When We Can Hug Again, Will We Remember How It Works?

When We Can Hug Again, Will We Remember How It Works?

Alexis Block was worried that the robot she’d built was malfunctioning. She was testing the optimal hug duration for her “HuggieBot 1.0,” a purple-furred, on-demand squeeze machine. Ms. Block had built pressure sensors into the machine’s torso, so if the human tester tapped or squeezed the robot on the back, it let go. But this hug was going on and on. “I worried that the pressure sensors were malfunctioning,” she said.

Her palms began to sweat (getting stuck in the clutches of a giant robot is no one’s idea of a good time). But then, the hug ended, and the HuggieBot released its test subject. When Ms. Block, who is working toward her Ph.D. at the Max Planck ETH Center for Learning Systems in both Stuttgart, Germany and Zurich, Switzerland, asked the subject if something had gone wrong, he surprised her by explaining that he had wanted the hug to last a long time. “He said, ‘I just needed it, and the robot wasn’t going to judge me.’”

As the weeks of coronavirus quarantine stretched into months, hugs are among the many things isolated people found themselves aching for. Hugs are good for humans - perhaps more valuable than many of us realized, until we found ourselves missing them.

Research has shown that hugs can lower our cortisol levels during stressful situations, and can raise oxytocin levels and maybe even lower our blood pressure. A 2015 paper published in Psychological Science even found that study subjects who got more hugs were less likely to get sick when exposed to a cold virus than those who weren’t hugged as often.

“The need for human contact is extremely profound,” said Judith Hall, a psychology professor emerita at Northeastern University who researched interpersonal touch at the university’s Social Interaction Lab. But whether to hug someone or not sometimes seems fraught.

Not everyone enjoys having their body squished against yours - as evidenced by the wealth of “Not a Hugger” T-shirts available online. Ms. Block, the hug robot researcher, knows this all too well. Her best friend defines herself as “not a hugger.” She makes an exception for Ms. Block, but, “She told me she actually preferred hugging my robot to hugging me because sometimes I don’t let go,” Ms. Block, who is now working on a HuggieBot 2.0, said with a laugh.

It’s not always clear how long your hugging partner wants to hug, or how tight the embrace should be. It’s often a matter of judging the other person’s comfort level.

Which brings us to the first rule of Hug Club: You don’t have to hug anyone you don’t want to, and it’s best to ask before going in for a squeeze - especially if it’s someone you don’t know well. While, of course, you can simply say, “Can I hug you?,” Dr. Wendy Ross, the director of the Center for Autism and Neurodiversity at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, said a better way to ask is: “Some people like hugs, some don’t. What do you prefer?” This framing makes the question about the other person’s preferences.

Dr. Ross noted that asking for consent for interpersonal touch is crucial in our neurodiverse world. While some people, both on and off the autism spectrum, find comfort in touch, others are uncomfortable with it. “We’re all on the human spectrum,” she said.

This extends to kids, too - no matter how much you want a hug from your niece or nephew. “We’re sending our kids really mixed messages when we say ‘our bodies are our own,’ but also, ‘you need to hug your grandma,’” said Regine Galanti, a child psychologist who practices in Long Island. While it may be challenging to explain to grandma why your child rejected her hug request, in the long run, it will help your child understand that it’s OK to deny anyone access to your body.

The good news is that once you’ve established that your hugging partner wants a hug, you’ll probably pick up on cues as to how long it should last. Sabine C. Koch, a psychologist and dance movement therapist who is head of the dance therapy master program at SRH University Heidelberg and director of the Research Institute for Creative Arts Therapies, published a paper in 2017 in the journal Behavioral Sciences on how people signal the end of a hug.

Dr. Koch, who also studies embodied communication and body rhythms at Alanus University in Bonn, sent graduate students out to train stations and student unions to watch as people hugged, paying particular attention to what happened right before the two parties separated. The students noted that hugs shifted from soft, “round” movements into a series of pats on the back - which she calls a "fighting rhythm". Right after the pats started, the hug ended.

"In most of the cases, people first of all have this very soft hug, and whenever a certain time was passing, they started to pat on the back and then they separated. This was true for all combinations of women with men and women with women", she said. But for men hugging men, it wasn't true. Their hugs began immediately with patting on the back - that fighting rhythm.

When We Can Hug Again, Will We Remember How It Works?
A prototype for another hugging robot.Credit - via Alexis Block

In the next phase of her study, Dr. Koch blindfolded participants and gave them a handkerchief. The blindfolds ensured they weren’t picking up visual cues on when the hug was ending, she says. The participants were instructed to drop the handkerchief when the hug was over. When the back pats started, most participants dropped the handkerchief.

"There were a couple of people in the experiments that didn’t use that cue, but it was a really low percentage", Dr. Koch said.

If you think you might be one of them and hug for too long? Just pay attention for those taps. That will be your cue that it’s time to let go.

Finally, don't worry too much about hugging too tightly. The HuggieBot 1.0 had three pressure settings: light, medium and extra squeeze. Ms. Block said that in her research, study participants most often rated the tightest hugs as their favorites.

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