Effects of sickness manipulation on disgust and pleasantness in interpersonal touch

Research output: Contribution to journalResearch articleContributedpeer-review



The theory of the behavioral immune system (BIS) describes a set of behaviors that protect the individual from infectious diseases and that are motivated by disgust and the perceived vulnerability to disease. As interpersonal touch is one of the most common situations of potential transmission of infectious diseases in our everyday life, it seems likely that being touched by an apparently sick individual activates disgust. Our aim was to determine if risk of contamination from interpersonal touch alters the pleasantness of interpersonal touch and modulates facially expressed emotions. In total, 64 participants received interpersonal stroking by either a healthy or by sick-appearing experimenter. Half the strokes were performed at a slow velocity of 3 cm/s and half at a faster velocity of 30 cm/s, to modulate the degree of C-tactile fiber activation in the touch perceiver. While the experimental sickness manipulation did not influence the reported touch pleasantness, there was a tendency for a diminished expression of happiness in the slow stroking condition. In addition, the desire to clean the arm after stroking correlated positively to disgust sensitivity and to germ aversion, which is a subscale of the perceived vulnerability to disease. Contrary to previous studies, participants did not prefer the slow over the fast stroking velocity, irrespective of sickness induction. Our results lead us to assume that disgust in interpersonal touch depends especially on the touch receiver and we speculate that a rather conservative reactivity of the BIS allows for an adaptive behavioral balance in interpersonal relations. This balance may be needed to weight the risks of contamination against the benefits of interpersonal touch for social interaction.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1454-1465
Number of pages12
JournalPsychological research
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023

External IDs

PubMedCentral PMC9489268
Scopus 85138348919
unpaywall 10.1007/s00426-022-01742-3
Mendeley 323075e0-5db4-30a6-b6e0-e419d87e9641


Sustainable Development Goals


  • Disgust, Humans, Touch Perception/physiology, Touch/physiology, Emotions/physiology, Affect/physiology