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The effects of affection

February 14, 2007
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, an associate professor at ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, is fascinated by the effects of affection. 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.

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

The findings are 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.”

This story excerpted from the Winter 2006 edition of Research Magazine.

Diane Boudreau,