Power of Touch: Subtle Gestures Can Boost Performance, Study Shows

Study shows that even the smallest human touches can make a positive impact.

ByABC News
June 9, 2011, 2:56 PM

June 9, 2011— -- A touch of the hand, a pat on the back, a hug: These small physical gestures might not seem like much, but they have opened up a window into a powerful, primal language in some unusual places, according to researchers.

Like on the floor of the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, where the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks met for Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

Go back and watch the end of that game, not through the lens of who is winning or losing, but watch how the players interact and touch each other.

In one telling moment from near the end of the game, Miami Heat star Chris Bosh makes a bad play turning over the ball. He's visibly unhappy, and says something to teammate Dwayne Wade. Then, when he's back on defense, he gives Wade a reassuring pat. And then another one.

Two social psychologists from the University of California-Berkeley, both avid basketball players themselves, recently analyzed 90 hours of televised professional play. They looked at every team and every player in the league, taking note of what they determined to be 15 kinds of touch, including hugs, high fives and even flying shoulder bumps.

Their conclusion: The teams that touch the most win the most.

Professor Dacher Keltner, the author of "Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life," a book about Keltner's research on human evolution, helped lead the study on the science of touch.

"Touch instills trust," he said. "It contagiously spreads good will. It makes players play better on behalf of each other."

What's more, the study showed that individual players who touched the most performed the best. Bosh was the second touchiest player in the league, and a top performer, according to the findings.

"I think it's just all about encouragement," he said. "You feel a little better when you make a good play and somebody pats you on the back and tells you, 'Good job,' or you know, they kind of bring you out of your shell for one and it's good for the team."

Researchers say touch can trigger the release of oxytocin, a chemical that induces trust. It can also light up the brain's reward centers and lower the heart rate.

And it's not just basketball players who benefit.

Find out more of the results from the science of touch study, including how to wield the power of touch to your advantage, in ABC News' Dan Harris' report for "Nightline" here.