Functional Intimacy: Needing—but not Wanting—the Touch of a Stranger

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Intimacy is often motivated by love, but sometimes it is merely functional. For example, disrobing and being touched at an airport security check serves the goal of catching a flight, not building a relationship. We propose that this functional intimacy induces discomfort, making people prefer greater social distance from their interaction partner. Supporting this prediction, participants who considered (Experiments 1 and 2) or experienced (Experiment 3) more physically intimate medical procedures preferred a health provider who is less social. Increased psychological intimacy also led people to prefer social distance from cleaning and health providers (Experiments 4–5), a preference revealed by nonverbal behavior (e.g., turning away and looking away, Experiments 6–7). These patterns of distancing are unique to functional (vs. romantic) intimacy (Experiment 7). Although creating social distance may be an effective strategy for coping with functional intimacy, it may have costs for service providers.

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