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ASU to study power of affectionate physical contact

February 05, 2009

Forget the chocolates in a heart-shaped box, the expensive dinner at the 5-star restaurant, the once-annual bouquet of roses.  Two researchers at Arizona State University – Mary Burleson, associate professor of psychology in the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Mary Davis, professor in the Department of Psychology – suggest that there may be a better, cheaper and even healthier Valentine’s Day gift – affectionate touch.

And they are about to gather some scientific evidence to help us better understand how such physical contact produces health benefits.

Burleson and Davis, with support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will investigate the possibility that one of the mechanisms by which social contact enhances health and well-being is simple physical affection.  Burleson and her students in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences will specifically explore the cardiovascular effects of affectionate touch between spouses.

“I’ve always been interested in how touch and physical interaction affect people,” says Burleson, who received her doctorate in psychology from ASU in 1994 and has taught at the university since 1997.  “Touch is a powerful way we regulate our feelings.  How can you not be interested?  It’s who we are.

“The more we know about touch, the more we can help people overcome their challenges, their stress, and even mental disorders,” she adds, noting that the results of her work have the potential to be useful in developing behavioral interventions for stress management and to enhance adult health and well being.

Davis, in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, shares Burleson’s interest in understanding how our social relationships translate into better health.  “Much of the work in our field has focused on the downside of relationships,” says Davis, who received her doctorate in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1994 and has been teaching at ASU since.  “We know quite a bit about what happens when people fight or reject one another.  But the upside of our social connections has gotten much less attention.”

The majority of the research will be conducted in the Emotion, Culture, and Psychophysiology Laboratory on the university’s West campus.  A part of New College’s Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the lab takes an interdisciplinary approach to research and features graduate and undergraduate students who serve as research assistants.  Burleson says eight to 10 students will be working on the project at any given time and that work is already underway, with the selection of 200 couples, ages 21-48, married at least six months, scheduled to start next month.

“We know that social connection is beneficial to health and that research supports the idea that happily married individuals are healthier and live longer than the unmarried,” says Burleson.  The study has three specific goals:  to determine to what extent physical contact and social interaction contribute to lower blood pressure and heart rate responses to minor stressful tasks in the laboratory; to examine how physical contact and social interaction affect underlying contributors to blood pressure and heart rate responses; and to explore potential moderating influences of prominent individual differences, couple characteristics, and cultural context on these effects.

Partners participating in the exploratory study will spend 10 minutes together before separately performing a laboratory stressor while cardiovascular variables are recorded.  To differentiate the effects of physical contact from those of social interaction, couples will either touch or not, and will either converse warmly or not, before the stress-test period.  A control group will be seated alone in separate rooms.  Participants will be helping explore the possibility that affectionate touch in the context of a committed relationship buffers the potentially negative effects of laboratory stressors above and beyond the effects of positive social interaction.

The study also allows for the cultural context of touch and will include equal numbers of Latinos and non-Latinos for each experimental condition.  Although data are scarce, Latino cultures are viewed as “high-contact” relative to mainstream American norms, Burleson says, adding that Latinos have lower than expected cardiovascular risk, leading to the possibility that physical contact is a more potent reducer of stress responses in Latino couples.

“Attitudes toward and meanings of social touch appear to vary extensively across cultures, as do norms regarding its frequency and appropriateness,” says Burleson, who specializes in teaching physiological psychology, biology of human sexuality, biological bases of behavior, and psychopharmacology.  “This suggests the meaning, and hence the effect, of touch may be influenced by ethnic background.  This study also will begin to address these issues by comparing the effects of physical contact on laboratory stress responses between Latino and non-Latino participants.”

Burleson says that when you boil it down, physical contact is how we make ourselves and our companions feel better.  And, in these economically challenging times, affectionate touch is also more cost effective than a heart-shaped box of chocolates.

For more information about how to participate in Burleson's and Davis' research, call 602-543-6324.