Affection Exchange Theory

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Affection Exchange Theory (AET), first proposed by Dr. Kory Floyd in 2001, was the first comprehensive theory of affectionate communication behavior and the potential benefits to individuals derived from giving and receiving affection. Affection and affectionate behavior, as applied to this area of study, includes verbal or non-verbal message that communicate fondness, a feeling of "liking" someone, or love, for example verbally saying, "I love you," or simply holding hands, hugging, kissing, touching, winking at each other or sharing a compliment. This theory takes a Darwinian approach and suggests through multiple postulates and sub postulates that affectionate behavior is an ongoing, adaptive process that positively contributes to human beings’ fitness for procreation, and thus ultimate survival. Affection Exchange Theory holds, according to postulate one of the theory, that more affection contributes to the development and maintenance of human pair bonds and their associated resources [1]. Studies that have resulted from the initial articulation of AET have shown humans who are highly affectionate or who are in highly affectionate relationships, both giving and receiving, glean significant psychological and physiological benefits from the behavior, including physical factors like decreased stress or improved cholesterol levels and improved feelings of relationship satisfaction [2]. Studies continue now, focusing on all areas of human wellness and how they correlate with affectionate behavior, and have shown affectionate people sleep better, have more robust immune systems, experience fewer bouts with depression and recover from stress more effectively. The theory has important practical applications, including the potential positive impact of encouraging the affectionate behaviors that have been shown to have psychological or physical benefits to individuals. Also, there are numerous practical benefits in the area of applying the theory with the goal of greater relationship health and happiness.


Background

Dr. Kory Floyd is currently a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Arizona in Tucson. When he first advanced the Affection Exchange Theory in a paper presentation in 2001, he was an assistant professor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. He further articulated his theory in an article in the Journal of Men’s Studies in 2001, entitled “Human Affection Exchange I. Reproductive Probability as a Predictor of Men’s Affection with their Sons.” Articles on Human Affection Exchange II and III followed, continuing into 2003, both examining the father-son dyad. Floyd is also the author of numerous books including a textbook, Interpersonal Communication, that expands on his theories and research. Before advancing AET, Floyd’s research work had already extensively examined affectionate communication, but for the first time, a comprehensive view emerged of the motivations and origins of the behavior, and how and why affectionate communication could be of benefit to people. Affection Exchange Theory partially stems from the Darwin idea of evolution through selective fitness, where the organisms that are most likely to survive in the world are those which are best able to adapt and thereby increase their reproductive viability and fertility. His theory extrapolates from there that humans who are more affectionate or who share more affectionate behavior will be better equipped for relationships and glean positive effects from the behavior and thus more viable in an evolutionary sense.

Theory Basics

Floyd himself described his theory by saying it “…conceives of affectionate communication as an adaptive behavior that contributes to humans’ superordinate motivations for viability (survival) and fertility (procreation). Assumed in the theory is the Darwinian principle of selective fitness, whereby those organisms best adapted to the demands of their environments are the most likely to survive and procreate" [3]. For example, Floyd's theory holds if a person is more affectionate toward a particular partner, for example being more willing to give compliments, hugs, kisses and other messages of affection, they could be a more attractive relationship partner and thus be more likely to procreate. Further, if a person is more affectionate toward a child, the child will then be better equipped for future relationships, increasing the likelihood of passing down the person's genes to future generations. The theory includes four basic postulates, each of which has been examined in subsequent research.

Postulate One

Affectionate communication increases survival chances because it contributes to the development and maintenance of human pair bonds, exposing each person to his or her associated resources such as food and shelter [3];

Postulate Two

Affectionate communication increases an individual’s reproductive opportunities by signaling to potential sexual partners that person would be a fit parent [3];

Postulate Three

Individuals’ long-term procreation motivations are served when they communicate affection to their biological children, because the benefits associated with receiving affection make the children more suitable as mates, increasing the chances the children will themselves reproduce and will pass on their parents’ genes to yet a new generation [3];

Postulate Four

The frequency of affectionate communication is proportional to the directness with which is serves one or both subordinate goals [3]. Fundamental to the theory is the idea that affectionate communication is a resource that produces benefits not only when it is received, but when it is given, functioning as a type of relationship currency; and like literal currency it has value to the receiver, but it also has value to the sender because of the goods and benefits it engenders [4].

Application

Since the original theory was advanced, Floyd has done extensive work in examining the father-son relationship and how affection exchange affects the future relationships of the sons with their own children. His work has also spawned extensive research by others into how fathers demonstrate more or less affection toward their own biological or nonbiological sons and how that affects the future interactions of those children [1]. Other offshoots of the theory include research about how fathers might show less affection toward sons who are bisexual or homosexual, presumably because the procreational benefits are reduced in Darwinian thinking, i.e. a non-heterosexual son will be less likely to grow up into a person who would readily propagate the father’s genes through reproduction [5]. Also, the physical benefits to people who are given to affectionate behavior has been a key area of research. While empirical evidence exists of the benefits of affectionate behavior, subsequent research has dived deep into the specific physiological benefits in people, including examination of such things as stress hormones in blood and resting heart rates of people engaged in more affectionate behavior patterns. Further, the research into AET has prompted looks at how highly affectionate relationships survive relational transgressions, including a study that showed individuals who experienced a relationship transgression felt lower perceptions of severity and less hurt when their partners are consistently affectionate [6] and how relationship satisfaction in general is changed by affectionate behavior [2]. The theory is also credited with spawning research into the positive aspects of father-son relationships, an area that previously had been studied more from a perspective of maladaptive or dysfunctional behaviors and negative correlations in future relationships.

Critique

Much of the literature about Affection Exchange Theory focuses on the positive affects of giving and receiving affection in relationships, with the presumption that being affectionate makes people more environmentally fit from a Darwinian point of view. However, in other cultures, a more harsh environment might make other behaviors more evolutionarily attractive, such as imbuing children with physical skills or teaching them rugged self-reliance. Future research across cultural lines would be interesting to examine whether or not affection is positively correlated with survival everywhere or just in the populations that have been studied. Also, the basic theory holds that people who are affectionate are happier. But are there other co-factors generally associated with this population of people — such as attractiveness or a better personality to begin with — that might draw others to them? And would those factors be some of the causation of evolutional fitness as well. Another critique, put forward by Floyd also, is that not enough research has looked into the "risks" of affectionate behavior, such as how affectionate behavior works when facing difficult times or conversations, or the emotional vulnerability of people who are overly affectionate. Floyd's work mostly works from the basis that affection is all good, with good results, but more study needs to be done about potential negatives. The idea of human affection exchange and the various affects of that type of behavior provides will no doubt be a rich area for future study.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Floyd, K. and Morman, M. T. (2001) Human affection exchange: III. discriminative parental solicitude in men's affectionate communication with their biological and nonbiological sons, Communication Quarterly, 49(3), 310-327.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Horan, S. M. and Booth-Butterfield, M. (2010) Investing in affection: An investigation of affection exchange theory and relational qualities, Communication Quarterly, 58(4), 394-413.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Floyd, K. and Morman, M. T. (2003) Human affection exchange: II. Affectionate communication in father-son relationships, The Journal of Social Psychology, 143(5), 599-612.
  4. Floyd, K. (2002) Human affection exchange: V. Attributes of the highly affectionate, Communication Quarterly, 50(2), 135-152.
  5. Floyd, K. (2001) Human affection exchange: I. Reproductive probability as a predictor of men's affection with their sons, Journal of Men's Studies, 10(1), 39.
  6. Horan, S. M. (2012) Affection exchange theory and perceptions of relational transgressions, Western Journal of Communication, 76(2), 109-126.