About Kory Floyd, Ph.D. : Kory Floyd is Professor of Communication and Professor of Psychology at The University of Arizona. Dr. Floyd’s research brings together interpersonal communication research with methodologies drawn from evolutionary biology and psychophysiology to study the social and embodied impacts of affectionate communication and affection deprivation. A widely published and acclaimed researcher, Dr. Floyd is the author of Affectionate Communication in Close Relationships, the popular press book The Loneliness Cure, more than a dozen other books, and over 100 research articles.

Dr. Floyd is also an accomplished editor, having served as Editor in Chief of Communication Monographs and the Journal of Family Communication. His most recent edited volume is The Handbook of Communication Science and Biology. Dr. Floyd is a Fellow of the International Communication Association and a Western States Communication Association Distinguished Scholar. Dr. Floyd’s co-authored article with Malcom Parks, “Making Friends in Cyberspace,” was honored with the Charles H. Woolbert Research Award from the National Communication Association, which has also recognized his scholarship with the Mark L. Knapp Award in Interpersonal Communication Research and the Bernard J. Brommel Award for Outstanding Scholarship or Distinguished Service in Family Communication.

Dr. Floyd serves as a research associate at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Hospital and The University of Arizona Cancer Center. Dr. Floyd received his Ph.D. from the Department of Communication at The University of Arizona, his M.A. in Speech Communication from the University of Washington and his B.A. in English from Western Washington University. In 2023, Dr. Floyd received an additional Master of Education degree with a major in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the College of William & Mary. Prior to joining the faculty at The University of Arizona, Dr. Floyd was Professor of Human Communication at Arizona State University with faculty appointments in a number of departments including clinical psychology, family studies, and global health.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in research in interpersonal communication and begin to study affectionate communication and its relationship with physical and mental health?

[Dr. Kory Floyd] My academic journey began long before I became an academic, particularly as it relates to affection. I grew up in a very affectionate family, so I went into the world assuming that what was true for me was true for everybody. I quickly learned that that was not the case — that not everyone welcomes affection or is particularly comfortable with it.

That always confused me. I was perplexed because, for me, affection is the best thing in the world. I could not wrap my mind around the idea that other people may not feel the same way. This seed of confusion sort of stuck with me all the way through my adolescence and into my college years, when I discovered that I could actually go to graduate school and study interpersonal communication and maybe figure out some of these things that I had found so perplexing.

I felt like I had found my place. I had found what I was meant to do. When you are a graduate student you need a driving research question. I decided to take this question I had for so long and make it the focus of my study. That later evolved into understanding how affection is related to our wellness and our physical and mental health, but I would trace my initial interest in affection to my very early adolescence. Now, 45 years later, I am still studying it, still wondering about it, and still feeling like there are things left to learn.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your research is innovative in its synthesis of perspectives in communication with the biological sciences and evolutionary biology in particular. Would you discuss what bringing these perspectives together has allowed you to understand about the nature of affectionate communication, its benefits, and the consequences of affection deprivation?

[Dr. Kory Floyd] The biggest thing that has helped me to understand affection is recognizing that social behavior writ large, and affectionate behavior in particular, affect us beyond their cognitive, emotional, or social impacts. They do affect us in all of those ways, but they also affect us physically. I think the easiest way to understand that is to think about how you feel when you hug somebody that you love, hold hands with someone, or kiss someone you care about. There are physical sensations that accompany those exchanges. It occurred to me early in my career that affection feels good to us in the same way that eating feels good when we are hungry or sleeping feels good when we are fatigued.

That realization opened up all sorts of questions for me. First of all, is affection good for us, and, if so, under what conditions and in what ways? Are there any ways in which it is actually bad for us? These were questions that I quickly realized I was not going to be able to answer using the existing theories and methods that were common in communication at the time. I needed a way to go into the body. If I want to understand how the body and its process interact with social behavior, I cannot do that with a questionnaire or by videotaping people and coding their behavior. These were the methods I was trained in. I realized I was going to need a whole new method.

I found that in the methods of psychophysiology. Psychophysiology helped me to understand that the way we act and interact in our close relationships affects and is affected by our biological processes. As human beings, we are social, cultural and economic beings, but we are also biological beings. That is a point that I think has gotten lost in the mainstream of communication research for quite some time. The focus on psychophysiology rekindled my sense of the importance of realizing that we are biological beings inhabiting a physical world.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your book chapter, “The State of the Art and the Future of Wet Psychophysiology,” is one example of your explorations of how social behavior and communication impact humans at the level of biological embodiment in the ways we have been discussing. Can you introduce us to “wet psychophysiology” and the new directions it presents for communication research?

[Dr. Kory Floyd] The term wet psychophysiology is not my own. The methods in psychophysiology can sort of roughly be categorized as wet and dry, and that wet and dry distinction is literal. Wet psychophysiology means that what you are analyzing is wet — it is blood, it is saliva, it is cerebrospinal fluid, urine, anything that you might collect for analysis. I do a lot of work in my research with blood and with saliva because I am typically measuring things like hormones, immune markers, or blood chemistries like cholesterol. That is distinct from dry psychophysiology, which does not use body fluids. It assesses blood pressure, heart rate, skin conductance, and uses brain imaging or procedures like that.

That is really just a methodological distinction. I think what is more important is the introduction of psychophysiology at large into the communication field. It has a little bit of a history in interpersonal communication from decades ago, and then it is as if we forgot about it for a long time. I got my Ph.D. in the 1990s. My training was strictly framed by social learning theory, which held that everything that we do as communicators we do because we learn to do it. There was no place in this research for instinct, heritability, or any connection with biology and physiology.

This is interpersonal communication. In media studies, there is a long history of using physiological methods. It is not at all novel in that area of the field, but in my area it was almost sacrilegious to propose that anything that we do might have evolutionary roots or be influenced by genetics and psychophysiology. Psychophysiology is a method, but there is also a theory behind it that says that when we engage in social interaction this involves, in many cases, multiple physiological systems.

The biggest take-home message from the research is that affectionate communication has important benefits to the body in terms of managing stress. For example, if you have a lot of affection in your life, you are less susceptible to the effects of stressful events. It is not that you do not have stress in your life, but you are less reactive when you encounter a stressor and you recover more quickly relative to people who have less affection in their lives. This is true to the extent that I can actually blunt your body’s reaction to a stressor by giving you affection right before you encounter that stressor.

That also has a number of downstream effects in terms of our mental and physical wellbeing. Because stress is associated with so many detrimental outcomes in physical and mental wellness, if we have a lot of affection in our lives, we are not only less reactive to stressors but we are also less susceptible to a number of problems that stress exacerbates. We have been able to show that in terms of pain, sleep quality, cholesterol, and immunocompetence.

This research later led me to consider the question of what happens to people when they do not have enough affection in their lives. The concept of “affection deprivation” helped me hypothesize that when people lack a minimal amount of affection in their lives we will see detriments in many of the same sorts of outcomes we have been discussing. Almost across the board that has been true. People who are affection deprived are more often immunocompromised. They have lower sleep quality, and they are more reactive to stressors.

All of this has made me think about affection and affectionate communication as being a fundamental human need: a fundamental need for the social beings we are as humans. Some would say that is hyperbole, but I think in many ways affectionate communication really belongs on the list of human needs alongside things like sleep, water, and oxygen. Just like those things, when we do not get enough affection, there are consequences to that.

We have a built-in reminder of this called loneliness. In the same way that hunger reminds us to eat or fatigue reminds us to sleep, loneliness reminds us we need affection. As I often say, affection and close relationships are not optional for human beings. They are truly essential, so much so that our mental health and our physical health suffer if we do not attend to those needs adequately.

[MastersinCommunications.com] One major contribution of your work in this area has been Affection Exchange Theory, which you have developed across a number of publications including your 2019 book Affectionate Communication in Close Relationships. Would you tell us a little more about this theory and how it applies insights from evolutionary biology to help nuance our understanding of affectionate communication?

[Dr. Kory Floyd] The principal question that AET [Affection Exchange Theory] answers is, “Why do human beings communicate affection and with what outcomes?” The why question is really critical. When I first started studying affection, that question did not occur to me immediately. Eventually, I realized that none of the theories that existed in communication adequately proposed an answer to that “why?” question.

That is when I began to think about this question in terms of evolutionary psychology. It occurred to me that the tendency to be affectionate might be an adaptation. An adaptation is something that evolves in human beings because it contributes to one of our two “superordinate” motivations as living beings, which are survival and reproduction. They are called superordinate because, at a species level, if we do not attend to those needs no other needs matter. When you talk about something being adaptive in an evolutionary sense, that means, in part, that this characteristic contributes to our ability to meet one or the other or both of those needs.

I started thinking about affectionate communication in the context of how it may contribute to survival and how it may contribute to reproduction. Affection Exchange Theory proposes that it actually contributes to both superordinate goals. That is why it evolved in the human species, and that is why it persists. A logical deduction from that claim is that, if it serves these superordinate goals for us, there have to be mechanisms through which it does so. That is where I have started to look, for example, at the influence of affection on stress and immunocompetence. We can propose that affection helps us survive, but then we need to understand how it does that. That question has generated a lot of the empirical research that has flowed from that AET.

[MastersinCommunications.com] In 2015, you published the popular press book The Loneliness Cure: Six Strategies for Finding Real Connections in Your Life. Would you provide us some background on your inspiration for writing this book and discuss some of its key recommendations? What was your experience like translating academic research for a broader audience?

[Dr. Kory Floyd] I had never written a popular press book before. Historically, in interpersonal communication we have not done a good job of finding ways to communicate what we have learned about personal relationships to people who can actually use that knowledge. This is true to a varying degree for other areas of the field, as well. We write papers that we present at academic conferences and put in academic journals and they are only ever read by other academics.

I think our mindset has been that communicating our findings to the general public is not our responsibility. We imagine that, if we publish our work in some form, somebody will come along like a reporter or a blogger, and they will translate it to the public. I think that mindset has absolved us of responsibility for a long time. I also think that that mindset is harder and harder to maintain when today it is so easy to communicate with the end user. Any of us can be bloggers. Any of us can contribute to blogs or websites, or write for a more popular audience.

There is so much information that we have in interpersonal communication about loneliness, its effects, why and how it arises, and about what people can do about it. So, I wanted to give it a try. I wanted to exercise a different writing muscle than what we typically use as academics. I started to put ideas together, and I was encouraged to make the work accessible by encapsulating the recommendations into a small manageable number. That is how the book ended up with six strategies.

One of them is a strategy that I have been talking about in various forms for quite some time. It is to recognize that, if you feel you are not getting enough social connection or enough affection in your life, it may be that you have a relatively narrow definition of what constitutes affection. I see this often in couples in which one person in a couple is really longing for more affection from the partner. When you ask that person, “What do you want your partner to do more that they’re not doing right now?,” you will get a list of very specific behaviors. They will explain, “I want them to say I love you. I want them to kiss me in public. I want them to hold my hand whenever I want.”

I ask people who say that, “Do you imagine that there may be other ways that your partner is already showing you love and affection that you’re not recognizing?” Oftentimes, the way our partners communicate affection flies under our radar if we have, for example, a very concrete definition of what constitutes affection, which does not match the definition our partner has. I encourage people to expand their definition of what constitutes love, affection, and connection. When they do that, they may recognize that they are receiving more than they thought. That is one strategy out of the six.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You are also the author and coauthor of a number of textbooks that cover areas of the discipline from interpersonal communication to public speaking. Would you discuss your work authoring textbooks and how it reflects your approach to pedagogy?

[Dr. Kory Floyd] Textbook writing is really an interesting process because I think it marries the more technical writing that we are trained to do as academics with something close to creative writing. You take concepts that sometimes are a bit complicated or a bit dry, and you really have to exercise your creativity to figure out how to communicate those concepts in an understandable and engaging way. Your goal is to make them interesting to someone who is encountering the material for the first time: that end user, that student.

Part of my approach to pedagogy is taking creative language — metaphors, examples, things that tend to spark our attention and hook our interest — and apply it in the process of writing a textbook. My aim is to prevent the overflow of information, detail, and content. There is an almost narrative structure to my textbooks, which engages a student in the process of understanding the concept and understanding how it plays out in real life.

That is one way I integrate my approach to pedagogy into the process of textbook writing. A related example is that I talk a lot about how communication is connected to wellness in my books. In my book on public speaking, I talk about public speaking anxiety or communication apprehension as being a form of anxiety, and anxiety is both a mental and a physical syndrome.

For people who are worried or nervous about speaking, I talk about what is going on in your body when you feel public speaking anxiety and why that is happening in your body. Anxiety ramps up your energy for a performance, and also protects you against a potentially evaluative situation. Those things have very deep evolutionary roots. I try to weave that part of the narrative into the story wherever I think it is relevant, because I do think that it helps students to understand that communication is not just a cognitive and social activity. It is also a physical activity that has implications for us physically. I think those are two of the priorities that I bring to writing when I am working with textbooks.

As we have discussed, I have written a popular press book, I have written textbooks, and I have written scholarly work. All three of them demand a very different approach to writing. I have discovered that being a really good writer in the academic or technical realm does not necessarily translate into the ability to communicate the same kinds of findings to a more general audience. My bachelor’s degree is in English composition, so I have always enjoyed writing, and I have always loved to learn about it. Even so, when I started writing textbooks and when I wrote the popular press book, in each case I had to learn a very different skill set for writing, different from the much more technical writing that I would do for a journal article or a scholarly book.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You are currently pursuing your Master of Education degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the College of William & Mary and have received extensive training in psychology, psychotherapy, and immunology, among other areas. Would you discuss your motivations for pursuing continuing education at this stage of your career? How do you hope to put your existing expertise to work in mental health counseling? On the other hand, how do you envision your work in counseling contributing to your existing research program? [Note: Dr. Floyd completed his Master of Education degree after this interview was conducted.]

[Dr. Kory Floyd] I think it is so important for academics to be lifelong learners and not to ever think that our education is complete. For me in particular, when my research started to take a turn toward evolutionary psychology and toward psychophysiology, I realized that I needed to supplement my education to gain at least a minimal level of competence in understanding how social behavior might intersect with physiology, and the methods for studying that. I did not get education in any of those things in graduate school, so I needed to go back to be able to do that research. Otherwise, I was just not going to be able to do that kind of work. I have continued my education over the years as I have studied things like psychology, immunology, endocrinology, and other areas that are related to my research.

In tandem with that, I have also had this notion that a lot of what we understand in interpersonal communication and relationships may have implications not only for mental health but also for mental health provision and clinical practice. I think that interpersonal communication can help, not just in measuring, for example, anxiety levels or depression, but also in treating mental health. I realized that if I wanted to understand that better, I was going to need to understand the clinical side of mental health better. I did not know enough about it at the time to be able to articulate what those implications were. I thought, “There’s so much relevance to this, but I don’t know where it fits. I don’t know how to plug it in.” I needed to learn the clinical side in order to understand how those things might intersect.

That, in large part, was my motivation for going back to graduate school to get the clinical degree in mental health counseling. That is a three-year degree, and I am in the third year of it right now. This is the clinical year, so I am actually seeing patients, doing clinical work, and learning the practice of it. My major motivation for doing that is not that I want to become a clinician. It is that I want to be able to incorporate that into my research.

I want to identify ways that interpersonal communication can inform clinical practice and counseling can inform how we talk about and think about interpersonal relationships. There is going to be a two-way exchange of ideas. I think once I finish my clinical training, I am going to be much better positioned to start to integrate those empirically. I may practice part-time once I am done. I may practice once I decide to retire from teaching, but that goal is certainly secondary to my goal of being able to have each area inform the other in empirical practice.

When I first started the program in counseling, I was struck by how many concepts and theories that are taught in counseling are also taught in interpersonal communication, often just under different titles. We might call it this and they call it that, but it is fundamentally the same thing. It is fundamentally the same process. I think that because there are those kinds of terminological differences, and primarily because there are so few people who are trained in both fields, each discipline has mostly evolved on its own, largely unaware that the other discipline is, by and large, speaking the same language, just with a different dialect.

There are so few people who are, if I can stick with this metaphor, bilingual in that they have been immersed in both disciplines. There are a handful of folks in interpersonal communication who also have backgrounds in counseling or vice versa. I am certainly not the first person in interpersonal communication to do this, but I think the potential is very large for meaningful dialogue between the two disciplines and for meaningful integration of research questions. It is latent, waiting to be explored. That is what I am eager to do once I finish my clinical training.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in interpersonal communication, affectionate communication, or the contact points between communication studies and the physical sciences who may be considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Kory Floyd] I think my most important advice, which is rooted in my own experience and my own trajectory professionally, is that it is so important to develop a good, robust research question. Very often I will have young graduate students come to me excitedly saying they have figured out what they want to study — conflict, for example. I will say, “That’s great. What do you wanna know about it?” Then I get a deer in the headlights look because it is really easy to come up with topics to study, and it is much harder to come up with questions. As an academic your question is really your identity in many ways. As a scholar you are known by the question that you ask in your research.

Along with that, I would advise young graduate students, even young scholars, that if their question is a good one, they should be unafraid to pursue it, even if it takes them off the beaten track of their discipline. When I first started studying questions of health and proposing theories that were rooted in evolution or that were rooted in genetics, I got a great deal of negative feedback. I got a great deal of pushback from the discipline. I was told that this is not what we do in communication, that we do not look at questions like this or we do not theorize in this particular way. Operating outside the boundaries of the field was presented to me as if it was a bad thing.

Do not be afraid to strike new ground, to stake new territory, whether that is methodological, theoretical, or paradigmatic. Some people will find that threatening. But if you have a good question and you are doing good work to investigate it, eventually people are going to recognize that you are doing good scholarship, and good scholarship deserves to be respected. It deserves to be engaged and listened to, even if it takes people out of their intellectual comfort zones.

I certainly did a lot of that early in my career, and I am glad I did. I am glad I pursued it despite the hesitancy that I was getting from within the field, because we have learned things about communication, and about interpersonal communication in particular, that we would not have learned otherwise. That is nothing unique about me. Anyone with a good question can do that. My advice is just be bold, and follow your questions where they lead you.

Thank you, Dr. Floyd, for sharing your insights on affectionate communication, applying perspectives from the biological sciences to communication research, and more!

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About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.