Why Do We Kiss?: The Science and Sociology Behind One of Our Favorite Pasttimes

12 Apr

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that kissing the person I love is one of my favorite ways to pass the time.  Even when it doesn’t lead to something even more earth-shattering, there is nothing so intimate, so soul satisfying, as kissing a person for whom you feel love and passion.

After reading Sheril Kirshenbaum‘s book, The Science of Kissing, I now understand why I feel this way.  This well-known science writer has compiled a veritable ton of data from anthropologists, microbiologists, neuroscientists and sociologist to help the reader understand why we insist on kissing each other.

Probably the first big shock was that not everyone does kisses the way we do in the United States.  While French kissing has become more prevalent since the proliferation of Western media throughout the world, there still are cultures for whom open-mouthed kissing is an anathema.  Some cultures kiss only on closed mouths or focus attention on kissing the face and neck area as a prelude to or during sexual contact.

So when did we start kissing each other like this?  The Kama Sutra has depictions of kissing represented (so that makes 1500 B.C.E. fair game for smooching) but even Bonobo monkeys (and other primates) have been known to exchange kisses, open mouthed and otherwise, for the purposes of titillation and relationship reinforcement, so it’s everyone’s best guess that like our fellow primates, we’ve been at this kissing thing for a while.  Take a look at some of the highlights from the book, put in a snazzy format.

Since I read these types of books not just because I’m interested in science, but also because I’m thinking about romance writing, it’s hard not to absorb material with that angle.  One of the chief themes of the book is not just why we kiss (what is the biological advantage to doing it) but also seeks to discover how do men and women experience kissing differently.

The advantage part comes through loud and clear.  By being close enough to smell and taste someone, a person actually is enabling their body to literally sample the person’s Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC).  I had read about the studies that Kirshenbaum relates, where men and women are exposed to the personal scent of various individuals of the opposite sex (usually t-shirts that have been slept in and not washed).  As long as they aren’t (in the case of women) taking birth control pills that mimic pregnancy, human beings have the amazing ability to literally sniff out the individuals who are most biologically compatible with us.  Our noses (which are pressed so close to that significant other) can scent who is able to offer us a set of complementary genes which would boost our offsprings immune systems.  We feel greater desire and attraction for these people because they smell and taste better to us.  A kiss really tells you something!

But while men and women are both driven by the MHC agenda, it’s definite that they experience kissing, or maybe approach it, with very different goals in mind.  In an interview with CNN, Kirschenbaum discusses how she reviewed studies showing attitudinal approaches to kissing, with results that few men and women would argue with.  Women are more cautious approaching kissing, using the exchange as an opportunity to “take the temperature” of the relationship and determine whether or not it should move forward.

Men, on the other hand, see kissing as a means to an end. Rating face and body attractiveness higher than the person being a “good kisser,” men were more likely to continue kissing someone simply in order to have sex with them.  They liked kissing and but placed less importance on kissing overall, no matter how long they had been in a relationship.

In a far less scientific study, Harlequin does annual polls about topics related to romance.  Last year’s survey was entitled “Kiss n’ Tell” and asked people about their kissing preferences and the importance of the act.

I was worried that the data would be skewed to women considering Harlequin’s readership, but there was an almost even number of either sex who answered the poll. While still a small number, when asked if the person they kissed was a bad kisser would they end things, more female respondents answered “yes” (12% of survey takers) than male respondents (only 9%). Forty percent of both sexes said that kissing expertise wouldn’t factor into their decision, but I think that, while people might trudge along in a relationship for a while if the other person in it was a bad kisser, it’s not for the long haul.

Although, since 32% of men and 24% of women said yes to the question, “Have you ever kissed someone off-limits, such as a friend’s significant other or spouse?” maybe they weren’t in it for the long haul to begin with! Before you get too jaded, the best response was undoubtedly to “What is your best kissing memory?” since 28% of both sexes (a clear majority over the other options) answered that it was a kiss with their current partner.

D’oh.  I’m going to bet that the significant other was a good kisser though!

2 Responses to “Why Do We Kiss?: The Science and Sociology Behind One of Our Favorite Pasttimes”

  1. La Deetda Reads April 13, 2012 at 10:00 am #

    Great post, Tori!! Yummy kisses, nothing better….well almost nothing.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Romance Readers and Authors Can Increase Their Love IQ with Mating Intelligence Unleashed from Oxford University Press | torimacallister - October 30, 2013

    […] Other physical elements include one that romance readers will be VERY familiar with – that moment where the smell and taste of the other person is so drugging that all good sense is lost and it’s all about getting down to business. But there is serious biology at play in this moment, as we can actually smell and taste the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) of one another. MHC is important because biology has set us up so we are not attracted to people whose genes, when combined with ours, would not produce strong offspring. You think I’m joking? A famous study took college men, analyzed their MHC and had them sleep in the same t-shirt for multiple days in a row, sealing the shirt in a plastic bag and sending it to the lab. Scientists then recruited college women after checking their MHC, and asked them to smell each t-shirt, rating the smell of the shirt to determine which ones they thought smelled the best. To the letter, each woman rated the t-shirt which had been worn by the man most genetically compatible with her as smelling the most desirable and the shirts they labeled least desirable where the ones where the genes of the man were too close to her own (offering no genetic advantage if mixed). In addition to scent, we can also taste MHC compatibility in the process of kissing or even tasting a person’s skin, so close contact is vital to determining good mate selection. See my post on the Science of Kissing for more information on this fascinating quirk. […]

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