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New study finds love of affection heavily attributed to genetics in women

Rebecca Marie Sasnett

Wilbur hugs Wilma after saving her from a cowboy in a skit during Bear Down Friday on University Boulevard on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014.

Nature versus nurture: A debate that may only be applicable to women when it comes to a love of affection. A new study found a “latent genetic factor” accounting for up to 48% variance in affection for women with null effects in men.

“Genes play a really important role in how affectionate women become as adults,” said Kory Floyd, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona, specializing in the study of affection. “It appears to play virtually no role in how affectionate men become — we still are trying to figure out why.” 

According to Floyd, the original goal of the study was to answer the broad question of why many people are more affectionate than others. He described that throughout life, it is easy to observe levels of affection among people; some are very affectionate, some are somewhere between and some are just not comfortable with a lot of affection. 

Even though the team assumed that environmental factors such as affectionate or non-affectionate households would play a big role, they also wanted to see how much of this trait is genetic. 

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“The question wasn’t which one is it — is it nature or is it nurture — we assumed that it would be a combination of both of those things,” Floyd said. 

To gather this information, Floyd worked with two other professors to find answers to their questions. The first professor — Colter Ray — was a former Ph.D. student of his who is now an interpersonal communication professor at San Diego State University. The second — Chance York — was an interpersonal professor at Kent State University specializing in behavioral genetics.

The three set off to find answers to their questions on the genetics of affection through surveying 464 pairs of twins, all ages 19 to 84, according to UANews

Some of the pairs were identical twins, meaning that they inherited 100% of the same genes and some were fraternal twins, meaning that they inherited about 50% of the same genes. 

The team assumed that if affection has a strong genetic component to it, then identical twins would likely show more similar levels of affection than fraternal twins. 

“What we expect to find is that the scores of twins who are identical are more similar to each other than the scores of twins who are fraternal because they are more closely related genetically,” Floyd said.

In the survey sent out, every participant was able to report on their levels of affection using a measurement system that would assess it. Essentially, Floyd and the team wanted to find how similar scores would be within pairs. 

Through the survey, it was found that for the female participants alone, around 48% of affection levels could be attributed to genetics and 52% could be attributed to environmental factors. In the males, genetic components played absolutely no role. 

Floyd explained that this study brings the discipline of communication into a new realm.

“In my field, we have a very strong assumption that differences between people in terms of their social behavior are almost entirely environmental,” Floyd said. “Unlike fields like psychology, for example, we don’t have a history of looking at biology or genetics or heritability as explanations for social behavior.”

He believes that this study could lead people to question the assumption in the communication discipline that most social behaviors are purely products of an environment.

Recently, Floyd has also participated in research on the concept of “skin hunger.” According to Psychology Today, skin hunger is “a deep longing and aching desire for physical contact with another person.” 

During the times of COVID-19, the concept of skin hunger could not be more relevant. 

“I think a lot of people right now are really feeling like, ‘I miss getting hugs, I miss holding hands or kissing or putting my arm around somebody,’” Floyd described. “It’s really the one thing that social media and Skype and Zoom don’t allow us to do.”

In research on deprivation of touch in the past, Floyd has found that it can definitely increase negative feelings like loneliness, anxiety, sleep issues and even a depressed immune system. 

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Though Floyd has not found any solutions to this issue, he believes that there are many ways to cope with the deprivation of physical attention. A major coping mechanism that Floyd suggests for those struggling with such a type of deprivation is to be around animals.

“Petting a dog, petting a cat, petting a horse can have some of the same benefits in terms of calming us, in terms of anxiety reduction, in terms of stress reduction,” Floyd said.

So, regardless of sex and your level of genetic cravings for affection, a reliable coping mechanism for the skin hunger you may be facing during these times could be to invest in a dog or cat.

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