Hugging is one of the earliest ways we learn to communicate, but as we grow so too do the complexities of engagement. Do you go one arm over, one arm under, or does the taller person put both arms above the shoulders? Should it be short and sharp? Or long and gentle? How do these details change in hugs between friends versus new acquaintances?
It’s the logistical gymnastics of introvert nightmares, but thankfully science is here to lend a hand. In a two-part study, researchers looked into the ins and outs of hugging it out, to see if there was a recipe to the perfect hug (a balm for anyone suffering from skin hunger). Their results showed that the crisscross arm formation (one arm under, one arm over) takes the lead, while a 5- to 10-second duration was deemed the most pleasant.
How to hug – study one
The scientists behind the research used two approaches to reach their conclusions, which were published in Acta Psychologica. The first recruited 45 female college students who were blindfolded and then hugged by a female researcher. The person running the study hugged the blindfolded participants for 1, 5, and 10 seconds, switching between crisscross and neck-waist (one person’s arms above the other’s) to see how they responded.
Across the board, the shortest hugs were found to be the least enjoyable while 5- to 10-second hugs were received with equal pleasure ratings. Hugging style on the other hand seemed to have no influence on the enjoyability factor of the hug.
Lab settings understandably aren’t the ideal setting for a big hug-off, and the researchers accept that the pleasure rating of short and longer hugs may have been influenced by the repetitive nature of the research. With each candidate receiving six hugs in total, it’s possible that longer hugs were considered less socially awkward than they might be “in the wild” as the huggees were getting used to being hugged, while blindfolded, by a stranger.
How to hug – Study two
Part two of the research took to the streets (well, technically a college campus), and asked 100 pairs of students who were already engaged in socializing to give each other a squeeze. No recommendation was given as to which hug style to opt for, and the researchers recorded their style, closeness, height, and gender for analysis.
The crisscross hug reigned supreme in all participants but was most popular between males, taking place in 66 percent and 82 percent of hugs respectively. Personal closeness appeared to have no bearing on the preferred formation.
It was noted that most participants were around the same height, which could possibly account for the preference for crisscross hugs as neck-waist embraces might be more appropriate for vertically mismatched pairs. It’s also possible this hug is reserved for more romantic settings for some people.
“When we did this second study, we talked to people,” Goldsmiths psychologist and first author Anna Düren from the University of London told Science. “They’d often say ‘Oh yeah, the neck-waist feels a bit more intimate.’”
How to hug – the results
There were some aspects of a friendly embrace not explored, such as how do subjects feel about a hug that goes on longer than 10 seconds, or how hard (or not) should one squeeze the recipient of a hug. However, there are some top tips to take away from the two studies.
So, next time you find yourself faced with a hug, remember: one arm over, one arm under, no less than 5 seconds' duration but no more than 10. Easy, no?