Are you a hugger? It might just be in your DNA

  • A new study has found that expressing affection might actually be hereditary
  • Factors turned out to be a little different for men
  • The researchers say that people may experience 'skin hunger' during physical distancing

A new study has found that some people may be genetically predisposed to being more affectionate than others. The study, published in the journal Communication Monographs by University of Arizona researchers, wanted to investigate the extent to which affectionate communication is a heritable behavioural trait.

The team studied 464 pairs of adult twins – about half identical and half fraternal – aged between 19 and 84 years old. Based on their results, affectionate behaviour in women, specifically, can be explained 45% by heredity, while 55% is linked to environmental influences such as personal relationships.

Twin study design

The researchers enrolled adult twins, as twins are commonly used in studies that investigate how environmental and genetic factors influence particular traits. This is because twins are typically raised in the same household, which means that they've had similar upbringings and early experiences.

On the flip side, their genetic similarities vary depending on whether they’re fraternal or identical twins. Identical twins share 100% of their genetic material, while fraternal twins share only 50%, which is the same as in regular siblings.

Participants asked to rate statements

Each study participant was asked to rate several statements that were designed to measure how much affection they generally express. The researchers then studied their results and gauged the similarity between each pair's responses.

If the scores of people in fraternal twin pairs were similar to the scores of people in identical twin pairs, it could be assumed that genetics didn’t play a role. However, the results revealed that the identical twin pairs scored more similarly than the fraternal twin pairs, suggesting that there is, in fact, a genetic component to affectionate behaviour. In a surprising twist, they found that this only applied in the case of women. 

It isn’t the same for men

For some bizarre reason, the researchers discovered that genetics don’t appear to impact the level of affection in men. Instead, a news release by the university explains that, according to the study, men's variation in affectionate behaviour appears to stem entirely from environmental factors, but the study’s lead author, Professor Kory Floyd who works at the university’s Department of Communication in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, noted that previous research shows that men, on average, do tend to express less affection overall than women.

Women and men

"The trait of being affectionate may be more adaptive for women in an evolutionary sense,” explained Floyd, adding: “There is some speculation that affectionate behaviour is more health-supportive for women than it is for men, and that it helps women to manage the effects of stress more than it does for men.

“That may be partly why women are more likely than men to inherit the tendency to behave that way rather than that tendency simply being a product of their environment."

Twins’ shared environments, such as their socioeconomic background, were also found to have minimal effect on their level of affection. Rather, what stood out was unique environmental factors, such as an individual's friends and their experiences from their twin.

"It's not exactly what we would expect, but for many behaviours and personality characteristics – including how affectionate you are – what twins do and experience differently in their lives plays a much bigger role than anything they experience together," Floyd said.

Why this study matters

Floyd’s research interests include the communication of affection in close relationships and its effects on stress and physiological functioning. He commented:

"The question that drove the study was: Recognising that some people are more affectionate than others, what accounts for that variation, and is any part of that variation genetic?" Floyd said, further commenting:

"In my field, there is a really strong underlying assumption that whenever we see differences in a trait level in people's social behaviours – like how talkative they are or how shy they are or how affectionate they are – those differences are learned; they're a function of the environment.

"A study like this makes room for us to talk about the possibility that a number of social and behavioural traits that we automatically assume are learned may also have a genetic component."

However, Floyd also pointed to the importance of not drawing full conclusions, as their findings are at the population level, and not the individual level. This means that it may not be the case that every single woman’s level of affectionate behaviour is 45% hereditary and 55% attributable to environmental factors, nor do the researchers suggest that an individual can’t be more or less affectionate based on their gene suggestions. Floyd explained:

"Our genes simply predispose us to certain kinds of behaviours; that doesn't automatically mean we're going to engage in those behaviours. And it certainly doesn't mean that we have no control over them."

Skin hunger during the Covid-19 pandemic

Those who are genetically predisposed to being more affectionate may especially be struggling with "skin hunger" during the Covid-19 pandemic, considering the implementation of strict measures, such as lockdown and physical distancing.

"Skin hunger", also known as touch deprivation, occurs when we feel deprived of physical contact. The pandemic has stripped us of every sense of normality, among them "normal" human connection. Being cut off from our loved ones lowers that confidence-boosting feeling we usually get from social connection.

“Meaningful contact produces hormones in the brain such as serotonin, dopamine, and the bonding hormone oxytocin to help foster positive emotions,” says Jo Ham, psychotherapist at the Human Givens Institute told Marie Claire UK.

“As well as making you feel good, human touch can slow down heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and boost the immune system. Even a friendly touch on the arm can be very soothing for somebody who is feeling upset or alone,” Ham added.

Coping with skin hunger

In the absence of human touch, there are certain alternatives that may fill that void, suggested Floyd. Among them are petting your dog or cat; cuddling your pillow or blanket; or practising self-massage – all of which have been found to help relieve stress and experience comfort.

"None of these is a perfect substitute," said Floyd, "but when being able to hug or hold hands with our loved ones isn't feasible or safe for us, these sorts of things are certainly better than nothing."   

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