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The Psychology of Chemistry

The Psychology of Good ChemistryProfessor’s Research Makes Headlines on Valentine’s Day

When author Emil Ludwig wrote, “The decision to kiss for the first time is the most crucial in any love story,” he had no scientific data to back up his assertion. But if you wanted to make that claim today, Susan Hughes, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, could give you evidence to support it.

Hughes and a colleague got the idea to study romantic kissing about five years ago as graduate students at the University of Albany, State University of New York. “I don’t even remember how it was brought up,” says Hughes. She knew there was a lot of literature on this common human behavior. What she didn’t know at the time is that very little empirical study had been done.

Hughes recalls reading one of the best regarded books on kissing and finding no citations of research. There were numerous theories about why humans kiss, she says, “but nobody had ever tested them.”

So she and her research partner administered three questionnaires to more than a thousand students at the university. Respondents were asked questions like how they decide whether or not to kiss someone and what role they think kissing plays in a long-term relationship. Would they be jealous if they saw their partner kissing someone else? Would it matter if the kiss was just a smooch or a deep, tongue kiss? The resulting study, “Sex Differences in Romantic Kissing among College Students: An Evolutionary Perspective” was published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology in 2007.

Much like kissing, Hughes has found that humans use the sound of a voice to determine a person’s attractiveness as a potential mate.

According to the study, Hughes and her colleagues hypothesized that women use kissing more as a mate assessment device, “whereas men, being the less investing sex, are expected to be less discriminating when seeking short-term mates.” Since women’s senses of smell and taste are more acute than men’s, researchers guessed that women use chemical clues in a kiss to judge the health and fitness of a potential mate. They reasoned that men too might get information about a woman’s fertility from the salivary exchange in kissing but that their decreased senses would require more saliva. They expected to find that both sexes equally use kissing to create and maintain a close bond in long-term relationships. But they hypothesized that women would be less inclined to kiss in short-term relationships because kissing could lead to sex.

The Psychology of Good ChemistryMany of the study’s results confirmed these hypotheses. While both sexes agreed that “kissing creates greater emotional closeness,” with both men and women feeling jealous if a partner kissed someone else, in most areas there was disagreement between the genders about the role of kissing in relationships.

The majority of women, for example, indicated they would be unwilling to have sex with a romantic partner without kissing him first. But 52 percent of men said they would go directly to sex with no kiss. As expected, men expressed a preference for wetter kisses with more tongue contact.

“That’s disgusting,” says Kristine Maravel ‘11, of Voorhees, N.J. She says for her, a good kiss is one that “isn’t sloppy.” When asked if men’s need for extra saliva to assess potential mates affected her feelings, she answered, “No, I still think it’s really gross.”

Men also felt, more often than women, that kissing should lead to sex in both short and long-term relationships. Men even indicated that they would be more willing to have sex with a woman they find unattractive than they would be to kiss her.

But Brian Benusa ‘10, of Wyomissing, Pa., isn’t sure he would take it that far. “To an extent I would agree with that,” he says of men’s willingness to have sex with a woman they aren’t attracted to. Although he wouldn’t do so himself, he says, “I could see that with the way our culture defines men. We’re sexually driven.”

And that first kiss? It turns out to be as crucial as Ludwig claimed.

While both Albright students identified some of the same traits leading to a first kiss—physical attractiveness, personality, sense of humor—Maravel confirms the old song lyric, “It’s in his kiss.” She says if her date was really nice and fun but not physically attractive, “I’d kiss him once, but if it wasn’t there, then I’d only be friends with him. You need to have the chemistry.” Or as Hughes would suggest, the psychology. According to her research, “What transpires during an initial kiss can have a profound effect on the future of that relationship.”

While Hughes admits the limitations of the study (it did not include research subjects who were married or had children, it was limited to a particular age group and studied only romantic kisses), it is one of the only studies ever to provide empirical data on kissing. You might think its being such a rare study would be interesting enough, but this is just the beginning of the story.

The Psychology of Good ChemistryAfter a press release went to the media about the research, the Chicago Sun Times ran a story, “Kiss and Tell: Pucker Power.” Within five months, Hughes’ research had been covered by media outlets from London to Toronto.

Then, on February 11, 2008, the Washington Post ran an article on the kissing study. What better topic for Valentine’s Day? Instantly, the story was picked up by newspapers, radio, and TV across the country. By February 18 at least 74 stories had been published or aired in everything from the Reading Eagle to the Fresno Bee.“Good Morning America” even came to one of Hughes’ classes with a camera crew, though the piece never aired.

“My Valentine’s Day was spent on the phone,” Hughes says. In addition to giving interviews and answering as many as 20 follow-up questions from a single reporter, she did live radio spots and TV appearances. “I was a hot ticket that week,” she recalls. One TV reporter, surprised by Hughes’ growing media savvy, asked, “Have you done this before?” when he noticed her answering questions in perfect sound bytes. She has, since then, become a regular contributor to National Public Radio.

Hughes says she welcomes the media interest as long as reporters don’t muddle the science. “There were a lot of great stories written,” she says, but at least one writer struggled with the facts, turning the statistic that men prefer wetter kisses over women by 30 percent into men prefer 30 percent wetter kisses.“We weren’t in there measuring the saliva,” Hughes jokes.

Still, she is glad to see her research getting the attention of the public. Always teaching her students how important it is to communicate the findings of their research, she feels that the media attention showed that “there is a connection between the research and the public.”

To date, 104 stories have been published or aired across the country and abroad.

Hughes hopes that her research will help us “think about our interactions with people on a different level,” becoming more aware of gender
differences and understanding each other better because of them.

Despite the popularity of the kissing research with the media, Hughes doesn’t foresee another study in the near future. The next step, she acknowledges, would be experimentation, asking her research subjects to kiss and observing the results. “I can’t see myself doing it,” she says, citing the artificial conditions as a drawback to the research. “But I don’t write it off altogether.”

For now, she plans to focus on her research into voice and attractiveness. Much like kissing, Hughes has found that humans use the sound of a voice to determine a person’s attractiveness as a potential mate. She and her colleagues discovered that those with more attractive voices had more attractive body shapes. Also, people whose voices were rated as more attractive had more sexual partners and more affairs. Her voice research, which appeared in Evolution and Human Behavior, has also received national media attention. “I’m lucky, working in psychology,” she quips, “I can do very hot, sexy topics.”


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