Houston, Texas, USA : Receiving hugs may buffer against deleterious changes in mood associated with interpersonal conflict, according to a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Michael Murphy of Carnegie Mellon University, along with co-authors Denise Janicki-Deverts and Sheldon Cohen.
Individuals who engage more frequently in interpersonal touch enjoy better physical and psychological health and improved relationships. Theorists have proposed that interpersonal touch benefits well-being by helping to buffer against the deleterious consequences of psychological stress, and touch might be a particularly effective buffer of interpersonal conflict. This possibility holds important potential implications for health and well-being because conflicts with others are associated with a large range of deleterious psychological and physical outcomes. However, the generalizability of past research on this topic is limited because studies have largely focused on the role of touch in romantic relationships.
In the new study, Murphy and colleagues focused on hugs—a relatively common support behavior that individuals engage in with a wide range of social partners. The researchers interviewed 404 adult men and women every night for 14 consecutive days about their conflicts, hug receipt, and positive and negative moods. Receiving a hug on the day of conflict was concurrently associated with a smaller decrease in positive emotions and a smaller increase in negative emotions. The effects of hugs may have lingered too, as interviewees reported a continued attenuation of negative mood the next day.
While correlational, these results are consistent with the hypothesis that hugs buffer against deleterious changes in affect associated with experiencing interpersonal conflict. While more research is needed to determine possible mechanisms, according to the authors, the findings from the large community sample suggest that hugs may be a simple yet effective method of providing support to both men and women experiencing interpersonal distress.
Murphy adds: “This research is in its early stages. We still have questions about when, how, and for whom hugs are most helpful. However, our study suggests that consensual hugs might be useful for showing support to somebody enduring relationship conflict.”
Citation: Murphy MLM, Janicki-Deverts D, Cohen S (2018) Receiving a hug is associated with the attenuation of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflict. PLoS ONE 13(10): e0203522. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0203522
A second study found that hugs help protect against stress and infection.
Funding: Preparation of this manuscript was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (AT006694; SC); the conduct of the studies was supported by grants from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (AI066367; SC) and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (HL65111, HL65112; SC); and supplementary support was provided by a grant from the National Institutes of Health to the University of Pittsburgh Clinical and Translational Science Institute (UL1 RR024153, UL1 TR0005). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
Hugs help protect against stress and infection, researchers say
Instead of an apple, could a hug-a-day keep the doctor away? According to new research from Carnegie Mellon University, that may not be that far-fetched of an idea.
Led by Sheldon Cohen, the Robert E. Doherty University Professor of Psychology in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the researchers tested whether hugs act as a form of social support, protecting stressed people from getting sick. Published in Psychological Science, they found that greater social support and more frequent hugs protected people from the increased susceptibility to infection associated with being stressed and resulted in less severe illness symptoms.
Cohen and his team chose to study hugging as an example of social support because hugs are typically a marker of having a more intimate and close relationship with another person.
“We know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses. We also know that people who report having social support are partly protected from the effects of stress on psychological states, such as depression and anxiety,” said Cohen. “We tested whether perceptions of social support are equally effective in protecting us from stress-induced susceptibility to infection and also whether receiving hugs might partially account for those feelings of support and themselves protect a person against infection.”
In 404 healthy adults, perceived support was assessed by a questionnaire, and frequencies of interpersonal conflicts and receiving hugs were derived from telephone interviews conducted on 14 consecutive evenings. Then, the participants were intentionally exposed to a common cold virus and monitored in quarantine to assess infection and signs of illness.
The results showed that perceived social support reduced the risk of infection associated with experiencing conflicts. Hugs were responsible for one-third of the protective effect of social support. Among infected participants, greater perceived social support and more frequent hugs both resulted in less severe illness symptoms whether or not they experienced conflicts.
“This suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress,” Cohen said. “The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy.”
Cohen added, “Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.”