Not long after immigrating to the U.S. from Colombia in 2003, I realized the importance of personal space to Americans. No longer should I kiss someone on the cheek to say hello, as we do in my native country; a handshake, or even a wave of the hand, would suffice. I chalked it up to cultural differences, but a new study suggests that we'd all be better off—healthier, in fact—if we invaded each other's personal space more often. 

According to a study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers, “Does hugging provide stress-buffering socials support?” which will be published online today in Psychological Science, hugging helps reduce illnesses caused by stress.

“What we were interested in determining was whether social support buffers the effect of frequent conflict on becoming infected with the cold virus,” says Denise Janicki-Deverts, team research psychologist in the study.

Social Support Hugs
Carnegie Mellon University

Buffering effects of (a) social support and (b) daily hugs on the association of daily social tension with risk for infection. We expect that the buffering effect of support will be partly or wholly attributable to the attenuating effect of hugs on infection risk (c). 

The study of 406 participants, chosen because of their low levels of immunity to the cold virus, required them to complete questionnaires on the availability of social support. In phone interviews, researchers queried them about social activities, interpersonal tension, and whether participants had been hugged that day. Participants were exposed to the common cold and later quarantined to evaluate for signs of illness or infection.

“People who reported receiving few hugs showed an increased risk of becoming infected with increasing daily tension, whereas people who received a lot of hugs, there was no association between tension and infection,” said Janicki-Deverts. More frequent hugs were associated with more efficient nasal clearance and higher levels of perceived support were associated with more frequent hugging. “The data suggests that perhaps one of the ways that people’s perception of social support are being translated into protection from infection is through this mediating factor of being hugged more frequently."