While traveling in India earlier this month, I was struck by how men there showed no hesitancy in touching other men. Whether it was walking arm-in-arm down streets, riding with arms around each other on motorcycles, or holding hands while dancing to Bollywood songs, men touched other men. And rather than the awkward looks of physical discomfort that might accompany similar male contact in the United States, these men were happy and joyous—and also, quite secure in their masculinity and their relationships with their wives.
What was compelling in these episodes was not just the cultural differences in homophobia (which do exist), but rather, the sheer joy on the faces of these men. It led me to further consider the importance of touch, hugs, and embraces that people in American society may miss out on, especially men. In short, to what degree do people suffer, psychologically and physically, from not experiencing frequent, positive interpersonal contact?
The power of positive interpersonal contact
We have known since the classic work of Harlow (1958) that rhesus monkeys prefer cloth-covered "mothers" to barb-wire "mothers," indicating that the power of meaningful physical contact is strong. Interestingly, the scientific literature on the power of touch is relatively nascent, and is now just beginning to document the underlying processes that explain why physical contact can be a powerful, positive force in people's lives.
In one study involving more than 400 adults, the degree to which people experienced daily hugs predicted the magnitude that people would later get sick (Cohen et al., 2015). Specifically, researchers assessed how frequently participants experienced hugs for two weeks before exposing them to a virus (these people knowingly volunteered for these viral-challenge studies and were paid for their participation). They were then kept in quarantine to see who would develop flu symptoms over the next four weeks. Among infected participants in the study, people who received more frequent hugs exhibited less severe symptoms. The authors concluded that greater human touch may reflect greater social support, which in turn buffers the effects of stress on people's health.
More broadly, people who receive more hugs or other forms of "warm touch" from their spouse or long-term partner experience a number of beneficial outcomes, including greater levels of oxytocin (a hormone that produces the sensation of pleasure), lower blood pressure, and reduced heart rates (Light et al., 2005). Similar cardiovascular benefits have been observed by dog owners when merely being in the same room as their pets (Allen et al., 2002).
Indeed, research in our own lab has shown that pet owners, on average, tend to be happier and healthier individuals (McConnell et al., 2011). Specifically, pet owners show greater self-esteem, better exercise and fitness levels, and also tended to be less lonely. They showed more positive personality characteristics and interpersonal relationship styles. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that merely petting an animal reduces people's anxiety in stressful situations (e.g., Shiloh et al., 2003). Even interactions with stuffed animals show similar effects—that is, just holding a teddy bear (instead of a cardboard box) reduces negative reactions that result from pondering one's own mortality (Koole et al., 2014).
Interpersonal touch has other positive consequences: For example, greater positive touch improves romantic relationships, strengthens friendship bonds, triggers more positive emotions, and encourages people to be more responsive to others' needs (Gallace & Spence, 2010). Although we often think about touch as being central in romantic relationships, even common metaphors like "staying in touch" reflect that maintaining important social connections can be embodied through touch.
In sum, meaningful interpersonal contact is important for our happiness, health, and social engagement. Whether that physical contact comes from our romantic partners, friends, pets, stuffed animals, or even cloth-monkey mothers, the benefits are consequential.
Allen, K., Blascovich, J., Mendes, W. B. (2002). Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: The truth about cats and dogs. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64, 727–739.
Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J. (2015). Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychological Science, 26, 135-147.
Gallace, A., & Spence, C. (2010). The science of interpersonal touch: An overview. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 34, 246–259.
Koole, S. L., Sin, M. T. A., & Schneider, I. K. (2014). Embodied terror management:
Interpersonal touch alleviates existential concerns among individuals with low self-esteem. Psychological Science, 25, 30-37.
Light, K. C., Grewen, K. M., & Amico, J. A. (2005). More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biological Psychology, 69, 5-21.
McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Stayton, L. E., & Martin, C. E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1239-1252.