In touch with your emotions: Oxytocin and touch change social impressions while others’ facial expressions can alter touch
Interpersonal touch is frequently used for communicating emotions, strengthen social bonds and to give others pleasure. The neuropeptide oxytocin increases social interest, improves recognition of others’ emotions, and it is released during touch. Here, we investigated how oxytocin and gentle human touch affect social impressions of others, and vice versa, how others’ facial expressions and oxytocin affect touch experience. In a placebo-controlled crossover study using intranasal oxytocin, 40 healthy volunteers viewed faces with different facial expressions along with concomitant gentle human touch or control machine touch, while pupil diameter was monitored. After each stimulus pair, participants rated the perceived friendliness and attractiveness of the faces, perceived facial expression, or pleasantness and intensity of the touch. After intranasal oxytocin treatment, gentle human touch had a sharpening effect on social evaluations of others relative to machine touch, such that frowning faces were rated as less friendly and attractive, whereas smiling faces were rated as more friendly and attractive. Conversely, smiling faces increased, whereas frowning faces reduced, pleasantness of concomitant touch - the latter effect being stronger for human touch. Oxytocin did not alter touch pleasantness. Pupillary responses, a measure of attentional allocation, were larger to human touch than to equally intense machine touch, especially when paired with a smiling face. Overall, our results point to mechanisms important for human affiliation and social bond formation.
Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2014, 39, 11-20