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Is kissing instinctive or learned?

Kissing is a common romantic and affectionate gesture in many cultures worldwide. However, researchers have long debated whether kissing is an instinctive behavior or something that humans must learn to do. Evidence suggests that kissing involves both innate and learned elements.

Summary of Key Points

  • Kissing involves innate biological mechanisms related to sexuality, bonding, and communication.
  • The act of puckering the lips to touch another person’s mouth seems to be a learned cultural practice not observed in all human societies.
  • How kissing is done and its cultural meanings vary widely, demonstrating it is partially socially constructed.
  • Kissing may have evolutionary origins in courtship feeding behaviors seen in some animals, suggesting an innate root.
  • Infants exhibit mouth-to-mouth touching, suggesting a basic biological drive underlies some forms of kissing.
  • Learned components of kissing include culturally-specific techniques and situational appropriateness.

Evidence That Kissing is Instinctive

Several lines of evidence suggest kissing has an innate, biological basis in human nature:

  • Kissing activates innate neurochemical systems involved in sexual arousal and pair bonding:
    • Kissing triggers release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin.
    • These neurochemicals encourage feelings of reward, pleasure, and emotional bonding.
  • Courtship feeding behaviors in animals offer clues to evolutionary origins:
    • Some animals exchange pre-chewed food mouth-to-mouth in a courtship ritual.
    • This may have evolved into mouth-to-mouth touching in early humans before developing into romantic kissing.
  • Infants exhibit kissing-like behaviors:
    • Infants have been observed to instinctively touch their mouths to their mothers’ lips.
    • This suggests a basic biological drive for this type of touching.

Overall, kissing appears to activate innate neurobiological systems related to pleasure, sex, and bonding. Behaviors resembling kissing can be seen in our evolutionary ancestors and in newborns, suggesting an instinctive biological root.

Evidence That Kissing is Learned

However, other evidence indicates that much of kissing is learned rather than instinctual:

  • Puckering lips to touch is culturally specific:
    • Forms of kissing with puckered lips are observed in some cultures but completely absent in others.
    • This suggests puckered lip kissing does not appear to be an innate human universal.
  • Kissing styles and meanings vary cross-culturally:
    • The way kissing is performed shows enormous cross-cultural diversity.
    • The cultural meanings and messages signaled by kissing also differ widely between societies.
  • Proper kissing takes practice and experience:
    • There is a clear learning-curve as adolescents and adults gain sexual experience and learn to kiss well.
    • Social rules dictate who, when, and how kissing should occur.

The evidence shows kissing is partially socially constructed and influenced by cultural learning. The act of puckering lips appears in some cultures but not others. How kissing is executed and understood varies widely cross-culturally. Finally, individuals need practice to kiss competently, demonstrating it is a learned skill.

Kissing Involves Both Instinct and Learning

The current evidence suggests kissing involves both biological instincts and social learning. Some key points:

  • The neurobiology of kissing is innate, while the physical puckering appears learned.
  • Rudimentary forms of kissing have innate origins in courtship behaviors, while styles are culturally variable.
  • Kissing triggers innate neurochemistry, but social norms modify its situational meaning.
  • An early desire for infant mouth-to-mouth contact becomes refined by cultural practices.

In summary, current evidence suggests human kissing involves an innate motivation rooted in sexuality and bonding, which becomes expressed through culturally learned rules and forms. The neurobiology pushes us to kiss, while culture shapes how, when, and what kissing means.


Kissing does not appear to be solely instinctive nor entirely learned. Like many human behaviors, it involves a complex interplay between biological mechanisms and social learning. Evidence suggests humans have an innate drive motivating mouth-to-mouth touching and kissing, seen in behaviors of ancestral species and infants. However, the physical puckering of lips appears cultural, with rules and meanings of kissing varying widely across societies. Therefore, current research supports the interpretation that kissing is partially instinctive and partially learned rather than being wholly one or the other. The innate motivation to kiss becomes molded by cultural practices into diverse expressions that retain common biological roots.