Psychologists and marketers thought they had touch all figured out, both as a sense and as an action. Then came COVID-19
Before touch became toxic, it was how we navigated the consumer world.
Touch was how you chose things, from swiping right on a Tinder date and scrolling through Netflix shows to ordering McDonald’s on the public touch screen with extra touching for extra pickles, or simply checking out of the grocery store with a card.
This behaviour is likely to be majorly disrupted in whatever world comes next.
Now, you are not even supposed to touch your own face, let alone any public railing, probably sticky as ever with viral memories of grease, phlegm and even fecal matter. Public touch screens are out entirely. You might as well share needles, but it is hard to navigate the world as it is without tapping or swiping where someone else just did.
Social distance, in these moments, fails to protect against what others may have left behind.
An early scientific test of how long the novel coronavirus lasts in airborne sneeze droplets and on various surfaces showed the virus was “more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard, and viable virus was detected up to 72 hours after application to these surfaces,” according to a team led by Neeltje van Doremalen of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Montana. “The longest viability of both viruses was on stainless steel and plastic; the estimated median half-life of SARS-CoV-2 was approximately 5.6 hours on stainless steel and 6.8 hours on plastic.”
Playground equipment, shopping carts, gas nozzles, elevator buttons, door handles, and airport benches are not “petri dishes,” as the newly current metaphor goes. Petri dishes are for growing bacteria and other organisms. They are special, active, delicately balanced life-support technology. The surfaces people normally touch are not like that. The surfaces of daily life do not incubate or support viral replication, as living organisms do. They simply preserve viruses in whatever muck is smeared on them by someone else’s fingers.
Eventually, the viruses will disintegrate under the pressures of ultraviolet light, cleaning, or other decay. In the meantime, however, every point of shared contact — especially a public touchscreen — is, as AC/DC put it in a saucier context, “a touch too much.”
Until the pandemic, psychologists and marketers acted like they had touch all figured out, both as a sense and as an action. There was a synergy here between technology and human nature. Like neuromarketing before it, so-called haptic marketing stole a buzzy concept from cognitive psychology to sell stuff through the mysterious power of touch. But also like neuromarketing, they were on to something.
Simple touch was what gave luxury retailers an advantage over online. It was why Apple products were out on display for everyone to handle. But it was the touch screen that changed the culture, and brought the new economy to the tips of everyone’s fingers.
Touching gives a sensory frisson that a keyboard never could, a more intimate sense of control over the world
Point and click, once the gold standard of online convenience, started looking as old as a wired mouse. A truly modern consumer decision is now made via a series of taps and swipes in simply designed apps. Touching, not typing, is the natural digital language.
Touching gives a sensory frisson that a keyboard never could, a more intimate sense of control over the world. Consumer research has shown that touch screen interfaces “can increase perceived psychological ownership,” so simply by touching the virtual button on the screen, you may feel more invested.
Another study showed a direct touch interface, as compared to a mouse, increased the number of alternatives people searched on a travel website and biased their evaluations toward “tangible” features like furniture over “intangible” features like WiFi.
The idea is that touch screens are an extension of the self in a way that desktops and laptops never were. You think differently when you touch, and your touching leaves the mark of your mind imprinted in digital code. That is the promise of the theory, anyway.
Researchers studied whether patterns of screen touching predict human emotion, as if swipes were symbols, secretly expressing human feelings from desire to disgust. They studied the effect on the mind of tapping the finger.
“Touching an object on a screen is a direct visual metaphor for the act of touching content itself, similar to touching an object in the real world, when compared to the more indirect touch of using a mouse or trackpad to control screen content. Merely imagining touching an object activates imagery processing, which in turn cues mental simulation of that object’s behavior; in essence, simulated or imagined touch generates effects highly similar to actual touch,” wrote Boston College researchers S. Adam Brasel, an associate professor of marketing, and the late James Gips, a computer scientist focused on assistive technologies.
Children grew up with this new style of decision-making, and took to it like orchestra conductors, swiping fingerprints on old televisions, expecting them to react. Not since the invention of the flicker has screen technology presented itself so differently to its juvenile audience. The same finger that just picked boogers can now pick season and episode on Netflix.
That is exactly the problem. Touch was the way of the modern commercial future. But then touch went toxic as a viral vector.
It can be hard to drive that point home on a societal scale. The frailties of the touch economy did not advertise themselves in advance. There were hints of a momentum beyond touch, such as the touchless tap in which a machine can simply read your card, or your phone, or watch. It does not solve every viral epidemiological problem associated with being a consumer in public, but it does solve one of them. The rest are still up in the air, with the sneeze droplets, as the world locks down.
This revolution of touch and its commercial impact is the culmination of many years of diverse research, failed starts, and now a pandemic. But it owes at least a small debt to the 20th century psychologist Sidney Jourard, a Torontonian who became a professor at various universities in the southern United States.
His interest was on touch in the therapeutic context, as it related to self-disclosure and emotional intimacy. “Touching is believing,” as he put it. But he also did an informal experiment that has become something of a myth about how touch functions across cultures as a human social connector, which today has a terrifying new relevance.
It started in Puerto Rico, where Jourard observed friends talking in a cafe, and counted the frequency of their touches. He did the same again in London, Paris, and in Gainesville, Florida. He found that, in an hour, the Americans touched each other twice, the English not at all, the French 110 times, and the Puerto Ricans 180 times.
It was not randomized, and more for fun than science, but the moral is as clear today in the age of swipe and tap as it was when Jourard was working in the 1960s. For many of us, some of this touching behaviour is close to our souls, and it will be hard to break.
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