Columbia B-School Research: "Maternal" Touch Affects Risk Taking in Adults

Last Updated Apr 4, 2010 11:27 PM EDT

When is the last time you gave an employee a pat on the back -- literally? New research from Columbia Business School finds that this simple reassuring touch can encourage people to take risks they would not be inclined to take otherwise.

A recent Columbia Ideas at Work article examined the research of CBS professor Jonathan Levav, along with Jennifer J. Argo of the University of Alberta, who conducted a series of experiments to figure out how touch affects risk taking in adult subjects. Much research has documented that both human and animal infants feel more secure and are willing to take more risks when they have more physical contact with their mother.

So does the maternal touch still affect adults? Levav and Argo put participants in a series of situations in which they chose whether or not to take a financial risk. Some received a pat on the back from a woman, others received a pat on the back from a man, some received handshakes and others received no touch at all. Here's what they found:

  • It's all about a woman's touch: Apparently, the effects of a maternal touch go beyond infants. In the first experiment, subjects who received a pat on the back from a woman made the riskier choice 50 percent more often than those not receiving the pat.
  • Sorry, men: Receiving a pat on the back from a man didn't significantly affect subject's risk-taking behaviors.
  • Some touches are more reassuring than others: Receiving a handshake from a man or a woman had no effect on risk taking.
According to Levav, the research has far-reaching implications from how you manage people to how you sell them new products.

"Certain new products are often perceived as more risky," Levav said in the article. "Can you prompt people to consider a new product they otherwise would have overlooked, simply by making them feel more secure?"

It seems the answer may be yes -- provided you have a female salesperson with a maternal touch.

Image courtesy of Flickr user evhoffman, CC 2.0.

  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.