A Touch of Risk

A light touch can go a long way. Professor Jonathan Levav finds that a mere pat on the back makes people feel more secure — and increases the likelihood that they will take financial risks.
March 26, 2010
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The effect of maternal touch appears to be so fundamental that it can be observed even in spiderlings, which venture farther afield the more contact they have with their mothers. Developmental psychologists have found that infants across the animal kingdom are healthier, more responsive to sights, sounds and smells, and more likely to explore the farther bounds of their environments the more they have experienced their mother’s touch. Some psychologists have suggested that feelings of security engendered by touch — and maternal touch in particular — prompt infants to feel safe enough to take on the unfamiliar. For babies, security facilitates risk taking.

But does the same hold true for adults? Researchers have not explored that question, but evidence increasingly suggests that decisions once thought to be driven by rational processes — such as those with financial implications — appear to be guided as much or more by subjective, emotional processes — many of which decision makers are often not aware of.

Professor Jonathan Levav, whose past research has explored some of the connections between emotion, judgment and decision making, worked with Jennifer J. Argo of the University of Alberta to design a series of experiments aimed at learning whether touch intensifies feelings of security in adults. “For adults, a common form of risk is in financial decisions,” Levav says. Would physical contact make people more likely to make riskier financial choices?

In the first experiment, a woman showed subjects to their seats while lightly — and fleetingly — touching the back of their shoulder. Once seated, subjects were asked to make a series of decisions about whether they would prefer to receive a set amount of money or gamble for the chance to win more money (if they lost the gamble they would get nothing). A second group of subjects was asked to make the same set of choices between a sure thing and a gamble but were not touched.

The effect of the touch was notable: people who received a light pat on the back chose the riskier option 50 percent more often than those who received no touch.

The researchers also wanted to learn how much the type and origin of a touch mattered. Would a handshake produce the same effect as a pat on the back? Would subjects react similarly when touched by a man? In a second experiment researchers gave a new group of subjects $5 each to invest in a real company (stripped of its identifying features); the money paid off as if it had been invested some months in the past based on the company’s current value. Subjects could also choose to put some or all of the money in a less lucrative but also less risky government-insured contract that guaranteed a 4 percent return.

The body of research that links maternal touch to security does not document an association between security and male touch, and as expected the researchers saw no effect on subjects who got a handshake or a touch on the back from men. Nor did the researchers expect to see much of an effect on subjects who received a handshake — a far less comforting gesture than a pat on the back — from a woman, and they were correct: there was only a very small increase in risk taking in that group. But parallel to the first experiment, subjects who were touched on the back by a female were much more likely to choose the riskier stock investment.

In a final experiment, the researchers primed subjects by asking them to write an essay about a time they felt secure or insecure. Subjects then moved on to what they believed was another experiment entirely, where, as in the previous experiment, they were given a small amount of money to invest. A female experimenter greeted participants at the entrance and either touched them or did not touch on the back of the shoulder, as in the previous experiments.

“If the feeling of security really is the thing causing people to take on more risk,” Levav says, “then people who wrote about feeling insecure and who were not touched should be really risk-averse — which they were.” Subjects who wrote about feeling insecure but were touched, however, were just as risk-seeking as those who wrote about feeling secure. Among the subjects who wrote about feeling secure, those who were touched were even (slightly) more risk-taking, but not significantly so.

While only a touch from a female experimenter increased risk taking, the effect of the touch was equal whether the receiver was male or female in all of the experiments.

Encouraging individuals to take on greater financial risk is unlikely to be a popular undertaking on the heels of a recession that has often been attributed to excessive risk taking. But the researchers’ findings extend far beyond financial decision making.

“For example, certain new products are often perceived as more risky,” Levav says. “Can you prompt people to consider a new product they otherwise would have overlooked, simply by making them feel more secure?”

The findings also provide insight on what it takes to reassure people. It doesn’t take a lot, Levav says. “It’s very subtle — a lot of people didn’t remember being touched. You can make people feel secure with very little effort.”

Jonathan Levav is the Class of 1967 Associate Professor of Business in the Marketing Division at Columbia Business School.

Jonathan Levav

Jonathan Levav was a Columbia Business School faculty member from 2003 to 2012.