How do I love thee? Let me statistically analyze the ways

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Studying affection may sound fascinating, but how exactly does one measure expressions of fondness or love?

By Diane Boudreau

April 5, 2007

Studying affection may sound fascinating, but how exactly does one measure expressions of fondness or love? As a lifelong scholar of affection, Kory Floyd has had to come up with ways to measure and analyze these vague concepts.

Say that you want to study the effects of eating sugar, the ASU professor of communication explains. Simple. First you gather a bunch of subjects in a lab and feed them sugar. Then you measure certain vital signs to see if there is a change.

Studying affection takes a bit more work. You can't simply bring subjects to a lab and have a bunch of researchers hug them to determine the effects. Even people who enjoy being hugged probably won't respond favorably to being touched by total strangers in the middle of a laboratory.

Floyd has had to find creative ways to study the phenomenon.

Learn about what Floyd has found in "The effects of affection."

One way is to have people report on their own affectionate behaviors through surveys, written diaries, or during interviews. In this way, Floyd can learn about affectionate behaviors that happen naturally.

He also measures affection as a trait. Step one is to determine how affectionate people are in general. To do that, the ASU researcher developed a survey to help measure people's overall affection levels.

Sometimes Floyd creates videos of people in various situations and asks subjects to view and respond to them. He might ask, "How do those people feel about each other?" or "What kind of relationship do they have?"

In one study, for example, he showed videos of people hugging. The only variation was the length of each hug. Floyd asked subjects to describe the type of relationship they thought the actors had–friends, family, romantic partners, etc. The responses varied depending on the length of the hug.

More difficult–but sometimes necessary–is trying to induce true affectionate behavior in the lab.

"For instance, we could bring two people into a lab to have a conversation. One person might be a confederate–a researcher posing as another subject," Floyd explains. "The confederate might, over the course of the conversation, move closer to the subject, smile a lot, touch them on the arm, etc. Or he might do the opposite, moving away and becoming more withdrawn. How does the subject react to that?"

A new technique involves creating a stress response in subjects. After the stress, the subject is asked to express affection through a written letter. Floyd then measures the physiological response.

In short, there are just as many ways of studying affection as there are ways of expressing it.

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