Personality Type and Physical Contact

Physical contact is a primitive and powerful form of communication. Sometimes physical contact can be a mild, but articulate, gesture: friends might greet each other with a hug, or a parent might stroke the hair of a sick child to soothe them. Sometimes it’s more intense, like sexual intimacy or a violent altercation. Physical contact amplifies whatever meaning we’re trying to communicate and can provoke deep emotional responses, both good and bad. That’s what makes it so powerful and useful, and indeed so commonplace that we often take it for granted.

But what if some of us are less sensitive to this sometimes subtle method of communication, or don’t know how to interpret it emotionally? Although there may be many cultural or environmental factors behind our different reactions to touch, we wanted to investigate the role of personality type. We asked our readers to agree or disagree with the statement, “Physical contact with others does not provoke an emotional response in you.” An overall minority (29%) agreed, but the results indicated some notable correlations to various personality traits.

The likelihood of respondents to agree that they don’t react emotionally to physical contact revolved primarily around the Nature aspect. Let’s explore the results in further detail below.

Roles

Analysts (40% agreeing)

Analyst personality types agreed at by far the highest rate that they don’t experience emotional responses to physical contact – a result no doubt determined by their core Thinking trait. Our survey showed just a 1% variation between the Intuitive, Observant, Judging, and Prospecting traits. Readers with the Thinking personality trait, however, were 18% more likely to agree than those with the Feeling trait. The Nature aspect deals in part with how we cope with emotions, so it’s no surprise that how we react to physical contact depends primarily upon whether we are Thinking or Feeling types.

Although most Analysts indicated that they do in fact experience an emotional response to physical contact, a significant portion experience something of a disconnect. Favoring rationality and objectivity over emotion, Thinking personality types (and Analysts especially) simply interpret information differently from others, whether that information is being communicated through language or through physical touch. They’re likely to take a physical gesture literally, perhaps reading a handshake from a business client as simple confirmation of a deal rather than as the client’s desire to express warmth, enthusiasm, or gratitude. An Analyst personality may, in turn, appreciate the gesture, but they perceive the meaning logically, rather than feeling it emotionally.

Explorers and Sentinels (29% and 26%)

Since the Explorer and Sentinel Roles include both Thinking and Feeling personality types, we saw more variation in their responses. Indeed, Virtuosos (ISTP) (42%) and Logisticians (ISTJ) (39%) agreed at rates comparable to Analysts, while the responses of Adventurers (ISFP) (22%) and Consuls (ESFJ) (21%) were more in line with the Diplomat Role.

Despite these differences, Explorers and Sentinels both tend to be more people-oriented and open to connecting with others than Analyst personalities are, which explains why, as a group, they’re more in touch with the emotional aspect of physical contact. Even so, Explorers and Sentinels are also very practically minded, and their down-to-earth approach to life keeps them from getting as deeply involved with their emotions as the members of our final Role, the Diplomats.

Diplomats (20%)

Among Diplomats, we can see the powerful influence of the Feeling trait – the other side of the Nature coin. Feeling personality types are not merely more sensitive to emotional cues than Thinking types are – they also filter their experiences through their emotions first, bringing in rationality and practicality only after they’ve considered not just their own feelings, but the feelings of those around them too.

Thus, Feeling types, and Diplomat personalities most of all, will interpret a brush of the hand or a clap on the back as not just a physical gesture, but as an expression of some deeper emotion. Diplomats will also be better at sensing when greeting someone with a hug or comforting them with a hand on their shoulder would make that person more uncomfortable than anything else.

Strategies

Confident Individualism and People Mastery (35% and 30% agreeing)

It might be surprising to learn that the Mind aspect has very little to do with whether we respond emotionally to physical contact. Since some sort of social interaction must take place in order for physical contact to occur, one might assume that Extraverted personality types would be pleased with or energized by the emotional messages that physical contact can convey, while Introverts would be stressed out by physical contact and having to interpret the emotional cues of others. But keep in mind that both pleasure and stress are emotional reactions, so Extraverts and Introverts are equally prone to responding emotionally to touch. In fact, there was just a 1% difference in the results of the Extraverted and Introverted personality traits in our survey.

The Identity aspect, on the other hand, played a more critical role, with Assertive personality types being 9% more likely to agree with our statement than Turbulent types. Confident Individualists and People Masters are generally self-assured and, therefore, not as emotionally needy as their Turbulent counterparts can be. These personalities probably don’t attach as much meaning to physical contact either. They’re rarely concerned with what others think about them, so even if they have an initial emotional reaction to physical contact, they’re less likely to get wrapped up in the deeper emotional subtext.

This is especially true of Assertive Architects (INTJ-A), who agreed with our statement at the highest rate of any personality type (49%). As fiercely independent Confident Individualists and highly logical Analysts, Assertive Architects are simply more interested in their own projects and ideas than in the physical contact that may come with everyday social interactions. Their perceptions are less tuned to emotional wavelengths.

Constant Improvement and Social Engagement (24% and 23%)

As Turbulent personality types, Constant Improvers and Social Engagers are more emotionally sensitive than their Assertive counterparts, and that includes being more likely to feel an emotional response when touched. It should be noted that while reacting emotionally to physical contact is one thing, dwelling on what that physical contact might mean is quite another, and that’s where Turbulent types can sometimes find themselves in trouble. They may second-guess whether they’ve interpreted another’s touch correctly: Was that push on my shoulder good-natured or aggressive? Was that a friendly hug or something more? These are questions not likely to plague an Assertive personality type.

Turbulent Consuls (ESFJ-T) agreed at the lowest rate of any personality type (17%). With their strong Feeling trait, these Social Engagers are very attuned to the feelings of others, and are apparently also quite open to their own emotional responses to physical contact. Consuls thrive on personal relationships, supporting their friends and family members however they can. Physical gestures are just one way in which they spread their positive energy to others.

Conclusions

From the personality perspective, the Nature and Identity aspects are surely the greatest factors in whether physical contact provokes an emotional response in us. Thinking personality types may find themselves struggling to connect with others, while Feeling types, in tune with their emotions and perceptive to the meaning behind physical gestures, can more easily relate to others. Those with Turbulent Identities are even more likely to be moved by physical touch, as these personalities constantly evaluate themselves and their interactions with others.

While the majority of us may be emotionally sensitive to physical contact, it’s important to recognize that those who are not, or those who seem unwilling to reciprocate, are probably not cold, unfeeling people. They’re just interpreting the world around them differently and placing their priorities elsewhere. With better interpersonal understanding, these people will likely find their own ways of expressing their emotions.

What about you? Does physical contact with others produce an emotional response in you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

You can see the full set of data, including correlation coefficients, in the Academy. Please also consider participating in our Member Surveys!

6 months ago
As an INTP, I have an emotional response; I tense up, get extremely awkward, and stay as far away as possible. I don't like physical contact, no matter how well I know the person.
7 months ago
ISTJ-A and I do react emotionally, but not pleasure, more stress. I really do not like people in my personal space. I do not like shaking hands or even standing too close to someone in a queue.
9 months ago
ENTP-T here. Physical contact does provoke a strong emotional response in me - I can't take it. I have a meter-wide personal space, I flinch when someone comes near me, I start silently panicking if someone stands too close. I haven't had a remotely abusive childhood or anything, it's just me. Any ideas why?
9 months ago
My boyfriend is INTP-T, and he hates it when people touch him as well. I think xNTPs (and perhaps xNTJs) feel more comfortable interacting with others through words and intellect than through something so nebulous as touch. Add the Turbulent trait into the mix, and you have someone who constantly wonders “what did they mean by that when they touched my shoulder?!”
9 months ago
Actually, physical contacts do trigger my emotional response. When people hug me, I wanna stay away from them! :) On a serious note, gentle physical contacts make me feel happy sometimes, such as cuddling a baby or getting a head massage. It must be because I have too little physical contact, I rarely hug my parents, even.
9 months ago
Despite having a strong thinking trait and being assertive I am comparatively touchy. If, for example a friend or someone who I would like to have as a friend sits right next to me it won't bother me, unless I'm doing something that could be hindered by it. I also do things like brushing my moms hair that many people might consider a bit weird.
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