Receiving hugs may buffer against damaging effects of interpersonal conflict — an emotional experience where one feels held back from achieving their goals due to another person’s interference, scientists say.
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.
However, the generalisability of past research on this topic is limited because studies have largely focused on the role of touch in romantic relationships.
Researchers from the Carnegie Mellon University in the US focussed on hugs — a relatively common support behaviour 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.
“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,” said Michael Murphy of Carnegie Mellon University.