Perceived Threat, Peripersonal Space and Touch

Published: 10 November 2023| Version 1 | DOI: 10.17632/m62td4fcxz.1
Merle Fairhurst, Yasemin Abra


The space we keep between ourselves and others determines whether we engage in close shared experiences but also allows us to distance ourselves for safety. Focusing primarily on the latter, previous studies have identified a link between interpersonal distance and perceived threat, perceptual discrimination including pain perception as well as how we move and behave as a result. Although interpersonal distance has been studied in a range of contexts, a mechanistic way of how such spatial behaviour might change how we perceive affective touch has yet to be investigated. Here we probe the effect of perceived threat of COVID-19 on interpersonal distance preferences and perceived pleasantness of vicarious affective touch. Our results demonstrate that increased perceived threat from COVID-19 is associated with larger boundaries of interpersonal distance. Moreover, we show a positive association between perceived threat and pleasantness of touch coming from a member of the household, but no association with outsider touch. Importantly, rather than focusing on the purely “positive” and prosocial functions of affective touch, these results bolster a novel perspective that socially-relevant cues guide both approach and avoidance behaviours. The data was collected between 12.2020 and 03.2021 using the online platform Gorilla Experiment Builder. It includes demographic data, scores from the COVID-19 Threat Questionnaire (Conway et al., 2020), scores from the Fear of Interpersonal Touch Questionnaire adapted from Trotter et al. (2018), ratings of vicarious touch, and the response times from the Peripersonal Space Task where participants listened to six audio clips consisting of the sound of footsteps approaching them from the front. Half of the trials measure the response time for interpersonal comfort space, and the other reaching space. The key in included in the dataset.


Steps to reproduce

The walking sound effects were generated and recorded using Unity 3D (Unity Technologies, 2020). Free footstep sounds were downloaded from and were split into single files, one file per footstep. A unity script loaded the footstep audio files when a walking animation was executed and synchronised each sound with the animation. A unity scene with an audio reverb zone was created with a maximum distance of 36 metres. An audio listener was located inside the reverb zone which allowed one to gradually change the footstep sound effect as the animation slowly moved closer to the target. The output was generated using the Unity Recorder tool.


Touch, COVID-19