Consensual Hugs Seem To Reduce Stress

When a friend comes to you after a stressful day, how do you comfort them? Do you let them rant? Do you pour them a glass of wine? Those could work. But a new study finds that a very effective technique is also simple and easy.


Michael Murphy is a psychology postdoc at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He wanted to know if people who received hugs regularly could handle stress and conflict better.

“Individuals who report perceiving the availability of a network of supportive individuals tend to show better adaptation when faced with stress.”

But just because you have a support network does not mean that you definitely feel that support.

“So some researchers have argued that many of the behaviors we use to support others who are stressed might actually be counterproductive because these behaviors might unintentionally communicate to others that they're not competent to manage stress.”

Murphy and his team interviewed 404 men and women every evening for two weeks.

“During these interviews, the participants were asked a simple yes or no question—whether somebody had hugged them that day—and a simple yes or no question of whether they had experienced conflict or tension with somebody that day. They also were asked questions about their social interactions—how many social interactions they had that day—and responded to questions about negative and positive mood states.”

And the researchers found that individuals who experienced a conflict were not as negatively affected if they received a hug that day as were participants who experienced conflict and didn’t get a hug. Murphy and his team also saw that people who received a hug didn’t carry the negative effect to the next day, while those who did not receive a hug would. The findings are in the journal PLOS One. [Michael L. M. Murphy, Denise Janicki-Deverts and Sheldon Cohen, Receiving a hug is associated with the attenuation of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflict]

Murphy does include this caveat: “So our findings should not be taken as evidence that people should just start hugging anyone and everyone who seems distressed. A hug from one boss at work or a stranger on the street—that could be viewed as neither consensual or positive.”

The idea is to relieve stress. Not add to it.

—Lucy Huang

(The above text is a transcript of this podcast)