08/07/2015 05:09 EDT | Updated 08/07/2015 05:59 EDT

Romantic Kissing Is Less Normal Than You Think

"This is a real reminder of how Western ethnocentrism can bias the way we think about human behavior."

Betsie Van Der Meer via Getty Images
Gay couple kissing in garden.

A powerful symbol of romantic affection in the West, passionate kissing is far from mainstream in more cultures than you might think, according to a new study.

In response to recent research claiming that up to 90 percent of societies embrace kissing as the norm, a US research team went to work and found it's not as common as we think.

"We hypothesized that some cultures would either not engage in romantic [or] sexual kissing, or find it to be a strange display of intimacy, but we were surprised to find that it was a majority of cultures that fell into this category," says Justin Garcia of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.

Using standard cross-cultural methods that Garcia says were ignored in some of the most recent kissing studies, Garcia and his team looked at 168 cultures from all over the world to gauge their take on the act. Just 46 percent of those cultures practice romantic or sexual kissing, defined in the study as lip-to-lip contact either brief or prolonged. "This is a real reminder of how Western ethnocentrism can bias the way we think about human behavior," says Garcia.

As it turns out, kissing is most prevalent in the Middle East, where every one of the 10 cultures surveyed considers it the norm. A surprisingly small 55 percent of cultures in North America normalize romantic kissing, 70 percent of European cultures and 73 percent of Asian cultures.

No evidence of romantic kissing turned up in Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea nor the Amazon, according to the study, entitled "Is the Romantic-Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?" It comes down to a question of social complexity, for the study concluded that the more a society is stratified, the more likely its people are to practice romantic kissing.

From where kissing evolved is still not clear, says Garcia, who points out that chimpanzees practice "French" kissing with their mouths open. For humans, kissing is a way to learn more about a sexual partner, for it can involve the exchange of pheromones he says.

How some societies have embraced the erotic kiss while others have not remains to be answered, says Garcia, hinting that further research could be on the way.

The study was published in the journal American Anthropologist.