Affection and love are often considered as fundamental human needs. Expressing affection is important to both the maintenance and development of personal relationships. Saying “I love you,” hugging, and kissing enact or portray feelings of affection. But are these affectionate behaviors hereditary? A new study published in the journal Taylor & Francis online says yes, genetics influence how affectionate women are but the same cannot be observed in men.
Kory Floyd from the Department of Communication at the University of Arizona and their team used a twin study design to explore the extent to which affectionate behavior is a heritable trait. A total of 928 people or 464 twins participated in the study. About half of the twins were fraternal and the other were identical between the ages 19 and 84. These participants provided data on their affectionate communication behavior.
Affectionate behavior variability: genetics vs. environmental influences
The study found that affectionate behavior variability in women can be explained 45% by genetics and 55% by environmental influences, including personal relationships, media, and other special life experiences. On the other hand, it appears that genetics does not influence how affectionate the male population is. The affectionate behavior variation of men appears to be solely influenced by environmental factors rather than a mix of environmental and genetic influences. This finding was a surprise to the authors.
Floyd, who led the study and whose studies focused on the communication of affection in relationships and its effects on physiological functioning and stress, said that what accounts for the affectionate behavior variation was recognizing that some individuals are more affectionate than others. This led them to know whether genes play a role in affection or not.
He went on to say that in his field of study and profession, there is an underlying presumption that whenever there are differences in the trait level of social behaviors in people, like how shy or talkative they are, it is because these differences are learned. It is believed that these traits are a function of the environment where a person lives. This is why a study like theirs creates room for them to consider the possibility that other behavioral and social traits have a genetic component instead of just automatically assuming that they are learned.
Why use the twin study design?
According to the University of Arizona researchers, twin studies are often used to determine how genetic and environmental factors influence certain traits. Since twins are usually raised in the same house, they often have the same early experiences and upbringings. On the other hand, the genetic similarities of the twins vary depending on what types of twins they are. Fraternal twins share only 50% genetic similarities like they are regular siblings, but identical twins share 100% genetic material.
Participants were presented with a series of statements for them to rate. The results would help measure how much affection they often express to other people around them. The authors then looked at how similar the affectionate behavior was between the twins. If genes did not play a role in their affectionate behavior, it could be assumed that the scores of fraternal twins would be the same as identical twins. Yet, this was not what the researchers found. They discovered that the scores of identical twins were more similar than the fraternal twins, at least in women twins. This suggests that there is a genetic component to people’s affectionate behavior.
Although the team cannot yet pinpoint why affectionate behavior appears to be heritable in the female population than male, Floyd notes that men tend to express less affection than women on average, as evidenced by previous research.
Floyd said that when they measure the tendency of people to be affectionate to others and to receive affection, we find that women score higher compared to men. Focusing on the evolutionary sense, he said that such a trait of being affectionate may be more adaptive for the female population. There has also been speculation that affectionate behavior is more helpful for women in terms of their health than it is for men in the sense that the behavior helps them manage the effects of stress. The University of Arizona researchers added that this may partly be the reason why more women inherit the tendency to behave affectionately than it just being an influence of their environment.
Floyd, who is also a professor of psychology and communication, highlighted that their study results are not at the individual level but at a population level. In short, it doesn’t suggest that the level of affectionate behavior of every woman can be attributed 45% to genetics and 55% to environmental factors. It also doesn’t mean that an individual can be more or less affectionate than what their genes show. The genes simply predispose a person to certain behaviors but don’t automatically mean we have to engage in said behaviors. It likewise doesn’t mean that people have no control over the behaviors just because it is what our genes suggest.
In a survey conducted by database company Statista among married women in Japan in 2018, around 88% of respondents said they rarely show any physical affection to their spouses. It shows that physical affection was second to the last in frequent activity among married couples in Japan.
Dealing with “skin hunger” amid the Covid-19 pandemic
The team further suggests that people who tend to be more affectionate may especially miss handshakes and hugs in the days of Covid-19, wherein physical distancing is required to lessen the risk of coronavirus transmission. Nevertheless, huggers are not the only people who crave for affection because humans, in general, are wired to need human touch.
The Pew Research Center moreover found that four in ten Americans who are married or in a committed relationship say that they are often or sometimes bothered by the amount of time their partner spends on their cellphone. Some 12% say they are often bothered by how much time their partner spends on their phone, on social media (8%), or by playing video games (5%). Americans are even familiar with the term phubbing or the practice of snubbing others in favor of their phones. About half (51%) of Americans in a romantic relationship say their partner is distracted by their phone when they are trying to talk to them. The time they spend on social media or their phone is a sacrifice to the time partners could use to bond.
A simple expression of affection, either through deed or word, can have various emotional and physical effects on both the receiver and the giver. This new research is interesting as it ventures beyond the environmental influences of affectionate communication.