A friendly touch relieves, a cold touch frightens: Social support during instructed fear of shock

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date


Publication Title

2021 virtual convention of the Association for Psychological Science





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During the COVID-19 pandemic, the necessity of physical touch for human well-being has become ever more evident. Psychopathic meanness—involving Malice (a misuse of others and disregard for their rights), Coldness (an unempathetic disconnection from others), or Imperviousness (a lack of socially mediated negative emotions)—might reduce this benefit. A sample of 83 undergraduate participants were instructed that they would be shocked during 20% of letters of one color and shocked during 0% of letters in another color. During one block of trials, a friend sat behind the participant and put their right hand on the participant’s left shoulder; in the other block, the participant was left alone. Startle blink and postauricular reflexes were collected to assess defensive and positive emotional processing, respectively. Startle blink magnitude was larger during threat of shock than during safety, F(1, 74) = 5.45, p = .022, d = .27. It was also smaller with a friend than when alone, F(1, 74) = 8.06, p = .006, d = −.33. Conversely, postauricular reflex magnitude was larger with a friend than when alone, F(1, 72) = 19.1, p < .001, d = .51. Participants' meanness scores did not correlate with reflex magnitude differences between the alone and friend conditions, |r|s < .15, ps > .22. However, friends' levels of Coldness correlated with larger startle blink with the friend than when alone, r(55) = .33, p = .009 (Malice and Imperviousness |r|s < .12, ps > .38). Thus, the touch of a friend higher in Coldness heightens defensive reactivity without reducing benefits of social support.

Controlled Subject

COVID-19 (Disease); Psychopaths


Immunology and Infectious Disease

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