01 May 2015

Hugs for Health

Welcome back. I’m not going to apologize. I feel bad if you caught a cold, but give me a break. I was blogging about hand hygiene when the study about the health benefits of hugging appeared. Of course you’d have paid more attention to hugging than to hand washing and drying, but that research was so widely reported, I just filed it away.
Meerkats at Indonesia zoo. (Photo
by Fajar Andriyanto/Solent on
multiple websites; taken from
10 Feb 2012

Are you still getting sick? Are you hugging? Did you miss all the media reports? OK, here are the highlights of that research from Carnegie Mellon, Virginia and Pittsburgh universities.

Support, Hugging and Sickness Data  

First, they had over 400 healthy volunteers complete a questionnaire, rating true to false a short series of statements on their social support (e.g., I don't often get invited to do things with others; If I were sick, I could easily find someone to help me with my daily chores).

Then, every night for two weeks, researchers telephoned each volunteer, asking how often they’d experienced conflict or tension with others that day and how often they’d been hugged.

For the final step in data collection, the researchers quarantined the volunteers in hotels, infected them with a cold virus and monitored (1) the mucus content of tissues the volunteers used to blow their noses, (2) the time needed to clear mucus colored by a dye injected into the volunteers’ upper respiratory tract, and (3) levels of cold and flu antibodies measured through blood samples.

Study Results

The median values (half above, half below) of the questionnaire ratings indicated that, as a group, the volunteers felt secure about their social support. In addition, on average over the two week interview period, the volunteers hugged much more than they suffered interpersonal conflict (9 to 10 of the 14 days versus about 1 of the 14 days). Exposed to the virus, 78% of the volunteers developed an infection, 31% got sick.

Detailed analysis of the data, controlling for variables such as age, gender, relationship status and personality, revealed much more.

While earlier work showed that stress associated with interpersonal conflict can weaken the immune system, the study found that perceived social support reduced the risk of infection associated with conflict. Moreover, hugging provided a stress-buffering effect, being responsible for nearly one-third of the protective effect of social support. For those who became infected, greater perceived social support and more frequent hugging predicted less severe illness regardless of conflict.

Wrap Up

I’m all for hugging as an indicator of social support. Nevertheless, I can’t get over how social support affects physical health, as demonstrated in this and earlier work, much of it by some of the same investigators (see P.S.).

If you’re a hugger and have been restraining yourself to reduce contagion, you can let loose, unless the other party’s sneezing, sniffling or worse. If you’re not a hugger, no doubt you know other ways to stay healthy. Either way, thanks for stopping by.


Hugging study in Psychological Science journal: pss.sagepub.com/content/26/2/135.abstract
Example articles on study:
Examples of earlier studies on social support and health in JAMA (1997) and Health Psychology (2005):

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