Do Our Genes Make Some Of Us More Prone To “Skin Hunger”?

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Katy Pallister 24 Jun 2020, 15:36

Physical distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic has left many of us craving human contact. Several months have gone by since some people’s last hugs, and this “affection deprivation,” also (rather strangely) called “skin hunger,” has become a struggle.

“Just like regular hunger reminds us that we're not getting enough to eat, skin hunger is the recognition that we're not getting enough touch in our lives,” Professor Kory Floyd, of the University of Arizona’s Department of Communication, said in a statement. “Many people these days are recognizing that they miss getting hugs, they miss touch, and it's maybe the one thing technology hasn't really figured out how to give us yet.”

Floyd’s latest research, published in Communication Monographs, suggests that the extent to which women may be feeling the effects of “skin hunger,” is in part influenced by genetics. By studying 464 pairs of adult twins, half identical and half fraternal, the researchers determined that in women their variability in affectionate behavior could be explained 45 percent by hereditary and 55 percent by environmental influences (i.e. relationships, life experiences, and the media). In men, however, affectionate behavior was not seen to be heritable.

These differences were assessed by getting participants to rank a series of statements relating to their affection levels. If genetics were to not play a role, fraternal twins (who share 50 percent of their genetic material) and identical twins (who share 100 percent), should be expected to have equally similar scores (assuming very similar upbringings). But the researchers found that pairs of identical female twins had more similar scores than female fraternal twins.

Why this wasn’t the case for men, has yet to be explained fully, but Floyd notes that previous research indicates that men, on average, express less affection overall.

“When we measure people's tendency to be affectionate and to receive affection from other people, almost without exception we find that women score higher than men,” Floyd explained.

“There is some speculation that affectionate behavior is more health supportive for women than it is for men, and that it helps women to manage the effects of stress more than it does for men,” Floyd continued. “That may be partly why women are more likely than men to inherit the tendency to behave that way rather than that tendency simply being a product of their environment.”

The split between hereditary and environmental influences, however, is not suggested to be the exact same in every women, Floyd points out, nor that your genes limit your affection levels.

“Our genes simply predispose us to certain kinds of behaviors; that doesn't automatically mean we're going to engage in those behaviors,” Floyd said. “And it certainly doesn't mean that we have no control over them.”

Nonetheless, those predisposed to be “huggers” may be finding physical distancing particularly challenging. In lieu of human contact, Floyd suggests people could pet their animals, cuddle a pillow, or practice self-massage.

“None of these is a perfect substitute," Floyd said, "but when being able to hug or hold hands with our loved ones isn't feasible or safe for us, these sorts of things are certainly better than nothing.”

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