SEATTLE—In findings likely to have major ramifications on interpersonal relations throughout society, researchers at the University of Washington's Institute For Advanced Behavioral Studies announced Monday that human affection—the unconditional expression of feelings of warmth and approval toward another individual—is now only available from two sources: grandparents born before the year 1938 and children afflicted with the genetic disorder Down Syndrome.
All other subsets of the U.S. population, the five-year study found, have become so inured to cynicism, self-interest, and general post-industrial alienation that any show of genuine affection on their part is all but impossible.
"These findings are extremely disturbing in more than one respect," said Dr. Rupert Hart, institute director and co-author of the report. "It is troubling enough to learn that, with the exception of elderly relatives and mentally retarded children, no Americans remain who are capable of sharing tenderness with their fellow man. This fact becomes all the more alarming when one considers that affection is one of the human animal's most basic needs, as vital to one's mental and physical well-being as food or sleep."
Drawn from over 6,700 interviews with a wide cross-section of Americans, the report contends that, while most citizens would like to be able to give and receive affection, an overwhelming majority are incapable of doing so.
Examples cited in the report include Naples, FL, woodworker Gus Blount, who has never spoken a kind word to his son Douglas; Rochester, MN, secretary Elaine Gund, who frequently offers her co-workers gifts of baked goods, but only for selfish, career-motivated reasons; and vice-presidential wife Tipper Gore, who, despite her crusades to protect children from harmful and offensive material, is incapable of any form of physical tenderness.
Said Hart: "In the early stages of our research, we found no evidence of fondness or attachment among the general populace. But eventually, we started coming across old people and Down Syndrome-afflicted children, in whom we discovered such traits as random hugging, love of balloons, hand-holding, willingness to participate in group sing-alongs, and non-ulterior-motivated smile capability."
The findings were later confirmed by a series of experiments in which two people—one either a grandparent or a child with Down Syndrome, and the other a person who is neither—were locked in a room together. Researchers behind a one-way mirror then observed the results. "We ran the experiment 855 times," said Dr. Henry Fitzrollins, developer of the test, "and every time, within 30 to 40 seconds, the grandparent or disabled child would approach the other person, usually to say, 'I like you,' or to offer to buy them ice cream. And, in every case, the other person would respond by retreating to the farthest possible corner of the room. The friendliness-unfriendliness disparity between the two groups was stunning."
Added Fitzrollins: "I can honestly say that these remarkable aged and handicapped individuals have given me the courage to believe again."
Given the important role played by affection in healthy human development, the two remaining groups capable of showing it have become a "precious national commodity," Hart said. As a result, special "emotional operatives" are currently being trained to work closely with retirement-home residents and busloads of Down Syndrome children in the hope that their capacity for love can eventually be reintroduced to the citizenry at large.
Thus far, such efforts, along with emergency bake-sale and three-legged-race programs, as well as nationwide coloring and bingo initiatives, have had little effect, as the non-elderly and non-Down-Syndrome-afflicted participants have failed to absorb any of their counterparts' unfettered joy.
But despite the initial lack of success, Hart insisted we must continue to try. "Sooner or later, this lack of human affection in American society will begin to take a heavy toll," he said. "While, in our ignorance, we may mock and disrespect those who are near the end of their lives and those who have Down Syndrome, the fact remains that they are our only hope."