Science Interviews


Mon, 15th Feb 2016

Mythconception: Kissing is universal

Kat Arney, The Naked Scientists

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Rules of Attraction: The Science of Sex

Think kissing comes naturally to all of us? Kat Arney has been investigating for a Rodin's The Kissromantically-charged mythconception...

Kat -  Love is in the air, and what better way to pass the time with a bit of kissing and canoodling with an attractive human of your choice? From pecking on the lips to a full-on snogging session, kissing is associated with romantic desire in popular culture the world over - in art, films, books, music videos and everything else, it’s something done by lovers with intimate designs on each other. Or is it?

In fact, a study published in 2015 by American anthropologists showed that around the world, just under half of the 168 cultures investigated liked to lock lips in a romantic setting - and many of those who didn’t thought that the behaviour was actually pretty gross. In their paper, sexily titled “Is the Romantic–Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?”, the researchers showed that only 46% of cultures fancied a snog. For example, out of 10 cultures studied in Europe, only seven kissed in a romantic way on the lips. Across the pond it’s even fewer, with 18 out of 22 North American cultures playing tonsil hockey, and just four out of 33 in South America swapping their spit. By contrast, all ten of the Middle Eastern cultures in the study enjoyed a smooch, and in general, more socially complex cultures went in for kissing more than less complex ones, while hunter-gatherer societies tended to find it disgusting.

The research poured cold water on previous work suggesting that kissing was a near-universal display of love. This idea was supported by observations from scientists who had spotted chimps and bonobos having a cheeky snog, suggesting it might be something that goes way back in our evolutionary history. But the discovery that half of all cultures don’t kiss shows that the belief that snogging is universal to humans is probably the result of an excessive focus on a small range of Western cultures as being representative of the entire world. The joy of ethnocentrism...

So, given that kissing must be a cultural phenomenon rather than an innate behaviour, why do any of us kiss at all? For a start, the cultures that do kiss believe that it’s a good way to judge whether a potential partner is up for taking things further, and if they’re likely to be sexually compatible - and, perhaps, to test more subtle cues about their health (and halitosis). A questionnaire-based study found that kissing seems to be more important for bonding in long-term relationships than as a turn-on in the heat of passion - although many respondents said that a first kiss was a good way of checking out a potential partner’s… errr… potential.

Building on this, a 2014 paper showed that test participants - particularly women - judged descriptions of people to be more attractive if they were told they were good kissers.

And on a more basic biological level, a 2014 study revealed that a ten second kiss results in around 80 million bacteria being swapped between snoggers, which might potentially help to boost immunity between partners.

Something to think about if you’re lucky enough to have a willing partner to give you a big snog on Valentine’s day. Although don’t think too hard about all those bacteria - I wouldn’t want to be responsible for putting you off!



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