Oxford scientists discover secrets of kissing

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A team from Oxford University have discovered that kissing aids humans in the search for the perfect partner.

A survey of 900 adults, conducted by the university’s Department of Experimental Psychology, looked at the importance of kissing in both long and short term relationships.

The team constructed the experiment to see if there was evidence to support the idea that kissing is used to determine the compatibility of a potential mate by allowing partners to gain an understanding of each others’ biological indicators. These can include compatibility, genetic fitness and general health.

Responses to the survey revealed that men valued kissing as less important than women. When considered with previous studies that have found that women tend to be more discriminating when first selecting a partner, this seems to suggest that kissing contributes to choice in assessing potential mates.

In addition, the survey found that men and women who believed themselves to be more attractive, or who had more short-term relationships, rated kissing as more important.

However, women in long term relationships also rated kissing as important, suggesting that it has a strong role in bonding and mediating within more established partnerships.

The experiment also revealed that in shorter relationships kissing was mainly used as a prelude for sex. In contrast, in long term relationships more frequent kissing generally led to increased satisfaction in the relationship, but did not necessarily lead to more sex.

A companion paper in the journal Human Nature also revealed that female attitudes to kissing may depend on the menstrual cycle. It found that women tended to value kissing more highly when most likely to conceive, and at the start of a relationship.

“Kissing in human sexual relationships is incredibly prevalent in various forms across just about every society and culture,’ said Rafael Wlodarski, the DPhil student who carried out the research. “Kissing is seen in our closest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos, but it is much less intense and less commonly used[…] we are still not exactly sure why it is so widespread or what purpose it serves.”

He added: “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. We wanted to see which of these theories held up under closer scrutiny.”

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

Explaining what role selection processes had in finding a mate, he continued: “In choosing partners, we have to deal with the “Jane Austen problem”: how long do you wait for Mr Darcy to come along when you can’t wait forever and there may be lots of you waiting just for him? At what point do you have to compromise for the curate?”

Yihui Fan, a St Anthony’s sociology student said that kissing his partner has “to some extent…changed from a sensational thing to a ritual of affection. By saying ‘ritual’ I don’t means it’s getting bored or lack of the exciting feeling when we first kissed. I mean that it has become part of the relationship itself”.

The findings are published in two papers, the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, and the journal Human Nature. The research was generously funded by the European Research Council.

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