The first kiss is a landmark event in the lives of most individuals. You probably remember where you were at the time, who your partner was, and who initiated that all-important first expression of sexuality and affection. There are endless songs, movies, and even one of the most expensive paintings in the world (Klimt’s “The Kiss”) that commemorate the pursing of two people’s lips against each other, yet there’s surprisingly little research. If you think back onto your own past, beyond the kiss itself, you may also remember who in your circle of friends was the first to experience this romantic milestone. You may have thought those early kissers to be particularly cool, popular, and adventurous. On the other hand, if it was you, perhaps you regarded the need to kiss your first boy or girl to be an interpersonal imperative you could hardly ignore. You were in love, and wanted to show it.
It’s not clear why, as noteworthy an event the first kiss is to many people, psychology has tended to give the whole matter short shrift. Indeed, there’s not even much research on kissing in general, whether on long-term romantic partners or on dating partners exploring their new feelings toward each other. Perhaps it’s just assumed that everyone feels the same way about kissing (i.e. it’s important) and therefore not much variability to be expected in the predictors, correlates, or results of this form of physical affection. University of Connecticut’s Eva Lefkowitz and collaborators (2018) decided to explore the first kiss, or at least memories of the first kiss, as a reflection of an individual’s personality. Recognizing that the first kiss is associated with adolescence (in most people), the UConn authors regarded its timing and context to reflect the development of the psychosocial qualities of identity and intimacy.
As pointed out by the research team, kissing at any age, when it’s between people who don’t already have a sexual relationship, “affords many of the positive aspects of other (forms of physical intimacy) without the risk of sexually transmitted infection and/or pregnancy” (p. 1). Within relationships in general, kissing is considered, according to the authors, to be a “positively valenced behavior in and of itself and is linked to relationship satisfaction and commitment in adolescence and adulthood” (p. 1). People who enter the kissing game late may be avoiding this type of commitment, particularly if they’ve delayed their first kiss until they’re well into their college years. The delay of the first kiss, then, may have important psychological meaning, and this was the focus of the study.
In addition to establishing the age of first kiss among her sample of ethnically diverse average-age undergraduates, Lefkowitz and her fellow researchers wished to determine the personality, motivational, and demographic predictors of the age of first kiss. As they note, from a motivational perspective, you may want to kiss your teenage love interest because you have a true desire to do so, or perhaps you’re just curious. These internally-driven motivations are different from those that reflect peer pressure, and going along with the crowd. Other predictors of the age of first kiss investigated in the study included family’s religious background and general quality of relationships, self-esteem, use of alcohol, and academic experiences. Body image and body size (body mass index) were also examined as predictors of age of first kiss.
On top of these background and mental health factors, the UConn research team was interested in determining the role of personality. The extraverts might be more likely to engage in an early first kiss because they are more socially motivated, though they may also be prone to high-risk behaviors. Neuroticism would be the second possible personality predictor of age of kissing, based on previous research showing those higher in this quality engage in more hookups and unprotected sex.
Using a sample of 738 undergraduates who had agreed to participate in a study of college student life (50% female), Lefkowitz and her collaborators asked participants to complete measures of religiosity, academic performance (membership in the Honors College), closeness and autonomy in their relationships with their mothers, use of alcohol, body mass index, and self-esteem. A standard measure of personality assessed their levels of extraversion and neuroticism. A single yes-no question assessed previous experience of kissing, and participants also indicated whether or not they had engaged in a number of sexual activities including sexual touching, oral sex, vaginal sex, and anal sex.
That kissing prior to college is the norm was validated in the present study by the finding that 14.2% of participants had never kissed a partner on the lips (although a few had engaged in more explicitly sexual activities). All other things being equal, participants most likely not to have kissed at all in their lifetimes were higher on neuroticism, less extraverted, less likely to drink, and members of the honors college. On the one hand, such findings might lead you to think that these qualities describe the “model college student” who avoids risk and focuses on academics (p. 7). However, considering that one developmental goal of college is to explore your own identity and sexuality in relationships with others, those individuals who put off their first kiss might be setting themselves up for sexual adjustment difficulties later in their adult years. Furthermore, not having kissed by the time it is normative to do so could indicate a larger pattern of inhibition and withdrawal from close relationships. “It is not only non-normative to delay kissing into young adulthood, but… it may also be unhealthy” (p. 7).
Unfortunately, although the authors raised the intriguing question of motivation for early or delayed kissing, their study did not give us insight into the extent to which peer pressure affected when participants had that first kiss. It would be interesting to learn whether the people who kiss out of real affection toward their partner differ from those who are trying to go along with the crowd. If kissing is part of the search for self-definition that occurs in adolescence, as the authors propose, that first kiss could help you gain some clarity into your own goals and values.
Apart from these motivational factors, though, the Lefkowitz et al study can help you gain insight into why you did or did not delay your first kiss. Perhaps some of your difficulties in relationships now could be traced to that pattern of inhibition as indicated by a delayed first kiss. Do you still feel you hold back when you’re with a person you care about? Are you afraid to risk rejection? Your age of first kiss could be diagnostic of some of these factors that hold you back even now. You can, however, still take advantage of the role of kissing in enhancing your current relationships.
To sum up, as the years go by, the memories of that first kiss are likely to fade, but the memories of your most recent one can help foster your present relationship fulfillment.