socialize, since the intimacy you experience together is a result of your emotional closeness.

On the other hand, if you are being touched by a security guard at the airport, you do not have any sort of emotional connection or history to share.

“Submitting yourself to being ‘intimately groped’ by strangers at airport security is at odds with normal human emotion,” Fishbach said. Therefore, in an act of discomfort, you are more likely to recoil, divert your eyes and experience visibly negative emotions.

The study presents a novel point of view for both service providers and service recipients. Perhaps customers and patients can show more empathy for the professionals they are forced to be intimate with. Likewise, service providers can make their customers or patients more comfortable in an effort to establish a more positive social connection. Otherwise, both parties will suffer.