Thursday, August 11, 2011

My favorite unromantic theories of love

Why are we drawn to certain people and not others? What makes us fall in love - and stay in love? Poets delve into the mystery of love with beautiful sonnets, musicians seek to capture its subtle essence in song, and many others feel that their love is divinely inspired. Social and personality psychologists, on the other hand, break love down into simple shapes, colors, and equations, the most popular of which are described below. These theories may seem to reduce love to something more mundane and unexciting, but they also have a certain elegance of their own. 

1. The love triangle. According to Robert Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love (2004), love consists of three components, intimacy (emotional closeness), passion (sexual and romantic attraction), and commitment. The ideal form of love for a romantic couple (Consummate love) involves all three components, but it is not easy to maintain, as the passionate spark tends to fade over time. Sternberg also describes six other combinations. Romantic love involves intimacy and passion without commitment and is more common in the teenage and young adult years. Companionate love involves intimacy and commitment without passion and is typical of close friends, and sometimes long-term marriages. Infatuated love involves passion only and often occurs the very beginning of a relationship. Empty love involves commitment with no intimacy or passion, as in an arranged marriage - but it may grow into other forms of love over time. Finally, Fatuous love is like getting engaged after dating for three weeks - it involves passion and commitment, but no deeper intimacy.

2. The color wheel. John Lee (1973) identified six styles of love and referred to them as the "colors of love," although they are do not correspond to actual colors. The first style, Eros, is characterized by idealization of one's partner and strong romantic feelings. Ludus is characterized by a need for excitement and a view of love as a game - research suggests that men are more likely than women to be ludic. Storge is characterized by stability and friendship, similar to Sternberg's companionate love. Pragma is characterized by practical considerations, such as looking for a "checklist" of traits. Storge and pragma are more common among women. Mania involves obsession, jealousy, and extreme ups and downs. Agape refers to selflessness and unconditional compassion. To find out your love style, you can take a test here.

3. The mere exposure effect. This is one of the most memorable concepts from my first psychology class and is probably the most unromantic theory of all. The mere exposure effect, discovered by Robert Zajonc (1968), refers to our tendency to like things that are familiar to us - that is, those things and people that we are exposed to most often. The mere exposure effect helps to explain propinquity, the idea that one of the main determinants of interpersonal attraction is physical proximity. In one famous series of studies conducted by Leon Festinger and others (1950), the development of friendships in an apartment complex was directly related to the distance between apartments - people were more likely to become friends with neighbors who lived even just slightly closer, and those who they happened to pass more often on the way down the stairs or to the mailbox. While there may be some degree of randomness and luck in the attachments we form, this doesn't mean that relationships based on proximity are any less genuine and meaningful. But it does suggest that we might have a whole different life if we'd just happened to live on a different hall in college.

4. The clone attraction. Do opposites attract, or do birds of a feather flock together? Research suggests that the latter is more often true. People are more attracted to those who are similar to themselves in pretty much every way, ranging from personality to religious beliefs to physical appearance, and more similar couples tend to be happier. In one study, participants reported being most attracted to morphed versions of their own faces (though the interpretation of this finding is controversial - see Michael's post for more on why we are attracted to people who look like us). Although there are advantages to genetic diversity, there may be social and practical disadvantages. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, the more similar a couple looks, the easier it is for the father to recognize if a child is not his own, which could support an evolutionary argument for attraction to physically similar others. To see the effects of similarity in action, the following website contains a slideshow of clone-like celebrity couples. (Even Heidi Klum and Seal, whose ethnic backgrounds are different, share surprisingly similar facial structure.) You can also just open any newspaper to the nupitals page.  

5. The commitment equation. How committed are you to your partner? Research suggests that it depends on three main factors: 1) how invested you are in the relationship (i.e., what you've sacrificed/ costs of leaving the relationship), 2) how much you get out of the relationship, and 3) whether there are attractive alternatives. Caryl Rusbult developed the Investment Model by studying college students' relationship trajectories - in statistical analyses, these three variables emerged as the strongest unique predictors of commitment. Here is the equation: 

Commitment = investment + (rewards - costs) - attractive alternatives

The investment model helps to explain why people might stay in an abusive or unhappy relationship - there may be children involved, financial dependence, or a lack of external social support. It may also explain why people who have too many attractive alternatives available sometimes have trouble settling down. 

Although it is unlikely that any single account will fully capture what for most of us is a very personal and complex experience, the scientific study of love need not diminish its magic. If anything, it might help us love more wisely, with greater appreciation for the social, biological, and cultural forces that shape the choices we make.

Further reading:

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher is one of the most prolific and influential love scholars - see her books to learn about topics such as the chemistry of attraction (e.g., why love is like a drug) and the evolutionary functions of romantic love. 

Fraley RC, & Marks MJ (2010). Westermarck, Freud, and the incest taboo: does familial resemblance activate sexual attraction? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (9), 1202-12 PMID: 20647594

Rusbult, C. (1983). A longitudinal test of the investment model: The development (and deterioration) of satisfaction and commitment in heterosexual involvements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45 (1), 101-117 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.45.1.101


  1. Hi Juli interesting article. I think #4 is particularly interesting, especially since I just heard about this site It all makes sense now. The unromantic theories of love are merging with the unromantic technology of internet dating. Good times.

    Your friend,

  2. Hi Leo! Thanks for reading :) That website is pretty crazy. Have you tried it? Unromantic indeed, but maybe it works!

    For non-dating doppelganger searching, there are also these ones (and probably many more):

    Apparently one of my celebrity look-alikes is Fred Savage circa The Wonder Years.

  3. Hi Julie,

    I minor in psychology in university, and I just wanted to point something out that could be integrated into part four.

    Although you are correct in saying that people are generally happier with those more similar to themselves; people are more genetically wired to reproduce with those more genetically diverse. The more diverse, the higher attraction between the egg and sperm, and a higher success rate for reproduction. This likelihood of gene survival is an evolutionary mating preference hardwired into us to ensure our genes are preserved and passed on to future generations.

    Excellent article however!

    1. Hi Susan,
      Great point! It does seem strange that we would be attracted to people who wouldn't be good genetic matches. But there may be other cues for recognizing genetic diversity in a potential partner that are not overtly reflected in appearance, and couples who appear physically similar may not be genetically similar. There are also cases like Heidi Klum and Seal (not together anymore, I know, but they lasted awhile), who are different ethnicities but still look alike in terms of facial structure.
      Thanks for reading!