Receiving a hug from someone on a day of interpersonal conflict can help buffer against hard feelings, according to a new study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
People who engage more frequently in interpersonal touch tend to have better physical and mental health and improved relationships. Researchers suggest that interpersonal touch can enhance a person’s well-being by helping to buffer against the negative consequences of psychological stress, and touch might be a particularly effective buffer of interpersonal conflict.
This possibility holds important potential implications for health and well-being because conflicts with others are linked to a large range of negative psychological and physical outcomes. However, the generalizability of past research on this topic is limited because most studies have focused primarily on the role of touch in romantic relationships.
In the new study, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania focused on hugs, a relatively common support behavior that people engage in with a wide range of social partners, including family members, friends and romantic partners.
The researchers interviewed 404 adult men and women every night for 14 consecutive days about their conflicts, hug receipt, and positive and negative moods. Their findings reveal that receiving a hug on the day of conflict was simultaneously associated with a smaller decrease in positive emotions and a smaller increase in negative emotions.
The positive effects of the hugs may have lingered into the next day as well, as the participants reported a continued reduction of negative mood the following day.
Although the study is correlational, the results are consistent with the hypothesis that hugs help buffer against negative emotional changes associated with experiencing interpersonal conflict.
While more research is necessary to identify possible mechanisms, the findings from the large community sample suggest that hugs may be a simple yet effective method of providing support to both men and women experiencing interpersonal distress, according to the authors.
“This research is in its early stages,” said Dr. Michael Murphy of Carnegie Mellon University. “We still have questions about when, how, and for whom hugs are most helpful. However, our study suggests that consensual hugs might be useful for showing support to somebody enduring relationship conflict.”
Murphy co-authored the paper with Denise Janicki-Deverts and Sheldon Cohen.