Strong emotional bonds between mothers and infants increase children’s willingness to explore the world—an effect that has been observed across the animal kingdom, in people, monkeys and even spiders. The more secure we are in our attachment to Mom, the more likely we are to try new things and take risks. Now researchers are discovering that this effect continues into adulthood. A mere reminder of Mom’s touch or the sound of her voice on the phone is enough to change people’s minds and moods, affecting their decision making in measurable ways.
In a study published online in April in Psychological Science, undergraduate business students had to choose between safe bets and risky gambles—a bond with a guaranteed 4 percent yearly return or a riskier stock option, for example. In half the cases, the experimenters patted the students lightly on the back of the shoulder for about one second while providing verbal instructions about the study. Both male and female students who were touched by a female experimenter were far more likely to choose the risky alternative than were those who had not been touched or were patted by male experimenters. The reassuring touch of a woman may have triggered early associations, inspiring the same openness to exploration that is observed in young children of supportive mothers, explains Jonathan Levav, a business professor at Columbia University and lead author of the study.
To further confirm that a woman’s touch links feelings of security with risk taking, the researchers asked a different group of undergraduates to make financial decisions after a writing exercise. Half of them wrote about a time they felt secure and supported, whereas the other half wrote about feeling insecure and alone. Evoking a sense of insecurity made students in the latter group especially receptive to the gentle shoulder pats from female experimenters and much more willing to take a risk—just as a child leaving for a field trip might steal one last reassuring hug from Mom before stepping on the bus.
But touch is not the only source of maternal comfort. In a study published online in May in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison stressed out a group of seven- to 12-year-old girls by giving them math and public-speaking exercises. Then they reunited some girls with their mothers but offered others only a phone call. The study found that girls who talked with their mothers on the phone released just as much oxytocin, the social bonding hormone, as those who got to hug their mothers. And both groups had similarly low levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, which might explain why so many people—young and old alike—call their mothers when feeling blue.
“What we are dealing with is very fundamental,” Levav says. “It comes down to the simple reason that your mom was the first one to hold you.” And the effects of that bond last for a lifetime.