National Hugging Day: Five Scientific Facts About Hugging
January 21 is National Hugging Day 2019—here’s what you need to know.
Posted January 20, 2019
1. How long is the average hug? According to one study, 3.17 seconds.
A study led by Emese Nagy from the University of Dundee analyzed 188 spontaneous hugs between athletes and their coaches, competitors, and supporters during the 2008 Summer Olympics Games (Nagy, 2011). The results? The average hug lasted 3.17 seconds and was neither influenced by the gender combination of the hugging pair, nor by the nationality of the two huggers.
2. Humans have hugged each other since thousands of years
No one knows exactly when the first hug occurred between two human beings, but we do know that hugs have been in the human behavioral repertoire for at least several thousand years. In 2007, a team of archeologist discovered the so-called “Lovers of Valdaro” in a Neolithic Tomb near Mantua in Italy (Stewart, 2007). The lovers are a pair of human skeletons that have been buried holding each other in a tight embrace (see Figure 1). They have been determined to be approximately 6000 years old, so we know for sure that people already hugged each other in Neolithic times.
3. Most people hug to the right, but our emotions affect how we hug
When we hug, we wrap our arms around another person. Typically, we lead the hug with one arm. A German study in which I was a co-author analyzed whether people preferentially hug with their left or their right arm (Packheiser et al., 2018). In this study, we observed hugging couples at the arrivals or departure lounges at international airports and also analyzed videos of people who blindfold themselves and let strangers hug them on the street. We found that overall, most people hugged to the right. In the emotionally neutral situation in which strangers hugged a blindfolded person, 92% hugged to the right. However, in more emotional situations, that is, when people hugged their friends or partners at the airport, only about 81% of people hugged to the right. Since the left hemisphere of the brain controls the right half of the body and vice versa, we believe that this leftward shift in hugging is due to a greater involvement of the right hemisphere of the brain for emotional processes during hugging in these situations.
4. Hugging improves how we deal with stress
Public speaking is stressful for almost anyone—but hugging before entering the stage can make it less stressful. A study from the University of North Carolina investigated how hugging before a stressful event reduced the negative effects of stress on the body (Grewen et al., 2003). Two groups of couples were tested: In one group, partners were given 10 minutes time to hold hands and watch a romantic movie, followed by a 20 second hug. In the other group, the partners just rested quietly and did not touch each other. Afterwards one partner had to participate in a very stressful public speaking task and their blood pressure and heart rate were measured while they spoke. The results? Individuals who had received a hug from their partner prior to being stressed showed significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate than those who did not touch their partners before the public speaking task. Thus, hugging leads to lower reactivity to stressful events and may benefit cardiovascular health.
5. Humans are not the only ones that embrace each other
While humans hug a lot compared to most animals, we are certainly not the only species to use hugging to communicate social or emotional meaning. A study by researchers from Florida International University investigated hugging in the Colombian spider monkey, a highly social monkey species that lives in forests in Colombia and Panama (Boeving et al., 2017). They found that unlike humans, the monkey had not one but two distinct types of embraces: embraces and face-embraces. An embrace resembled a typical hug in humans in that the monkeys wrapped their arms around each other and placed their heads on the shoulder of the other monkey. A face-embrace, on the other hand, did not involve the arms. Here, the monkeys basically hugged with their faces only by rubbing their cheeks against each other. Like humans, the monkeys showed a preferred side for hugging: For embraces, 80% preferred to hug to the left side.
Boeving, E.R., Belnap, S.C., Nelson, E.L. (2017). Embraces are lateralized in spider monkeys (Ateles fusciceps rufiventris). Am J Primatol.,79, e22654.
Grewen, K.M., Anderson, B.J., Girdler, S.S., Light, K.C. (2003). Warm partner contact is related to lower cardiovascular reactivity. Behav Med. 2003 Fall;29(3):123-30.
Nagy, E., 2011. Sharing the moment: the duration of embraces in humans. J. Ethol., 29, 389-393.
Packheiser, J., Rook, N., Dursun, Z., Mesenhöller, J., Wenglorz, A., Güntürkün, O., Ocklenburg, S., 2018. Embracing your emotions: Affective state impacts lateralisation of human embraces. Psych. Res., in press.
Stewart, P. (2007). Scientists to save 5,000-year-old embrace. Reuters Science News.