The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

How Much Affection Is Normal?


Affection might be natural, but how much is natural?

Affection might be natural, but how much is natural is the question?

According to a recent New York Times' article teenagers have a new means of rebellion: hugging. In recent years, kids have taken to wrapping each other up and not letting go. So "bad" have things gotten that the George G. White School in New Jersey had to ban the practice, while a school in Oregon imposed a 3-second hug rule because entwined bodies were clogging hallways and kids were showing up late for class.

Scientists studying the phenomena see it as an outgrowth of the evolution of the American greeting. Amy Best, a sociologist at George Mason University, told the Times that "Without question, the boundaries of touch have changed in American culture. We display bodies more readily, there are fewer rules governing body touch and a lot more permissible access to other people's bodies."

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Other researchers point out that TV—which now shows much more male-on-male non-sexual contact than in the past-has caused society to further relax its norms, making even more contact is permissible.

But how much contact is our baseline is what I'm asking.

I run a dog sanctuary and, as a rule, usually have a pack of around 15 animals around. These dogs spent most of their day in contact with one another. If two dogs climb into an empty bed, they're much more likely to lie down touching one another than they are to head towards separate corners.

Dogs are social animals and, if you agree with the work of Ray Coppinger (among others), then we learned some, perhaps all, of our group social behavior from wolves. And wolves, just like the dogs in my bed, spent much of their day touching one another than humans.

Or, if you disagree with Coppinger, and hold that we learned our social skills from our primate progenitors, then what about our closest cousin: the bonobo.

The bonobo lubricate all social interaction with physical contact. Sure, we use another word for this, using 'sex' as a stand in for 'contact,' but the point is these animals are constantly touching one another. Boy on boy, boy on girl, girl on girl, close relatives, absolute strangers—sex (meaning physical contact) is how they say hello.

Now, some might point out that there's a difference between sex and other forms of physical contact, but a great number of evolutionary thinkers (led by Stanford evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden) now disagree. They see all physicality as a bonding exercise much more than a procreating exercise.

While theirs is a long argument-and one I won't get into here—Roughgarden believes the point of sex is to establish cooperative bonds between people, animals, whatever. It is these bonds that help a species survive and that's the real point.

While Roughgarden and others believe this is proof of group selection (another long argument I'm not going to get into), the proof for their proof is humans. According to the best data around, the average human has sex 127 times a year—but how many children do we produce?

What about the 1 out of 10 of us who are gay and will never, unless aided by technology, produce offspring via their favorite modes of physical contact?

Instead, Roughgarden views all physical/sexual contact as an extension of grooming-a way of establishing and maintaining cooperative bonds among a group.

If this is the case, and if all it took to get teenagers to move from rarely touching (a handshake was the norm until the 70s) to hugging for long enough that school districts had to pass laws against it, was a bit of TV and 30 years time then you have to ask yourself what would happen if we relaxed all those norms.

If humans were to live in a "natural state" (I know, whatever the hell that means), how much time would we spend in contact with one another? What is our natural state of affection? And, perhaps more importantly, what would a return to that state mean for our species?

Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

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