Touch of Shock

Cronjager leaned slowly back in his chair and crossed one ankle over his knee and rubbed the ankle bone with his thin nervous hand. --Philip Marlowe, describing Captain Cronjager (who "had the long nervous fingers of a man with a quick brain" [p. 106]) (The Big Sleep, 1939:108)

Tactile sign. 1. The act of establishing physical contact with one's own clothing or body parts (esp. hands to face; see HOMUNCULUS). 2. The act of stimulating one's own tactile receptors for pressure, vibration, heat, cold, smoothness, or pain.

Usage: Like a lie-detector (or polygraph) test, self-touch cues reflect the arousal level of our sympathetic nervous system's fight-or-flight response. We unconsciously touch our bodies when emotions run high to comfort, relieve, or release stress. Lips are favorite places for fingertips to land and deliver reassuring body contact. Self-stimulating behaviors, e.g, a. holding an arm or wrist, b. massaging a hand, and c. scratching, rubbing, or pinching the skin, increase with anxiety and may signal deception, disagreement, fear, or uncertainty.

A personal reflection. I've never understood why self-touch cues have been called "adaptors" (see below: RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. ). To me, such terminology is a form of intellectual obfuscation. Adaptor is a variant form of adapter, the English word for "a device used to effect operative compatibility between different parts of one or more pieces of apparatus" (Soukhanov 1992, p. 19). "Self stimulation" would be a better term, but I still think self-touch is better . . .

Culture. Diverse cultural gestures involve self-touching, as well. In Spain, e.g., holding a single long hair between the thumb and forefinger, and lifting it vertically above the head is a sign of "frustration." "This female gesture is a symbolic way of 'tearing your hair out' when feeling intensely frustrated" (Morris 1994:102).

Ethology. "They are called displacement activities because it was at one time thought that they are triggered by 'nervous energy' overflowing (displaced) from the strongly aroused motivational systems" (Brannigan and Humphries 1969:408).

Evolution. Self-touch cues originated ca. 180 m.y.a. in paleocircuits of the mammalian brain. As gestures, they reveal the body's wisdom in coping, e.g., with stranger anxiety, and with the daily stress of life in Nonverbal World.

Media. Hollywood stars once seemed robotic (i.e., stiff, wooden, and "unreal") until method actors like Marlin Brando and James Dean brought natural self-touch cues to the screen. Brando, e.g., clasped his neck as he groped for words in "The Wild One" (1954). Dean's hand-behind-head gesture in "Giant" (1956) "humanized" the actor (i.e., the squirm cue revealed his vulnerability). Earlier, in The Big Sleep (1946), Humphrey Bogart blazed a trail by fingering his right earlobe with his right hand several times while pondering deep thoughts. (N.B.: As host of The Tonight Show [1962-92], Johnny Carson's boyish tie-fumble made him seem vulnerable, approachable, and friendly.)

Observations. Because self-touch cues reveal emotions (esp. insecurity and uncertainty), they are best avoided while establishing credibility with strangers. 1. In the conference room, a supervisor massages his lower lip with his left hand as he raises his right hand to speak. 2. A child clasps her wrist as she asks mother for a piece of candy. 3. A Brazilian Indian smiles nervously and pinches his abdomen as an anthropologist takes his photo. 4. A CEO bows her head and covers her mouth with her hand as she hears low sales figures for the month. 5. "Greg's most characteristic body movements were automanipulations--join-hands, rub-fingers, hand-to-neck, hand-to-chin--which, when initiated, often were maintained long enough to be considered as postures. The most used automanipulative posture was the hand-to-neck, an activity that involved constant massaging of the throat area" (Givens 1976, p. 128). Greg's self-touching may have interfered with or inhibited the use of palm-up, palm-down, and other natural speaking gestures.

Primatology. "The more intense the anxiety or conflict situation, the more vigorous the scratching becomes. It typically occurred when the chimpanzees are worried or frightened by my presence or that of a high-ranking chimpanzee" (Lawick-Goodall 1968:329 [also recorded in gorillas, baboons, Patas monkeys, and man "under similar circumstances"]).

Salesmanship. One signal of a prospect's skepticism: "Touching the mouth, or masking the mouth with fingers or hand" (Delmar 1984:46).

U.S. politics. 1. "[President Richard M.] Nixon's 'Hand-In-Front-of-Body' [hand] clasp [i.e., holding onto his own wrist below his belt while standing] could have been an anxiety signal" (Blum 1988:4-3). 2. "Holding her own hand [palm-to-palm, thumb-over-thumb, with her elbows flexed at 90 degrees, her upper arms adducted against the sides of her body, and her forearms pulled into her abdomen while standing], Geraldine Ferraro seems to be seeking reassurance" (Blum 1988:4-7).

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. Earlobe-pulling, arm-scratching, and rubbing a worry stone, have been classed as adaptors: "residuals of coping behaviors that were learned very early in life" (Ekman and Friesen 1969:62). 2. Rubbing the face is a reaction to spatial invasion (Sommer 1969). 3. Automanipulation is a sign of "fearfulness" in children (McGrew 1972). 4. Self manipulations increase with stress and disapproval (Rosenfeld 1973). 5. Hand self-manipulations increase as Japanese subjects gaze into an interviewer's eyes, "reflecting the upsetting effects" of eye-to-eye contact (Bond and Komai 1976:1276). 6. "When excessive distraction through sensory overload occurs, as in the isolated schizophrenic patients, continuous and repetitive rubbing of one hand upon the other helps filter the overload by narrowing attention" (Grand 1977:206). 7. Motherless rhesus monkeys suck thumbs or toes, clasp themselves, engage in head-banging, and show "symptoms similar to disturbed mental patients" (Pugh 1977:200). 8. Self-orality, self-clasping, and self-grasping are common signs in motherless rhesus monkeys reared in isolation (Suomi 1977). 9. "Body-focused hand movements are arguably one of the most common types of nonverbal behavior produced by humans" (Kenner 1993:274). 10. "Tactile stimulation may also serve a calming or reassuring function when it is self-directed" (Goodall 1986:125). 11. In public speaking, the most common touch may be finger-to-hand (Kenner 1993). 12. "Unconscious face-touching gestures indicate disbelief in what is being said by the companion" (Morris 1994:31). Because the listener feels a mental conflict in voicing his disagreement, he performs "a minor act of self-comfort" (Morris 1994:31). 13. Self-clasping gestures (along with upper-body rocking for comfort [see BALANCE CUE]) are signs given by Romanian children raised in orphanages of the 1980s-90s (Blakeslee 1995). 14. Numerous ". . . studies [conducted in the early 1970s] indicate that in humans automanipulation occurs characteristically in nervous or aversive social contexts and in situations of personal confusion or uncertainty. Interpreted from the standpoint of social significance, automanipulation would seem to be also an expression of submissiveness, of relative uncertainty vis-a-vis the partner. Clearly, this is the case in children. In adults the behavior signals a possible lack of confidence, and as such it might be interpreted as a 'submissive-like' activity" (Givens1976, pp. 55-6).

E-Commentary I: "Baboons have a gesture called a 'muzzle wipe' in which they wipe their hand across the bridge of the nose. This is done in non-relaxed contexts. I'd describe it as their being 'puzzled' or 'ambivalent' or 'startled' or 'nervous' or 'uncertain,' etc." --Janette Wallis, Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (6/7/00 9:18:31 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

E-Commentary II: "I am a Registered Nurse, male, and have recently noticed a frequently repeated body motion in women that I and other male nurses work with. It occurs when a taller male gets close (within three feet) of a woman. She may or may not be the one who starts the conversation, but it is usually about a work related item, and is non-threatening in its content. Many women lean backward a little, pull the vest fronts of their uniform jackets with both hands in a forward and centering motion and then lean into the motion a little. It looks more like a defensive than an offensive gesture, but we are not sure. Can you shed some light on this?" (5/27/01 11:32:15 AM Pacific Daylight Time)

E-Commentary III: "I have noticed a behavior that has my attention. At a bar I noticed a young women with her spouse who was giving very little attention to her spouse. She continued to look away but would constantly twist her hair. At school during class, I watched a young 14 year old girl with approximately the same uninterested behavior doing the same thing to her hair. I would be interested your response to this behavior the hair twisting problem." (3/12/02 6:31:41 PM Pacific Standard Time) [Thanks very much for your e-mail. Yes, the hair-twisting you describe often occurs in absent-minded disengagement from partners or in self-absorbed thought. It is a form of self-touching. Both men and women use the hair-twist to space out from those around them. I hope this helps. --David Givens]

Neuro-notes. Apparently trivial self-touch gestures help us calm our nerves. Physical contact with a body part stimulates tactile nerve endings and refocuses our orienting attention inward, i.e., away from stressful events "out there." Self-touch works on the physiological principle of acupressure massage or shiatsu. Massaging the right hand, e.g., takes attention from the left, and vice-versa. Catching the thumb in a drawer, e.g., we may vigorously rub its nerve endings to compete with the brain's awareness of pain. Because the forebrain's thalamus cannot process all incoming signals at once, self-touch reduces anxiety much as it blocks pain.


Copyright 1998 - 2016 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Photo of bilateral hand-to-face movements (in shock) and jaw-droops (in surprise; picture credit: unknown)