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Abstract

Haptics plays an important role in emotion perception. However, most studies of the affective aspects of haptics have investigated emotional valence rather than emotional categories. In the present study, we explored the associations of different textures with six basic emotions: fear, anger, happiness, disgust, sadness and surprise. Participants touched twenty-one different textures and evaluated them using six emotional scales. Additionally, we explored whether individual differences in participants' levels of alexithymia are related to the intensity of emotions associated with touching the textures. Alexithymia is a trait related to difficulties in identifying, describing and communicating emotions to others. The findings show that people associated touching different textures with distinct emotions. Textures associated with each of the basic emotions were identified. The study also revealed that a higher alexithymia level corresponds to a higher intensity of associations between textures and the emotions of disgust, anger and sadness.
Emotions associated with different textures during touch
Marina Iosifyan 1, Olga Korolkova 2,3
1 – National Research University Higher School of Economics, 20 Myasnitskaya Street, 101000,
Moscow, Russia
2 – Brunel University London, College of Health and Life Sciences, Department of Life Sciences,
Kingston Lane, Uxbridge, Middlesex, UB8 3PH, United Kingdom
3 – Moscow State University of Psychology and Education, Centre for Experimental Psychology, 2a
Shelepikhinskaya Quay, 123290, Moscow, Russia
Corresponding author: Marina Iosifyan, marina.iosifyan@gmail.com, National Research
University Higher School of Economics, 20 Myasnitskaya Street, 101000, Moscow, Russia
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Emotions associated with different textures during touch
Haptics plays an important role in emotion perception. However, most studies of the affective
aspects of haptics have investigated emotional valence rather than emotional categories. In the
present study, we explored the associations of different textures with six basic emotions: fear, anger,
happiness, disgust, sadness and surprise. Participants touched twenty-one different textures and
evaluated them using six emotional scales. Additionally, we explored whether individual differences
in participantslevels of alexithymia are related to the intensity of emotions associated with
touching the textures. Alexithymia is a trait related to difficulties in identifying, describing and
communicating emotions to others. The findings show that people associated touching different
textures with distinct emotions. Textures associated with each of the basic emotions were identified.
The study also revealed that a higher alexithymia level corresponds to a higher intensity of
associations between textures and the emotions of disgust, anger and sadness.
Keywords: haptics; emotion; touch; emotion intensity; alexithymia
Most studies of the emotional aspects of touch explored the pleasantness of touching
In this study, we explored how touching textures is associated with basic emotions
We found that people associate distinct emotions with textures while touching them
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1. Introduction
The haptic modality provides a substantial contribution to generating and modifying
emotions (Gallace & Spence, 2010). We extensively use haptics in social communication when we
want to express gratitude, dominance or support (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1989; Suvilehto et al., 2015).
Social affective touch, such as consoling touch, has both neural and behavioral specificities (Peled-
Avron et al., 2017). Touch communication between mothers and infants, as well as the petting of
animals, is related to reduced stress (Feldman et al., 2010; Jenkins, 1986; Lass-Hennemann et al.,
2014; Stack & Muir, 1990). Touching some inanimate objects and textures can also be associated
with pleasant feelings, while touching others induces unpleasant ones (Etzi et al., 2014, 2016).
The importance of conveying different aspects of emotions through haptics has been
recognized in an increasing number of studies (see Gallace & Spence, 2010). Most studies
investigating affective haptics have explored how touch can communicate a positive or negative
valence of emotions (Ackerley et al., 2014; Croy et al., 2016; Essick et al., 2010; Löken et al.,
2009), as well as the parameters of a stimulus that contribute to the pleasantness of touch (Essick et
al., 2010). In particular, empirical studies have shown that a textures softness and smoothness
correlate with the pleasantness of touching it (Ekman et al., 1965; Major, 1895; Verrillo et al., 1999).
Other studies have investigated unpleasantness and negative affects in touch, such as painful
sensations (Fernandez & Turk, 1992; Field, 2010). Unpleasant sensations of touch have been widely
investigated in relation to individual differences, such as autism spectrum disorders (Cascio et al.,
2008; Jones et al., 2009).
Despite the large number of studies exploring valence in touch, less focus has been given to
the perception of distinct emotions (such as anger, fear or happiness) in haptics. Researchers have
shown that people can communicate and accurately decode such emotions as anger, fear, disgust,
love, gratitude and sympathy via social touch (Hertenstein et al., 2006; 2009; Kirsch et al., 2018).
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Other studies have shown that tactile surfaces are associated with words related to emotional states
(Etzi et al., 2016; Iosifyan, Korolkova & Vlasov, 2017). In the current study, we investigated
whether different textures might be associated with six basic emotions: fear, anger, happiness,
disgust, sadness and surprise (Ekman, 1993). These emotions can be readily recognized across other
modalities, such as vision and audio, via facial expressions (Ekman, 1993), body posture (Van den
Stock, Righart, & de Gelder, 2007), emotional speech (de Gelder & Vroomen, 2000), non-verbal
vocalizations (Sauter, Eisner, Ekman, & Scott, 2010) and music (Mohn, Argstatter, & Wilker, 2011);
to our knowledge, however, there have been no studies of the possible association of basic emotions
and textures experienced through touch.
Studies of emotion processing in the visual and auditory modalities have revealed that
individual differences can play a substantial role in emotion perception (Hamann & Canli, 2004;
Martins et al., 2017). In the present study, we focused on individual differences in alexithymia
levels. Alexithymia is a personality construct based on difficulties in emotion processing and
communicating emotions to others (McDonald & Prkachin, 1990; Taylor, Bagby & Parker, 1997).
People with high levels of alexithymia have more difficulty in recognizing emotional expressions
(Lane et al., 1996; Parker, Prkachin & Prkachin, 2005). In particular, they demonstrate diminished
perception of facial expressions of some but not all negative emotions: sadness, anger and
fear (Prkachin, Casey & Prkachin, 2009). There are also differences in the perception of emotion
intensity that are related to alexithymia (Cecchetto, Rumiati & Aiello, 2017). However, the majority
of these findings connect alexithymia to the visual, auditory and olfactory modalities, and little is
known about the processing of emotions conveyed by tactile stimuli in alexithymia. In the current
study, we tested the hypothesis that a persons alexithymia level is related to emotion intensity in the
haptic modality.
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In the current study we aimed to answer several questions: 1) Are textures associated with
the basic emotions when they are touched? 2) Does the intensity of these emotions differ? 3) Is a
persons alexithymia level related to the perceived emotion intensity?
We used a paradigm of active touch (participants actively explore textures with their palms
and fingers) instead of passive touch (a texture is moved against the participants skin). Firstly, on
the behavioral level, active touch allows for a more selective and controlled way of encoding tactile
stimulus properties (Chapman, 1994; Lederman & Klatzky, 1987). Secondly, on the neural level,
active touch elicits greater activation in the primary somatosensory region and does not differ from
passive touch in the secondary somatosensory region (Simoes-Franklin, Whitaker & Newell, 2011).
Thirdly, we supposed that active exploration of tactile stimuli is a more ecological task, close to real
life experience, compared to passive touch wherein a participant does not perform any actions.
2. Method
2.1 Participants
One hundred and eight participants took part in the study (age range: 1847 years, Mage =
21.37, SD = 4.37, 22 males). Participants were recruited at the Lomonosov University campus and
received course credit in return for their participation. Participants had normal tactile sensitivity by
self-report and no mental disorders. Six of them were left-handed by self-report and performed the
study task with their left hands, while others were right-handed. Participants gave informed written
consent prior to taking part in the study. The study was carried out in accordance with The Code of
Ethics of the World Medical Association (Declaration of Helsinki). It was approved by
the Ethical Committee of the Institute of Psychology, Russian Academy of Sciences.
2.2 Materials
Twenty-one different tactile surfaces were used as stimuli. Prior to the selection of the
textures, we performed an online survey asking a separate group of participants (N = 54, Mage = 25,
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46 women) what tactile sensations or textures might elicit happiness, fear, disgust, anger, surprise,
shame, interest, contempt, tenderness and sadness in them. The highest-frequency answers were
used to select textures for the main study. The following materials were selected: natural silk, velvet,
rabbit fur (these textures potentially represented the emotion of happiness, based on the online
survey in which participants indicated that something fluffy and soft can elicit happiness in them); a
piece of an acupressure mat, embedded with hard plastic disks containing protruding spikes (for
fear, which can be elicited by something sharp and hard); toy slime (slimy viscous liquid polymer),
plasticine, clay (for disgust, elicited by something slimy and sticky); sandpaper, sponge (for anger,
elicited by tough and rough textures); glass pebbles (rounded pebbles), glass seashells (for surprise,
elicited by something convex and protuberant); polished marble, granite, glass (for sadness, elicited
by something smooth, polished and hard). Wooden block (unpolished), wood (spruce, polished),
rubber, leather, concrete, brick and tile were included as potentially neutral textures (see Figure 1).
All textures varied in smoothness and hardness, according to the two main dimensions of touch
experience (see Hollins et al., 1993; Picard et al., 2003; Yoshida, 1968).
Figure 1. Twenty-one items with different textures used in the study (from left to right: brick, granite, glass, glass
seashells, plasticine, leather, fur, sponge, rubber, velvet, silk, wood (spruce), acupressure mat, wooden block, tile, glass
pebbles, sandpaper, marble, concrete, toy slime, clay).
2.3 Procedure
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The experiment was performed individually in a laboratory room in daylight. Participants
were seated in front of a table resting their right arm (if right-handed) on it. The experimenter was
seated at a distance of 50 cm to the right to deliver the tactile stimulation. Participants wore an eye
mask and thus could not see the textures they touched during the entire task, in order to eliminate
visual cues. The experimenter placed a texture block (9 x 9 cm) on the table in front of the
participant and instructed him/her to touch it with their fingers and palm. Soft textures (fur, silk,
etc.) were previously applied to the wooden blocks. To avoid any possible effect of sequences, the
textures were presented in random order. During the touch, participants were asked to rate each
texture using six evaluative scales from 0 (not at all associated with an emotion) to 5 (very much
associated with an emotion). The experimenter named an emotion (e.g., surprise) and recorded the
verbal score given by the participant when asked how much the texture is associated with the named
emotion. The value 1 (weakly associated with the emotion) was considered the baseline for emotion
association. Each texture was presented once. The experimental session lasted about 30 minutes.
After evaluating all 21 materials, participants were asked to complete the Toronto
Alexithymia Scale (TAS-26; Taylor et al., 1985), translated and validated on a Russian population
(Eres'ko et al., 2005). The TAS-26 is a self-report scale that measures alexithymia as a trait related to
an inability to describe emotions to others and to distinguish between physical sensations and
feelings. It includes 26 statements evaluated on a five-point Likert scale (1 strongly disagree, 5
strongly agree). A total TAS score greater or equal to 62 is considered to reflect a low level of
alexithymia; a total score greater or equal to 74 is considered to indicate a high level of alexithymia;
a total score between 63 and 73 is considered inconclusive (Eres'ko et al., 2005; Taylor et al., 2003).
Sixteen participants did not complete the TAS and were excluded from the analysis of alexithymia
effects on emotion intensity.
2.4 Statistical analysis
7
The data for texture evaluation and TAS scores were both tested for normality using the one-
sample Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. Although the TAS scores were distributed normally, the texture
evaluation data were not (Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, p < .05); therefore, we used non-parametric
statistics to analyze the data. Overall, we performed four separate analyses to test our hypotheses.
To investigate whether there were any differences between the textures on each emotional
scale, we used the one-way non-parametric analysis of variance (Friedman test). Six separate tests
were performed, comparing the ratings of all textures on each one of the six emotions. In order to
take into account multiple comparisons, only the p-values lower than .008 were considered as
significant (Bonferroni correction).
To investigate which textures were significantly associated with each of the six emotions, the
following analysis strategy was used. A texture was considered to be associated with a specific
emotion only if the average intensity of the association was significantly higher than 1 (a significant
Wilcoxon rank-sum test with a p-value < .001). Otherwise, the texture was not considered to be
associated with this emotion. Only textures significantly associated with at least one of the six basic
emotions were used in further analysis.
To investigate the differences between the intensity ratings of the six emotions across all
textures, the Friedman analysis of variance was used. To further investigate these differences,
Dunns pairwise post hoc tests with Bonferroni correction were conducted.
Finally, we investigated how alexithymia is related to the intensity ratings of the basic
emotions. An alexithymia score was calculated for each participant and entered as a variable in the
correlation analysis. We calculated the correlations between alexithymia scores and the intensity of
each of the six basic emotions (evaluations of the textures as associated with fear, anger, happiness,
disgust, sadness and surprise). Because the data were not distributed normally, we used non-
parametric correlations and reported the results of two-tailed Spearmans correlation coefficient
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tests. Statistical analysis was performed in SPSS (IBM, Armonk, Version 25.0, 2017) and R (R Core
Team, 2013).
3. Results
3.1 Effects of emotional evaluation on textures
Friedman tests comparing the average levels of emotion intensity across textures were
significant for each emotional scale: happiness (χ(20)2 = 441.58, p <.0001), fear (χ(20)2 = 343.86, p
<.0001), disgust (χ(20)2 = 510.26, p <.0001), anger (χ(20)2 = 338.36, p <.0001), surprise (χ(20)2 =
395.16, p <.0001), sadness (χ(20)2 = 120.19, p <.0001). That means that there are differences
between the textures in terms of how they are emotionally evaluated. We next investigated which
textures were significantly associated with each of the six emotions.
Thirteen textures were associated with happiness; eight textures were associated with fear;
six textures were associated with disgust; four textures were associated with anger; nine textures
were associated with sadness; and all textures were associated with surprise. Overall, all textures
were associated with some emotion. Some textures were associated with specific emotions (e.g.,
marble is mainly associated with sadness, fur is mainly associated with happiness), while others
were associated with several emotions (e.g., a sponge is associated with fear, disgust and anger).
Table 1 shows the medians and interquartile ranges for the textures associated with six emotions
significantly higher than 1 (a significant Wilcoxon rank-sum test with a p-value < .001).
Table 1. Medians and interquartile ranges of emotional ratings of textures
Happine
ss
Fear Disgust Anger Surprise Sadness
Acupressure mat 3 (2) 2 (3.75) 3 (2.75) 3 (3)
Plasticine 2 (3) 4 (2) 1 (2.75) 3 (2)
Fur 4 (2) − − 3 (2)
Sandpaper 2 (2) 2 (4) 2 (1) 2 (2)
Velvet 4 (2) − − 2 (2)
9
Rubber 2 (3) − − 2 (3)
Toy slime 1 (3) 2 (4) 4 (3) 4 (2)
Leather 2 (3) − − 2 (2)
Silk 3 (2) − − 2 (2) 1 (3)
Clay 1 (2) 2 (2) 3 (1.75)
Glass 2 (3) 1 (3) − − 2 (2) 2 (3)
Wood 2 (3) − − 2 (3) 1 (3)
Wooden block 2 (2) − − 1 (3) 1 (3)
Marble − − − 1 (2) 2 (3)
Concrete 2 (3) − − 1 (3) 1 (3)
Brick − − − 1.5 (3) 2 (3)
Tile 2 (3) − − 2 (2.75) 1 (3)
Glass pebbles 3(2) − − 3 (2)
Granite 2 (3) 1.5 (3) 2 (4)
Glass seashells 2 (3) − − 3 (2.75)
Sponge 3 (2) 2 (3) 3 (4) 3 (2.75)
Total 2 (3) 1 (3) 1 (3) 1 (2) 2 (3) 1 (3)
Note. Interquartile ranges are designated in round brackets. The scale ranged from 0 (not at all associated with the
emotion) to 5 (very much associated with the emotion).
3.2 Effects of emotion type on emotion intensity
There was a significant difference between intensity ratings of the six emotions: (χ(5)2 =
49.53, p <.001). Dunns pairwise tests revealed differences between sadness intensity and the
intensity of the other five emotions (p < .05, adjusted using the Bonferroni correction): sadness was
less intense compared to anger (p < .001), fear (p = .017), disgust (p < .001), surprise (p = .001) and
happiness (p = .001); see Figure 2. There was also a difference between the intensity of disgust and
fear (p < .001, adjusted using the Bonferroni correction): the intensity of disgust was greater
compared to the intensity of fear (see Figure 2).
10
0
1
2
3
4
5
anger disgust fear happinesssadness surprise
Emotion
Intensity
Figure 2. Medians, interquartile ranges and full ranges of intensity ratings of six emotions associated with touching
textures.
3.3 Effects of alexithymia on emotion intensity
The mean TAS level across participants was 58.14 (SD = 9.77). Spearmans correlation
analysis between TAS level and emotion intensity revealed that alexithymia correlated significantly
with disgust intensity (rho = .109, p = .020), anger intensity (rho = .107, p = .043) and sadness
intensity (rho = .094, p = .007). No significant correlations were found with surprise intensity (rho =
.009, p = .688), happiness intensity (rho = .044, p = .135) or fear intensity (rho = .046, p = .217).
Higher levels of alexithymia were therefore associated with higher intensities of disgust, anger and
sadness.
4. Discussion
The present study investigated whether different textures are associated with any of six basic
emotions. In an online survey, participants named tactile sensations and textures that can elicit
particular emotions in them. Based on the most frequently named sensations, we selected 21 textures
that can potentially be associated with basic emotions. In a lab-based experiment, a separate group
of participants touched these textures and evaluated them on six emotional scales. As a result, we
revealed a set of textures associated with six basic emotions. The emotion of surprise differed from
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the other emotions, because all textures were associated with it. This might be related to the fact that
the participants did not see the textures and did not have any prior visual knowledge about them.
The associations between textures and emotions can partly be explained by the role of
temperature and softness/roughness in pleasure. The textures varied in temperature and this fact
might have an impact on associations between them and emotions. Concerning roughness, previous
studies showed that soft and gentle touch sensations are associated with pleasantness, while
roughness is correlated with unpleasantness (Major, 1895; Zampini et al., 2003), Indeed, our soft
materials, such as fur, velvet, silk and leather, were associated with the positive emotion of
happiness; rough materials such as sandpaper, an acupressure mat and a wire sponge were associated
with negative emotions (fear, anger and disgust). However, participants softness/roughness and
temperature ratings would need to be studied further to confirm these suggestions.
However, softness and roughness cannot fully explain the associations between textures and
basic emotions: toy slime and plasticine are not rough, but they were associated with fear and
disgust; glass pebbles are not soft, but they were associated with happiness; smooth rather than
rough materials (e.g., silk, marble, granite) were associated with sadness. Another possible
explanation is that textures might be related to emotions because of the objects associated with these
textures (e.g., marble, concrete and granite are associated with monuments, which are often
dedicated to dead people and found at cemeteries, and therefore are associated with sadness). This
supposition can be in line with the ecological valence theory, which postulates that associations with
objects explain color preferences (Palmer & Schloss, 2010). However, the present study did not aim
to explain the nature of affective associations with textures, and in particular whether they are
mediated by conceptual knowledge and categorization; future studies may aim to do that. The main
aim of the present study was to provide evidence that while touching different textures, people
associate distinct emotions with them.
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In addition, the study found that there are differences in the intensity of emotional
associations with textures. This might indicate that people recognize some emotions (e.g., disgust)
via touch more readily compared to other emotions (e.g., sadness).
Another finding concerns the role of individual differences in alexithymia in associating
emotions with textures. A higher level of alexithymia was related to a higher perceived intensity of
disgust, anger and sadness. This result is consistent with previously found differences in negative
emotion perception (particularly, fear and anger) among people with high and low levels of
alexithymia (Prkachin, Casey & Prkachin, 2008; Scarpazza et al., 2014). However, it was supposed
that the perceived intensity of emotions is lower among people with alexithymia, while our study
found the contrary. Our finding can be explained from the perspective of hyperarousal theory, which
supposes that the mechanism of alexithymia is associated with higher emotional reactivity (Martin
& Pihl, 1986). Some empirical studies found support for this hypothesis in the visual and olfactory
perception of emotions (Eastabrook, Lanteigne & Hollenstein, 2013; Lombion et al., 2010). Our
study supports the hyperarousal theory in the haptic modality. Moreover, Hosoi and colleagues
(2010) showed that perceived pain intensity is higher among people with higher levels of
alexithymia. This might support the idea of enhanced perception of negative affective states among
people with alexithymia. To our knowledge, this is the first study investigating the role of
alexithymia in associating emotions with textures.
There are some important limitations in the present study. Firstly, the velocity at which the
palm and fingers contacted the textures and the indenting force were not controlled. It is possible
that velocity and indenting force impacted the emotional evaluation of textures (Cascio et al., 2008;
Essick et al., 1999). Secondly, while touching the textures, participants did not wear earplugs, and
thus auditory stimulation was not eliminated. It is possible that some auditory clues might have
impacted the textures evaluation. For example, rough textures may generate rough sounds when
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stroked and these sounds may evoke emotional associations of their own. Finally, only 22 males
participated in this study, which limited us in investigating any gender effects on emotional
associations with textures. Studies show that there are gender differences in emotion intensity
perception (Biele & Grabowska, 2006; Hoffmann et al., 2010; Mandal & Palchoudhury 1985; Rotter
& Rotter 1988; Wagner et al., 1986). Future research may address this issue in haptic emotional
perception. It would also be interesting to further investigate whether textures might be positively or
negatively valenced depending on whether participants could see them or at least know what it was
that they were touching.
To conclude, the study extends the literature on the perception of emotion in three ways.
First, it provides evidence that while touching different textures, people perceive not only their
valence, but also distinct emotions associated with them. Secondly, it identified the textures
significantly associated with six basic emotions, which can be further used to investigate the
perception of emotions via touch. Thirdly, it showed that individual differences in alexithymia levels
are related to the intensity of negative emotional associations with some textures.
From a basic perspective, the set of textures we developed, together with their emotional
ratings, might be of interest to researchers who investigate emotional responsiveness to textures, and
want to use textures associated with basic emotions or neutral textures. While there are several sets
of normative emotional stimuli for experimental investigations of emotion in vision and audition
(Bradley & Lang, 2007; Lang, Bradley & Cuthbert, 2008), there is a lack of such sets in haptics.
Although the use of exactly the same physical stimuli by other haptics researchers is not as easy as
the use of digital images in the visual modality or digital sounds in the auditory modality, the
description of our dataset and their emotional ratings might be useful in conducting further studies in
the haptic modality. From an applied perspective, these findings can be used in product design in
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order to produce particular expectations among customers (Gallace & Spence, 2014; Spence, 2014;
Spence & Gallace, 2011).
Acknowledgments. The authors thank Andrey Kiselnikov for his kind assistance in research
organization. The authors thank Oksana Zinchenko for her kind assistance in the recruitment of
participants.
Funding. This work was supported by Russian Foundation for Basic Research Grant #18-013-
01221.
Con$ict of interest. The authors declare no conflict of interest.
Data access statement. Data directly supporting the publication can be found at
https://osf.io/4xuem/
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... Distinct emotional states can be communicated via touch (Hertenstein et al., 2006). Iosifyan and Korolkova (2019) examined the effect of alexithymia on emotion perception during touching of different textures. Healthy participants touched 21 tactile surfaces (e.g., sandpaper, velvet, or toy slime) and evaluated how much the textures were associated with six basic emotions. ...
... This might explain the differences between findings. Iosifyan and Korolkova (2019) analyzed the touching of textures. In this case, perception is achieved through the active exploration of surfaces by a moving subject (haptic perception). ...
... Finally, the available data from research on tactile perception suggest that alexithymia could go along with more intense experiences of negative emotions during active touch (Iosifyan and Korolkova, 2019) but there is no evidence that alexithymia has an impact on passive perception of affective touch (Borhani et al., 2017). The discrepant results between the two studies on tactile emotion perception could be explained by differences in the perceptual processes investigated (active touching vs. being touched). ...
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