Why We Kiss
October 11, 2013

Why We Kiss

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Far from a simple show of affection, kissing allows people to gauge a potential romantic partner or maintain a relationship with an existing partner, according to new research in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

“Kissing in human sexual relationships is incredibly prevalent in various forms across just about every society and culture,” said study author Rafael Wlodarski, a post-graduate student at the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. “Kissing is seen in our closest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos, but it is much less intense and less commonly used.”

“So here's a human courtship behavior which is incredibly widespread and common and, in extent, is quite unique,” Wlodarski added. “And we are still not exactly sure why it is so widespread or what purpose it serves.”

For their research, Wlodarski and his Oxford colleague Robin Dunbar created an online questionnaire that attracted over 900 adults to answer questions about the value of kissing in both the early stages of a relationship and with a long-term partner.

“There are three main theories about the role that kissing plays in sexual relationships: that it somehow helps assess the genetic quality of potential mates; that it is used to increase arousal (to initiate sex for example); and that it is useful in keeping relationships together,” Wlodarski explained. “We wanted to see which of these theories held up under closer scrutiny.”

The online survey showed that women generally considered kissing to be more important in relationships than men. The survey also found that men and women who considered themselves attractive or who tended to have more casual sexual encounters, ranked kissing as being more important compared to those who did not.

Previous research has found that women are more inclined to be selective when initially selecting a partner. Research has also shown that men and women who have more casual sexual encounters are also more selective about choosing a potential mate. When the survey responses are considered in the context of this previous research, it indicates that kissing helps in assessing potential mates.

“Mate choice and courtship in humans is complex,” said co-author Dunbar, an anthropologist at Oxford. “It involves a series of periods of assessments where people ask themselves ‘shall I carry on deeper into this relationship?’”

“Initial attraction may include facial, body and social cues,” Dunbar continued. Then assessments become more and more intimate as we go deeper into the courtship stages, and this is where kissing comes in.”

The Oxford researchers compared their findings to the works of British novelist Jane Austen, who wrote about the sensibilities of women when it came to choosing a husband.

“What Jane Austen realized is that people are extremely good at assessing where they are in the ‘mating market’ and pitch their demands accordingly,” Dunbar said. “It depends what kind of poker hand you've been dealt. If you have a strong bidding hand, you can afford to be much more demanding and choosy when it comes to prospective mates.”

“We see some of that coming out in the results of our survey, suggesting that kissing plays a role in assessing a potential partner,” he added.

The researchers also found that respondents' perception of kissing changed based on whether it was being done in the context of a long-term or short-term relationship. Women in particular said it was more important in long-term relationships, indicating that kissing also plays an important role among established couples.