Study Finds Why You Love (Or Hate) Hugs May Come Down To Genetics

mbg Editorial Assistant By Eliza Sullivan
mbg Editorial Assistant
Eliza Sullivan is an editorial assistant at mindbodygreen. She received a B.S. journalism and a B.A. in english literature from Boston University.
Mother Hugging Her Daughter on a Windy Day At The Beach

Image by Bruce and Rebecca Meissner / Stocksy

While you've probably heard of referring to someone as a hugger, there's not really even been much reason to think about what makes someone more inclined to physical affection before. But now, with social distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, terms like "skin hunger" or "touch starvation" are becoming a common part of the vernacular—and for people who generally are more physically affectionate, it may be particularly difficult.

But what decided how we express affection? A recent study from researchers at the University of Arizona decided to tackle the question of why some people are just naturally more affectionate, specifically if there's a predisposition to it that can be linked to our genetics.

So, do our genes affect our expressions of affection?

According to the paper, published in Communication Monographs in May, genetics do play a role in how affectionate women are, but the correlation does not appear to extend to men as well. "The question that drove the study was: Recognizing that some people are more affectionate than others, what accounts for that variation," said Kory Floyd, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, "and is any part of that variation genetic?" 

The researchers found that expressions of affection in women are guided about 45% by hereditary factors and 55% by experiential factors related to upbringing. They did not see a significant genetic influence in men but note that men's expression of affection is guided almost solely by environmental factors—like media, personal relationships, and other life experiences.

"There is a really strong underlying assumption that whenever we see differences in a trait level in people's social behaviors [...] those differences are learned; they're a function of the environment," Floyd said. "A study like this makes room for us to talk about the possibility that a number of social and behavioral traits that we automatically assume are learned may also have a genetic component."

The study considered 464 pairs of adult twins, about half identical and half fraternal, operating under the assumption that if genetics played a role, then the identical twins would show more similar scores than the fraternal pairs because of their identical genetics.

Measurements were taken by asking participants to evaluate a set of statements that researchers designed to help establish how affectionate they generally are. They found that identical twins, especially female pairs, scored more similarly than fraternal pairs.

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What happens when we aren't able to touch?

The results of this research indicate that, for women, genetics do influence the expression of affection. In light of the current measures of social distancing, physical modes of expressing affection have been limited, as indeed has human contact of most forms.

But the researchers don't say that these results are the ultimate explanation: "Our genes simply predispose us to certain kinds of behaviors; that doesn't automatically mean we're going to engage in those behaviors," Floyd said. "And it certainly doesn't mean that we have no control over them."

According to Floyd, those who have this predisposition toward affection may have more trouble with the repercussions of limited touch: those aforementioned feelings of 'skin hunger.' Other studies have shown that there are some lasting impacts of a lack of physical touch.

"Just like regular hunger reminds us that we're not getting enough to eat, skin hunger is the recognition that we're not getting enough touch in our lives," Floyd said. "Many people these days are recognizing that they miss getting hugs, they miss touch, and it's maybe the one thing technology hasn't really figured out how to give us yet."

Signs of touch starvation can include anything from feelings of depression, stress, and anxiety to difficulty sleeping and, longer term, avoiding secure attachment. These feelings are also ones that come up when considering the way COVID-19 has affected people more broadly.

But it's important to remember that these feelings are not a reason to stop social distancing or to stop being cautious. Luckily, there are things you can do that may help mitigate the negative impacts, according to Floyd:

  1. Touch your pet: There's a reason canine and equine therapies are so successful, Floyd explained.
  2. Cuddle with a pillow or blanket: Security blankets aren't just for kids! Adults can find calm in soft objects, too.
  3. Practice self-massage: Something as simple as pressing your thumb into the palm of the opposite hand can have stress-relieving benefits.

While the largely unprecedented experience of this pandemic may be tough in ways that we never expected, it's more important than ever to find ways to relax and love ourselves, even when we're isolated. And just because you may not be able to physically be in contact your friends and family, you can still get in touch.

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