A forthcoming paper by Michael Kraus and Dacher Keltner at UC-Berkeley investigates the correlation between “tactile communication” and success in the NBA. In essence, the paper demonstrates that “touchier” teams – and this includes everything from pats on the ass to high-fives – are also more likely to win. (The two touchiest teams during the 2008-2009 season were the Lakers and the Celtics, while the touchiest player was Kevin Garnett, followed by Chris Bosh.) Here’s the abstract:
Tactile communication, or physical touch, promotes cooperation between people, communicates distinct emotions, soothes in times of stress, and is used to make inferences of warmth and trust. Based on this conceptual analysis, we predicted that in group competition, physical touch would predict increases in both individual and group performance. In an ethological study, we coded the touch behavior of players from the National Basketball Association (NBA) during the 2008- 2009 regular season. Consistent with hypotheses, early season touch predicted greater performance for individuals as well as teams later in the season. Additional analyses confirmed that touch predicted improved performance even after accounting for player status, preseason expectations, and early season performance. Moreover, coded cooperative behaviors between teammates explained the association between touch and team performance.
Obviously, there are a ton of confounding variables here, the most obvious one being the possibility that more successful teams touch more because they’re successful. (After all, players don’t dispense supportive touches after a missed shot.) The scientists attempted to control for these variables by using a sophisticated regression model that accounted for team salary and pre-season expectations. (They also measured success in terms of offensive efficiency, and not just wins or losses.) Even when these factors were taken into account, the correlation persisted: teams with touchier players played better.
Kraus and Keltner argue that the presence of group touching is inseparable from group cooperation, and that increased cooperation leads to better performance on the court. The scientists note, however, that this study might have limited applicability to other workplaces: “Basketball has evolved its own language of touch (fist bumps, leaping shoulder bumps) that quite obviously will not generalize to other group settings, for example in work organizations or schools.” (I love seeing “fist bumps” in a peer-reviewed journal article.) While that may be the case, I’d suggest that successful workplaces engage in a related kind of interaction, in which people are forced to interact with each other, both literally and figuratively. Maybe we’re talking to a colleague at the bathroom sink, or eating lunch at the same cafeteria table, but those are the kinds of “touches” that lead, over time, to better team performance. (I’ve got a hunch, for instance, that more successful labs have more crowded coffee rooms.) The same logic might also explain why people who have never worked together before rarely create successful Broadway plays: they’re like NBA teams that don’t know each well enough to exchange fist-bumps. Or why denser cities, which promote more random interactions, are also more innovative. The point is that the the most productive groups share a certain intimacy, which allows them to fully benefit from their different skill sets.
Thanks to Randy Young for the tip.