American Adolescents Touch Each Other Less And Are More Aggressive Toward Their Peers As Compared With French Adolescents

American Adolescents Touch Each Other Less And Are More Aggressive Toward Their Peers As Compared With French Adolescents – Statistical Data Included

Tiffany Field


Forty adolescents were observed at McDonald’s restaurants in Paris and Miami to assess the amount of touching and aggression during their peer interactions. The American adolescents spent less time leaning against, stroking, kissing, and hugging their peers than did the French adolescents. Instead, they showed more self-touching and more aggressive verbal and physical behavior.

Touching has become taboo in the American school system. Elementary and high school teachers have been warned not to touch children because of potential litigation stemming from accusations of sexual abuse (Mazur & Pekor, 1985). There also may be less touching among the students themselves.

In two pilot studies on touching and aggression in same-sex and opposite-sex peer interactions in Miami, very little touching was noted. The first study involved 12-year-olds interacting with their best friends versus acquaintances in face-to-face conversations (Field et al., 1992). Although the pairs sat very close together, touching was noted between best friends only 2% of the time. In a subsequent study on high school juniors and seniors, little touching was noted between same-sex peers (3%) or opposite-sex peers (7%), even when they were close friends (McBride & Field, 1997). The low amounts of touching in these studies was surprising, given the high levels of physical intimacy reported among U.S. students.

Research suggests that touch deprivation in early development and again in adolescence may contribute to violence in adults. Prescott (1990) found that cultures in which there was more physical affection toward young children had lower rates of adult physical violence, and vice versa. Further, the amount of touching that occurs in different cultures is highly variable. Jourard (1966) studied touching behavior in several countries; couples were observed sitting in cafes for 30-minute periods, and the amount of touching between them was recorded. Among the highest touch cultures was France (110 times per 30 minutes), while the U.S. was among the lowest (2 times per 30 minutes). Interestingly, high-touch cultures have relatively low rates of violence, and low-touch cultures have extremely high rates of youth and adult violence. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (Centers for Disease Control, 1994) reported that the homicide rate of males 15-24 years of age was 1 per 100,000 population in Fran ce and 22 per 100,000 in the U.S.

To assess cross-cultural differences in touching and aggression among adolescents, a pilot study was conducted with adolescents who were “hanging out” at McDonald’s restaurants in Paris and in the U.S. (Field, 1997). In the Paris restaurants, significantly more peer touching was noted (such as leaning on a peer, casually rubbing a peer’s back while talking, hanging an arm around another’s shoulder, and leaning a head on another’s shoulder) in both same-sex and opposite-sex interactions. In contrast, the U.S. sample exhibited more self-touch behavior (such as playing with rings on fingers, wringing hands, twirling hair, rubbing their own limbs, wrapping arms around themselves, cracking knuckles, biting lips, and in general showing a lot of fidgeting) and more aggressive verbal and physical activity (including hitting, pushing, and knocking others down). The samples were small, but they suggest that French adolescents engage in more peer-touch behavior, while American adolescents engage in greater self-touch b ehavior. The more aggressive verbal and physical activity among the American adolescents also suggests that touching among the French adolescents may have attenuated aggressive behavior during their interactions. Observing more friendly touching and less aggressive behavior in the same context among the French may provide stronger evidence of a “more touch/less aggression” relationship than does the more global observation made by Prescott (1990) that more aggression and violence occurs in societies with less touching.

The present study addressed the question of whether French adolescents are like their adult counterparts and touch each other more during face-to-face interactions than do American adolescents. Further, it was hypothesized that there would be less aggression in interactions that featured more touching. As was noted in the pilot study, touching among French adolescents is much more other-directed, while touching among American adolescents is more self-directed. Having observed less verbal and nonverbal aggressive behavior among the French adolescents, it is suggested that their touching each other may have attenuated aggression. The present study addressed these questions through observations of a larger sample of adolescents over a longer period.



The sample consisted of 20 French (Paris) and 20 American (Miami) Caucasian adolescents of senior high school age. To ensure similarity in socioeconomic status, the observations were conducted at McDonald’s restaurants in middle-SES neighborhoods in which high schools were located. Of the 28 Miami-area and 39 Paris-area McDonald’s, at least 5 in each city were determined to be in neighborhoods with comparable SES and ethnic composition.


A research assistant recorded the behaviors of the adolescents during their face-to-face interactions at the McDonald’s restaurants. The behaviors included those observed in the pilot study: (1) types of touching-peer-touching (physically leaning on peer, stroking, kissing, hugging) and self-touching (playing with hands or hair); (2) location on body where touch occurred (head and shoulders, arms and hands); (3) apparent purpose of touching (affection, self-stimulation); (4) activity engaged in (eating, talking, drinking, smoking); and (5) affect (positive and negative facial, verbal, and physical). The target subjects were observed for 20-minute periods, and the behaviors were recorded at ten-second intervals.


The findings are shown in Table 1. ANOVAs revealed the following main effects for group: (1) for types of touching, the American adolescents showed less leaning, stroking, kissing, and hugging, and more playing with their own hair and hands; (2) for location on body, the American adolescents showed less touching on head and shoulders and more touching on arms and hands; (3) for purpose of touch, the American adolescents showed less affection and more self-stimulation; (4) for activities, the American adolescents engaged in more eating and drinking and less smoking and talking; and (5) for affect, the American adolescents showed less positive facial, verbal, and physical behavior, and more negative verbal and physical behavior.


Combining the cross-cultural data on touch deprivation and violence in various cultures (Prescott, 1990) and the cafe touching behavior noted by Jourard (1966) suggests the possibility that the low incidence of violence in France may be related to high levels of touching in that culture; conversely, in the United States, the high levels of violence may be related to low levels of touching. A possible mechanism for touch deprivation leading to greater aggression can be derived from monkey-separation research by Harlow and Harlow (1965) and Kraemer (1985) and research on children with conduct disorder by Rogeness et al. (1992). The Harlows reported excessive violence in adult monkeys reared without mothers. Kraemer (1985) reported nor-epinephrine and serotonin depletion in monkey offspring who were touch deprived due to separation from their mothers. Norepinephrine and serotonin depletion means that dopamine, and the impulsive behavior that accompanies high levels of dopamine, will not be checked or inhibited. In the Rogeness et al. (1992) sample, extremely aggressive children had high dopamine and impulsivity levels and low levels of norepinephrine and serotonin, which may have resulted from the touch deprivation they experienced. Interestingly, researchers have been able to increase norepinephrine (Kuhn et al., 1991) and serotonin (Ironson et al., 1996) levels by providing extra touch (massage therapy). Thus, in this physiological model, aggressive behavior derives from high dopamine levels unchecked by the inhibitory influence of norepinephrine and serotonin, which are depleted due to touch deprivation. Both norepinephrine and serotonin levels can be increased by additional touch, which would then inhibit excessive release of dopamine.

There are, of course, other possible explanations. For example, parents who touch their children less may be less “attached” to their children and more likely to have negative interactions and use physical punishment. Both negative interactions and physical punishment have been found to be related to the development of aggressive behavior in children.

The present research could not determine underlying developmental mechanisms, but simply established cross-cultural differences and some associations between behaviors. Nonetheless, this observational research is an important step in addressing issues surrounding the relationship between touch and aggression.

The author would like to thank the parents and adolescents who participated in this study and the research assistants who helped with data collection and analyses. This research was supported by an NIMH Senior Research Scientist Award (#MH00331) to Tiffany Field and by funds from Johnson & Johnson.


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Adolescents Interacting at McDonald’s

Restaurants in France and U.S. (% time)

Peer – Touching France U.S.

Leaning 52 20

Stroking 26 8

Kissing 23 6

Hugging 7 2


Hair 21 38

Hands 11 29

Location on Body

Head and Shoulders 45 21

Arms and Hands 25 38

Purpose of Touch

Affection 43 11

Self-stimulation 8 41


Eating 13 29

Drinking 19 31

Smoking 30 7

Talking 79 47


Facial Positive 37 21

Facial Negative 7 11

Verbal Positive 34 23

Verbal Negative 5 20

Physical Positive 62 12

Physical Negative 2 16

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