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Hugs might lessen distress of interpersonal conflict

Being hugged on same day as conflict linked to reduction in deleterious effects on mood

Louise Prime

Thursday, 04 October 2018

Adults involved in interpersonal conflict are less likely to suffer negative psychological effects from the conflict if they receive hugs on the same day, US research has suggested. The team behind the study*, published in PLOS ONE, said their findings suggest that hugs might be a simple yet effective method of providing support to both men and women experiencing interpersonal distress.

Previous research has already shown that people who are more often in physical touch with other people tend to enjoy better health, both physical and psychological, and to have improved relationships. It had been proposed that a key path through which interpersonal touch might benefit well-being, is by buffering people against the deleterious consequences of psychological stress. This group of researchers decide to focus their investigation on hugs, which they pointed out are a relatively common support behaviour.

They recruited 18-55-year-old adult volunteers in “good general health” (confirmed later by examination) via newspaper advertisements and community postings in the greater Pittsburgh area, Pennsylvania. In total, 404 people were interviewed every night for 14 consecutive days about their conflicts, hug receipt, and positive and negative affect.

The study authors found that there was an interaction between hug receipt and conflict exposure: being hugged was associated with a smaller conflict-related decrease in positive affect, as well as with a smaller conflict-related increase in negative affect. They also reported that being hugged was prospectively associated with a smaller conflict-related increase in negative affect the following day; although not with next-day positive affect. They noted that their findings did not differ between men and women; between those married or in a marriage-like relationship, or not; or as a function of people’s perceived level of social support at baseline.

The researchers said that although their findings were correlational and so could not show cause and effect, they were “consistent with the hypothesis that hugs buffer against deleterious changes in affect associated with experiencing interpersonal conflict”.

They said more research is needed, for example into when, how and for whom hugs are most beneficial, but concluded: “Our findings from a naturalistic community with a large sample size suggest that hugs may be a simple yet effective method of providing support to both men and women experiencing interpersonal distress.”

*Murphy MLM, Janicki-Deverts D, Cohen S, et al. Receiving a hug is associated with the attenuation of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflict. PLOS ONE 2018; 13(10): e0203522. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0203522

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