Now, a Kiss Isn’t Just a Kiss
Today is my last day at work until the 6th Jan. I wish you all a safe, healthy, and hormonally happy Christmas and New year. My posts will be sporadic until then, so I close with a light-hearted but important look at kissing.
October 28, 2013, 4:48 pm
<!– — Updated: 12:16 pm –> 149 Comments
Now, a Kiss Isn’t Just a KissBy JAN HOFFMAN
Recently, experimental psychologists at Oxford University explored the function of kissing in romantic relationships.
Surprise! It’s complicated.
After conducting an online survey with 308 men and 594 women, mostly from North America and Europe, who ranged in age from 18 to 63, the researchers have concluded that kissing may help people assess potential mates and then maintain those relationships.
But another hypothesis about kissing — that its function is to elevate sexual arousal and ready a couple for coitus — didn’t hold up. While that might be an outcome, researchers did not find sexual arousal to be the primary driver for kissing.
Participants in the survey were asked about their attitudes toward kissing in different phases of romantic relationships. They were then asked about their sexual history: for example, whether they had been more inclined toward casual encounters or long-term, committed relationships. They also had to define their “mate value” by assessing their own attractiveness. Later, during data analysis, the researchers looked at how individual differences affected a person’s thoughts on kissing.
Earlier research had suggested that in a new relationship, a romantic kiss serves to pull two relative strangers into each other’s space, their faces glued together, possibly transmitting pheromonal, sensory, even genetic cues to each other’s brain. This could be a kind of primal interview: Could this person be mating material?
Mr. Wlodarski’s results suggest a more nuanced dynamic.
The participants generally rated kissing in casual relationships as most important before sex, less important during sex, even less important after sex and least important “at other times.” (To clarify: researchers defined kissing as “on the lips or open-mouth (French).”)
Past research has shown that three types of people tend to be choosier in selecting mates who are genetically fit and compatible: women, those who rate themselves highly attractive, and those favoring casual sex. In this study, these people said that kissing was important mostly at the start of a relationship.
That may be because for these individuals, kissing turns out to be a quick, easy way to sample a partner’s suitability — a subconscious stop-go light. For them, “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” might not be far off the mark.
After that first kiss, these types are much more likely than other subjects to change their minds about a potential partner, researchers found. If it’s not in his kiss, forget about him.
But other people might use different criteria to size up their mates: men, those who rate themselves as less sexually attractive, and people looking for commitment. In the grand search for a partner, these individuals screen for people who seem to have the inclination and resources for the long haul. And for them, this study showed, kissing has a lower priority at the beginning of dating.
Particularly for men and women looking for long-term relationships, kissing serves other purposes, like relationship upkeep. They would use their orbicularis oris muscle to mediate, ameliorate and sustain their connections. They rated kissing equally important before sex and at “other times not related to sex.” For these participants, kissing was least important during sex.
Among the study’s participants who said they were in exclusive relationships, frequency of kissing, rather than of sexual intercourse, was best correlated with relationship happiness.
“You would think that intercourse would be even more bonding, more intimate, but that’s not necessarily so,” Mr. Wlodarski said. “Maybe you have a happy relationship and you don’t need more intercourse.” For contented couples, he said, kissing continued to be a conveyor of emotion.
Justin R. Garcia, an evolutionary biologist at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and a scientific adviser to Match.com who was not involved in this research, noted that kissing was so closely associated with emotional connection that sex workers often refuse to kiss their customers, insisting that it is “too intimate.”
Kissing has been shaped by both society and biology, Mr. Wlodarski noted. “In many cultures, kissing was one of the first opportunities for individuals to get close enough to sniff each other in socially acceptable ways,” he said. The Inuit press their nostrils on the cheeks or forehead of someone for whom they feel great affection, gently inhaling their scent.
Dr. Garcia, a co-author of “Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior,” said that the Oxford study contributed to growing research into factors that promote or discourage happy romantic and sexual relationships. “We really only understand a small portion of that,” he said. “But we know that physical contact, specifically good quality touch, is really important for long-term relationships.”
And perhaps not just for humans. Some animal species approximate what humans would call kissing. Chimpanzees press their mouths together. Certain parrots tap their beaks. Elephants put the tips of their trunks in one another’s mouths and swirl them about. “It’s what we biologists call an affiliative gesture,” Dr. Garcia said.
Some in Hollywood have managed to divine some of the subtleties of kissing without the benefit of Oxford researchers.
Michelle King, who with her husband, Robert, is a co-creator of CBS’s “The Good Wife,” thinks a great deal about whether and when her sexually charged characters lock lips. “We put even more emphasis on kissing than sex,” she said. “We treat it as though it has more emotional import.”
Referring to Alicia Florrick (played by Julianna Margulies), who has a wary relationship with her husband Peter (Chris Noth), Ms. King remarked, “You see Alicia having sex with Peter more frequently and recreationally than her kissing him.”
But referring to the characters Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) and Kurt McVeigh (Gary Cole), older people who have just gotten married, Ms. King said, “you only see kissing with them, and a fair amount of it. There’s a soulful connection there, and the kissing is more conventionally romantic.”
Still, she understood that viewers might wonder why the couple has not yet been seen having sex. “Production difficulties got in the way,” she said.
A version of this article appears in print on 10/29/2013, on page D6 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Now, a Kiss Isn’t Just a Kiss