Control Touch: Persuading and Directing Others

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  • Touch is a powerful tool in our nonverbal communication arsenal. A simple handshake can convey confidence or nervousness, a hug can offer comfort or express excitement. But touch can also be used to exert control, sending subtle (or not-so-subtle) messages about power dynamics in a relationship. This blog post will delve into the world of "control touch," exploring how we use touch to influence and take charge in interactions.

What is Control Touch?

Control touch, at its essence, encompasses the intentional use of physical contact to influence, regulate, or manipulate a situation or individual. Unlike spontaneous or affectionate touch, which typically arises from genuine emotion or connection, control touch is strategic and purposeful. It serves as a tool for asserting dominance, establishing boundaries, or conveying authority in various social contexts.

Control touches are specific types of touch used to influence the behavior, attitude, or emotions of another person. These touches can serve a persuasive function, encouraging someone to comply with a request.

For example, Yarbrough and Jones (1985) describe a scenario where a boss places a hand on an employee's shoulder while asking, "Can you get this done by 5 PM?" The touch emphasizes the importance of the task and potentially increases the likelihood of compliance. Research by Segrin (1993) suggests such control touches can indeed be persuasive.

Control touches can also be used to gain someone's attention and shift their focus. Imagine tapping your friend on the shoulder and saying, "Look at that!" (Jones & Yarbrough, 1985). This tactic seems particularly common among children, as Guerrero and Ebesu's (1993) study found young children frequently used pats on the back or arm to get attention.

Forms and Manifestations

Control touch manifests in myriad forms, each carrying its own nuances and implications. From subtle gestures to more overt displays, it permeates interpersonal interactions in both subtle and conspicuous ways. Examples include:

  1. Power Plays: In hierarchical settings such as workplaces or social gatherings, individuals may employ control touch to assert dominance or assert their authority. A firm handshake, a pat on the back, or a guiding hand on the shoulder can subtly communicate status and command respect.
  2. Boundary Setting: Control touch also serves as a means of delineating personal space and setting boundaries. A slight lean back, a gentle retraction from an encroaching touch, or a strategic placement of hands can signal discomfort or establish limits without the need for verbal communication.
  3. Manipulative Tactics: In interpersonal relationships, control touch can be wielded as a manipulative tool to influence behavior or elicit a desired response. Whether it's a comforting embrace used to placate or a calculated withholding of physical affection to exert control, these tactics underscore the intricate dance of power dynamics in human interaction.
  4. Deception and Subterfuge: Control touch is not always overt; it can also cloak deceptive intentions or hidden agendas. A seemingly innocuous pat on the arm accompanied by false reassurance or a subtle squeeze of the hand to convey solidarity may mask ulterior motives or conceal true feelings.

The Psychology Behind Control Touch

Understanding the psychology behind control touch unveils its profound impact on interpersonal dynamics. Human beings are wired to crave connection and belonging, and touch serves as a primal means of forging bonds and fostering trust. However, the manipulation of this instinctive need for physical contact underscores the darker facets of control touch. Whether it's leveraging touch to establish dominance, exploit vulnerability, or manipulate emotions, the psychological implications are profound.

Implications and Ethical Considerations

As with any form of nonverbal communication, the ethical implications of control touch are complex and multifaceted. While it can be a legitimate tool for asserting authority or setting boundaries, its misuse can veer into manipulation or coercion. Recognizing the fine line between genuine connection and calculated manipulation is paramount in navigating the ethical landscape of control touch.


Control touch can be a powerful tool for communication, but it's important to use it with caution. By being mindful of context, cultural norms, and the other person's comfort level, you can ensure that your touch is sending the message you intend. In the next part of this blog post, we'll explore the potential downsides of control touch and how to navigate situations where it might be unwanted.

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  • References
    • Nonverbal Communication, Interaction, and Gesture: Selections from SEMIOTICA, edited by Adam Kendon, Thomas A. Sebeok, Jean Umiker-Sebeok

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