Why Do We Grow Up To Hate Being Tickled? Science Says It's Complicated

Ad failed to load

We've all been tickled at some point or another, but we haven't all enjoyed it — in fact, some people really don't like it. Actually, when you really think about it... does anybody appreciate being tickled? Sure, babies tend to dissolve into a fit of giggles when you poke and prod at certain spots (like under the arms and feet), and most small children seem to find the experience similarly hilarious. But just because little ones laugh when they're being tickled doesn't mean they think it's funny. So why do we grow up hating to be tickled? (And why do we laugh through our misery?!)

The answer is a complicated one, and the subject of a surprising amount of scientific (and sometimes conflicting) research. For example, while some studies have shown laughter when being tickled to be a physical reflex (kind of like what happens when a doctor taps on your knee with a rubber hammer, other experts — such as Dr. Alan Fridlund, a tickle researcher who is a psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara — maintain that ticklish laughter is social, depending on a tension created between two or more people (as with a joke), noted The New York Times. Yet another possibility is that our response to being tickled is a combination of nature and nurture.

Ad failed to load

"Tickling involves the neurological program for the generation of self and other," University of Maryland neuroscientist Robert Provine, author of Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond, told The Washington Post. In layperson's terms, this means that the way our brains respond to being tickled is a way to distinguish between touching and being touched (this would explain why you can't tickle yourself). Or, going back to more primitive times, tickling's evolutionary roots might have been considerably darker: The Daily Mail reported that scientists at Germany's University of Tuebingen discovered that tickling activates the part of our brain that anticipates pain, and theorized that because our most ticklish parts are generally the weakest, too (think the neck and stomach), early human parents might have tickled their children to teach them how to react to a threat... with laughter serving as "an acknowledgement of defeat."

"When you tickle someone, you actually stimulate the unmyelinated nerve fibers that cause pain," said Dr. Alan Hirsch, founder of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago told The Daily Mail. Fascinatingly, rats and apes also "laugh" when tickled, according to Mental Floss.

Of course, the way we use tickling in modern day life has evolved beyond these biological functions: Among the reasons why the subjects Provine studied gave for engaging in tickling were "showing affection and getting attention," even though nobody seems to love it — Provine's studies also showed that people rate being tickled at a 5 on a 10-point scale (from very unpleasant to very pleasant). Interestingly, nobody seems to love tickling other people either, as that activity was rated at only at 5.9 on average.

Ad failed to load

And yet, tickling remains a thing we do as humans, generation after generation. In fact, it's even become something of a competitive endurance sport, as the documentary "Tickled" proves. Again, the term "endurance" implies that tickling is something to be endured... as in, something nobody really likes, whether or not they're laughing about it. Considering our bodies and minds are potentially hardwired to associate tickling with pain and mortal danger, it makes sense that most of us assume a defensive pose when someone starts mischievously wiggling their fingers at us. This is especially true for anyone who grew up with an older sibling (or cousin, etc.) who used tickling as a method of torment. (Fact: Tickling was employed as a legit form of torture in China during the Han dynasty for nobility because it didn't leave marks, like other forms of torture).

Ad failed to load

I have one friend who still shudders visibly at the mention of "tickle planes," something an otherwise perfectly nice relative of hers used to think was a hilarious way to tease her as a kid. Our parents or older brothers and sisters might not have meant to traumatize us when they pinned us down for a game of "tickle monster," but that doesn't mean those experiences didn't scar us for life to some degree.

Basically, it all boils down to this: You have every reason to hate being tickled. (And also: If your kid protests about being tickled, don't force it!)

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.

Ad failed to load
Ad failed to load
Must Reads

Being A Dog Parent Prepared Me For Having A Baby, Really

I’ve always wanted kids; I was never as sure about raising a puppy. Then I spent six months living with someone who brought home an eight-week-old golden retriever puppy, and I see no way to make it out of that experience claiming not to love dogs. I…
By Heather Caplan

20 Of The Most Popular Unisex Names Of All Time, That You'll Be Hearing More Of For Sure

You might think of unisex names as a fairly recent trend, but the truth is these versatile monikers have been commonly used throughout history (well, some more commonly than others). That's why the team over at Names.org recently compiled a list of t…
By Jacqueline Burt Cote

How To Have A Date Night With No Babysitter, Because It's Easier Than You Think

After having children, many couples feel that their love lives immediately go out the window, but it's so important to make your romantic life a priority so both you and your partner can be the best versions of yourselves you can be. As we all know, …
By Abi Berwager Schreier

9 Ways Baby No. 3 Made My Family Feel Complete

My husband and I decided to have another baby right after we got married and, well, we had no idea what we were getting into. I got pregnant right away, endured a high-risk pregnancy, and, before I knew it, my third baby had arrived. Together, we emb…
By Steph Montgomery

8 Stereotypes About New Dads That Are *Totally* True

Much like new mothers, new fathers have a lot on their plate. Parenting can be scary and complex, especially at first and regardless of your gender. People want to do right by their kids, after all. And since all new parents are a hot mess, dads are …
By Priscilla Blossom

8 Differences Between Being Pregnant In Your 20s Vs 30s, According To Science

Whether you're planning a pregnancy, or just thinking about your future family, it's typical to think about things like child-spacing, how many kids you want, and when to start trying to conceive. When making your pro/con list, you might also conside…
By Steph Montgomery

16 Moms Share Remedies For Their Most Intense Chocolate Cravings During Pregnancy

For better or worse, pregnancy is usually synonymous with odd cravings. Sure, there are the stereotypical combos like pickles and ice cream that plague gestating women the world over, but there are other mind-boggling combinations, too, including but…
By Candace Ganger

Putting Sunscreen On Your Kid Doesn't Have To Be A Fight — Here's How To Do It

I am almost translucent, so me and sunscreen are basically besties at this point. Even though my children are beautifully deep brown thanks to my husband's genetics, I still slather them like biscuits being buttered because I refuse to take risks wit…
By Cat Bowen

7 Things A Mom Really Means When She Says She Doesn't Want Anything On Mother's Day

Every year my family asks me what I want for Mother's Day, and every single year I tell them the same thing: Nothing. So, by now, they know that when I say "nothing" I absolutely do not mean "nothing." In fact, there are more than a few things a mom …
By Candace Ganger

19 Moms Share The Way They Cured Their Pregnancy Comfort Food Cravings

I was obnoxiously sick during the first trimester with, "lucky" for me, both of my pregnancies. For the first three months I lived on saltines, lemonade, and fresh bread. Once I was able to eat, however, all I wanted was savory and sweet comfort food…
By Dina Leygerman

8 Fascinating Facts About Babies Born In May, The Luckiest Month Of All

The height of all things fresh and springy, May is an excellent month to have a baby. It's a time of growth, graduations, and outdoor celebrations. And these fascinating facts about May babies will give you more reasons than ever to appreciate childr…
By Lindsay E. Mack

I Used To Judge Formula-Feeding Moms — Until I Became One

The other patrons in the hip Brooklyn restaurant probably couldn’t care less what I was feeding my baby, but I’ll always remember the shame I felt as I quickly mixed up his bottle of formula in front of them. I admitted to my childless friend that I …
By Katherine Martinelli

7 White Lies It’s Necessary To Tell To Keep Your Relationship Healthy

Telling lots of lies typically isn't associated with a healthy, strong, lasting relationship, and that's still certainly true, but not all lies are exactly the same. Though you've probably heard from someone at least once or twice that the lie they t…
By Lauren Schumacker

The Skinny Jeans That Saved Me Postpartum

Accepting my post-pregnancy body is hands-down one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s something that I still work on every single day. During my first pregnancy, I was 20 years old, so I managed to bounce back quickly. In fact, I dropp…
By Allison Cooper

7 Ways Your Baby Is Trying To Say They Feel Safe

In those first weeks of new motherhood, it can feel like you need an interpreter for your newborn. With their limited means of communication, figuring out what message your baby is trying to get across to you can be a challenge. With time, however, y…
By Kimmie Fink

Here's Why Dogs Are Obsessed With Babies' Poop, According To Science

Most family dogs seem to understand babies, and they're more than happy to make friends with the newest member of the pack. It's adorable... for the most part and until you go to change your little one's diaper. Suddenly, you're wondering why dogs ar…
By Lindsay E. Mack

6 Signs You're Meant To Have A Big Age Gap Between Kids

There's a five year age difference between my two children, to the day. Their age gap wasn't planned but, for a variety of reasons, works well for our family. And since I was so focused on having a second baby, I totally overlooked the signs that wou…
By Candace Ganger

13 Unique (& Totally Not Mainstream) Mother's Day Gifts For The Hipster Mom

Hipsters thrive on being outside the norm and not really digging anything considered "mainstream." Whether it's in their fashion, what music they listen to, the books they read, or how they enjoy beverages, there's just something that makes them dist…
By Abi Berwager Schreier

Here's How To Introduce Your Pet To Your Baby & Make Everything As Calm As Possible

Our home, which we lovingly refer to as “the funny farm,” is filled with four-legged family members. We have two crazy beagles and two cat jerks, and boy are they loved and spoiled. (As they should be.) But we are now finally having a baby of our own…
By Abi Berwager Schreier

Here's The Right Birth Method For You, According To Your Zodiac Sign

If you're pregnant, you've probably given childbirth some serious thought. Some moms-to-be prepare a meticulous birth plan, while others are comfortable just going with the flow. And me? Well, I made a plan... but that plan was useless when faced wit…
By Steph Montgomery

My Dog Knew I Was Pregnant Before My Family Did

Growing up, I was 100 percent sure I'd be a mom one day. To a dog, that is. My baby plans came later. And once my husband and I were sure we wanted both a dog and a baby, we'd add to our joint dog-and-baby name list over Sunday brunch or on date nigh…
By Melissa Mills