A new study has explored how genetics can influence our levels of affection. The research published in Communication Monographs and led by Professor Kory Floyd from the University of Arizona, helps us understand how far our level of affection may be hereditary and to what extent it might be as a result of environmental factors.
The research adopted a twin study design with 464 pairs of adult twins (comprised of 229 monozygotic pairs and 235 dizygotic pairs), aged 19-84. The key finding was that women’s affectionate behaviour was 45% hereditary, and 55% influenced by environmental factors, including personal relationships, the media and other life experiences.
The results however, aren’t the same for men. Genetics don’t appear to play a role in the level of affection men display. Rather, the variation in men’s affection appears to be entirely shaped by external environmental factors.
In a press release, Floyd explained the question the study was looking to explore, "Recognising that some people are more affectionate than others, what accounts for that variation, and is any part of that variation genetic?”
The participants were presented with a series of statements, for which they gave ratings. These were designed to understand the level of affection they would usually express. Using this information, the researchers examined the similarity of responses for each pair of twins. They found that identical twins had more similar scores than the fraternal twins did when it came to women, which indicates a genetic component in relation to the female level of affectionate behaviour.
“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," said Floyd in the press release.
One thing that puzzled the researchers was why affectionate behaviour doesn’t appear to be heritable for men. In the press release, Floyd said, "When we measure people's tendency to be affectionate and to receive affection from other people, almost without exception we find that women score higher than men. The trait of being affectionate may be more adaptive for women in an evolutionary sense. 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."
The study also found that unique environmental factors, including friendships and experiences away from their twin had more of a bearing on the individual’s level of affection, than how the twins were raised or their socio-economic background.
"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 in the press release.
One important thing to remember is that these findings are at a population level, as opposed to an individual level. This means that we can’t say that every woman’s level of affectionate behaviour is 45% down to their genes, and 55% due to external environmental influences. It also doesn’t imply that a person can’t show greater or lower levels of affection that what their genes would suggest.
"Our genes simply predispose us to certain kinds of behaviours; that doesn't automatically mean we're going to engage in those behaviours," Floyd said in the press release. "And it certainly doesn't mean that we have no control over them."
Surviving without hugs and touch during COVID-19
In the University of Arizona’s press release, Floyd also talks about skin hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic:
· "There's something special about touch that I think relates back to the fact that we, as human beings, are born in such a state of immaturity that we have no ability to take care of our own needs. Touch equals survival as infants. If we don't have someone touching us and helping to meet our needs, then we don't survive."
· "Just like regular hunger reminds us that we're not getting enough to eat, skin hunger is the recognition that we're not getting enough touch in our lives. Many people these days are recognising that they miss getting hugs, they miss touch, and it's maybe the one thing technology hasn't really figured out how to give us yet."
Floyd gives some examples of what people can do during the pandemic to make up for a lack of touch, including petting your dog or cat, cuddling your pillow or blanket and practising self-massage. "None of these is a perfect substitute," Floyd said, "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."
To find out more about touch deprivation during COVID-19, read our detailed guide here, which addresses several common questions. You can find out more about signs of touch deprivation here, and the effects of skin hunger here.
Kory Floyd, Chance York & Colter D. Ray (2020) Heritability of affectionate communication: A twins study, Communication Monographs, DOI: 10.1080/03637751.2020.1760327