The Effects of Affection

by DIANE BOUDREAU

by Diane Boudreau

"I love you."

Three simple words. But said together, they may well be the most complicated sentence ever spoken.

Think of all the scenarios in which they might be said.

A man is down on one knee, proposing marriage to his beloved. A mother comforts a distraught child. A woman says it to her date, who does not return the sentiment.

A man says it to a woman with whom he is trying to have sex. A teenager says it to her mother, just before asking to borrow the car keys. A man says it to his ex-girlfriend, even though she has told him repeatedly to leave her alone.

In all of these situations, the intent and interpretation of those three simple words is very different. Sometimes it is a genuine expression of emotion. Sometimes it is used to manipulate. Sometimes it pleases the recipient. Sometimes it causes confusion. At times, it can even be intimidating.

A simple expression of affection–through word or deed–can have a wide variety of emotional effects that range from joy to discomfort to outright fear. In fact, affection also has distinct physical effects–both for the receiver and the giver.

Kory Floyd is fascinated by the effects of affection. Floyd is an associate professor at Arizona State University's Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. He has devoted his career to studying affectionate communication, examining the topic from every possible angle.

How do people express affection? What physical and emotional effects come from giving and receiving affection? What causes people to interpret affection positively, and what causes them to take it negatively? What impact does gender have on affection?

Floyd's newest research ventures into a relatively unexplored territory: How does affection affect our health?

"Being affectionate is good for you," Floyd says. "Affection can be a simple, non-pharmaceutical, cheap way to reduce stress."

Floyd has found that there are direct associations between being an affectionate person and a lower risk of depression and stress. His findings were published in the Spring 2002 issue of Communication Quarterly.

"Highly affectionate people tend to have better mental health and less stress. They also react to stress better," he says.

The results were interesting, but left Floyd with even more questions than he started with. Does affection have positive effects for people who aren't naturally affectionate? Do the benefits of expressing affection actually come from receiving it in return? Is expressing affection beneficial even if the affection is not returned?

To find out, Floyd had to venture beyond traditional social science methods. He enlisted the help of colleagues in kinesiology, psychology, and nursing to develop a laboratory experiment.

In the lab, Floyd induced a stress response among his subjects. The stress response includes a rise in blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. People with chronically high stress levels are known to be at risk for a variety of health problems.

After raising their stress levels, Floyd divided his subjects into three groups. One group wrote an affectionate letter to a loved one. Another simply thought about people they love and why they love them without expressing anything. The final group just sat quietly.

Stress levels among the letter-writing group dropped sharply compared to the other groups. In fact, the thinking group showed a slight increase in stress levels.

"It wasn't substantial, but they continued to have stress reactions," Floyd says. "It's not just thinking about the person, but conveying feelings that produces a response."

In the control group, which sat quietly, the men showed a small reduction in stress, but the women's stress continued to increase.

"Just sitting there often raises stress levels. People say they just need to sit and cool down, but that doesn't usually work," Floyd says.

At the start of the study, Floyd asked the subjects to rate themselves on a scale he uses to determine how affectionate people are. He found that people's overall affection level didn't make a difference in the stress response. Even people who aren't naturally affectionate can reap the health benefits of affectionate communication.

Floyd's work supports a growing body of research connecting social behaviors with health benefits. For instance, some studies have shown that married people and people with strong social networks are healthier than those without such ties. Other research shows health benefits from therapeutic touch, such as massage.

Floyd is one of only a few researchers specifically connecting affectionate communication with physiology. He currently teaches a course on the physiology of communication.

"It's a new area," he explains. "I think it will open up a number of avenues and provide ways to look at questions we've had for a long time. It's not a way to replace our social science perspectives but a way to add to them."

Floyd has a huge foundation of social science perspectives to which he can add. He has amassed so much data about affection over his career that he wrote a book on the subject. The book is Communicating affection: Interpersonal behavior and social context (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

"Affection is continually interesting to me. I study it because there are things about it that are so counter-intuitive," he says. "I think a lot of people in the social sciences grow up to study things that confuse them in early life. One of the things I always had a hard time figuring out when I was growing up was why, when I expressed affection to people, they sometimes didn't respond favorably. I grew up in a very affectionate family. You grow up thinking everybody's like you are. I had a hard time figuring out why something as positive as receiving affection could affect people negatively."

He cites an example from his high school years. Floyd transferred to a new school when he was a senior. He became friends with one of his classmates there.

"One day we left campus to go to lunch. We came back and were separating to go to our classes. I said, 'bye' and hugged him."

Floyd didn't think much about a quick hug between friends. But his friend interpreted the gesture differently.

"He wouldn't talk to me the rest of the day," the ASU researcher says. "The next day I said, 'What's up?' and he said, 'That just made me so uncomfortable.' I was baffled."

Floyd is not alone in his experiences.

"I've heard a lot of variations on the same story during my studies," he says. "A lot of men say they saw a friend or brother after a long time and went in for a hug only to find the other man extending his hand for a handshake."

How can a simple act like a hug make people uncomfortable? Floyd says there are four potential risks associated with receiving affection:

  • The recipient may feel obligated to respond in kind, even if he or she isn't particularly affectionate.
  • The recipient may not share the feeling, or share it to the same extent. This often happens in new relationships.
  • The recipient may misinterpret the gesture. Affectionate behaviors can be ambiguous. For example, a platonic expression of friendship may be interpreted as romantic.
  • The recipient may suspect that the expression is given with an ulterior motive.

These fears are not unfounded. Floyd surveyed more than 1,000 college students as part of one study. He asked them, "Have you ever verbally expressed affection to someone insincerely, with an ulterior motive?" Almost 90 percent of his respondents said they had, and 75 percent of those admitted to doing so within the last three months.

In each of the four situations mentioned above, people often react to an affectionate gesture with a stress response.

"We so often think we want people to like us. But that's not quite as enduring as we think," Floyd says. "There are people we'd just as soon not like us at all. When these people show affection we can respond with stress."

Several characteristics differentiate stress-inducing affection from stress-reducing affection. Sometimes, characteristics of the people involved make a difference. Sometimes the situation itself determines how affection is perceived.

Gender is an important personal characteristic that plays a role in the perception of affection. According to Floyd's research, both men and women tend to receive affection positively from women. When a man is expressing affection, however, women often respond positively Men are more likely to respond negatively unless the giver is related to them.

"A lot of men said they were more comfortable being affectionate with brothers and/or fathers than with friends, even if they feel closer to friends," he says.

An example of a situational influence on affection would be whether affection is expressed in public or private. In one study, Floyd asked people how they would react to a friend displaying affection in public versus in private. Would they worry about whether the expression was romantic or not?

"We predicted people would be more comfortable in private where no one else could see them. People said the opposite. They'd say, 'In private I'd wonder why they waited until we were in private.' In a public setting, the other person is obviously not worried about appearance," Floyd says.

Now that he has amassed so much information, Floyd is looking at ways his work can be applied to improve people's lives. His health studies are one facet of that progression. His latest research examines affection's influence on blood sugar levels.

"If being affectionate can lower our blood sugar, that result has implications for diabetes. I'm dealing with questions now that wouldn't have been interesting to me five years ago, that I wouldn't even have been able to look at then," he says.

Health isn't the only area where this work can be applied. For example, Floyd says affection research could prove useful in sexual harassment litigation.

"Where does affectionate behavior cross that line? This can cost people their jobs," he says. "Culture is changing on what's acceptable in the workplace and in schools. Some schools now punish five and six-year-olds for sexual harassment. A lot of schools have policies of no touch between students and teachers."

But he points out that these policies are not grounded in research about the costs and benefits of touch.

"How are you really hurting kids the most? By hugging or not hugging? It's irresponsible to look at only one side of the coin. Research is not going to be able to answer that–it's really a policy decision. But research can provide the information that can help policy makers to make informed decisions about where to draw those lines."

Research on affection at ASU is supported by the American Psychological Foundation. For more information about specific studies, contact Kory Floyd, Ph.D., Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, 480.965.3568. Send e-mail to: kfloyd@asu.edu Visit the Communication Sciences Laboratory at: http://www.asu.edu/clas/communication