Love is weird, right? How do we start caring about a person? How do we feel so close to our family? When do our friendships start? What makes us gravitate towards certain individuals? How do we form close long-term intimate relationships? How do our relationships end? How does the psychology of love work?
Love and belonging is one of the psychological needs in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This hierarchy can be disputed but we cannot deny the fact that we have an inherent need for belonging. Aristotle said “Man is by nature a social animal”. By nature, human society is run through an interdependence on each other. That’s how we evolved to be. We evolved to live in tribes and form deep social connections. The New York Times bestseller author Johann Hari in his book Lost Connections writes “Just like bees evolved to live in a hive, humans evolved to live in a tribe”.
The psychology of love from an evolutionary perspective
For our ancestors, our tribal nature ensured the survival of the group. Ten individuals together could hunt more effectively, fight a predator, build tools, make shelters et cetera. Close intimate bonds led to children. Couples with a deep bond with each other and their children ensured each other’s and their children’s survival.
When our ancestors started evolving, their brain size grew significantly. This growth in the brain led to their babies having to be born prematurely. Babies had to be taken care of until their brains were fully developed. In some species of apes, females didn’t mate until their baby grew up significantly so males started killing babies to mate with these female primates. This wasn’t good for the survival of the species in general.
Monogamy arose as a solution to this infanticide which is seen in species such as dolphins, gorillas, etc. Although, some primates such as bonobos, chimps, etc. reduce the risk of infanticide by being very promiscuous. Males in these species don’t know who their baby is and who is not. Hence, resulting in lower infanticide.
But in the species in which males and females bond strongly, the rate of survival of their offspring grows dramatically. In such species, males can help out females in parenting. Perhaps, this evolutionary shift could be the origin of love.
Brain regions associated with romantic love are fairly recent developments but animals have been capable of some forms of love for a long long time. Feel-good chemicals are released when we look at the person we desire, touch them, etc. Our brain rewards us to be around that particular person. Our limbic system plays a key role in that. Dopamine and Oxytocin pull us together.
How are friendships formed? And how do we get attracted to someone?
What makes a person like or love another person? Let’s explore how things gradually move from being unknown, liking someone to deeply loving them.
Proximity (Propinquity Effect)
Proximity means closeness or nearness in terms of distance or relationships. Proximity is one of the important factors that push towards bonding. The people we see and interact with regularly have the potential to become our close friends. Proximity also seems to predict if two people will maintain their friendship. Sadly, the lack of proximity could result in friendships slowly dying out. Although in some cases, proximity can be a bit dangerous as well. Murders and assaults usually seem to happen between people in close proximity.
Functional distance seems to be more important than physical distance. People whose path tends to cross a lot tend to become friends. You both usually go to the same café, wait for the bus at the same bus station, etc. Randomly assigned roommates usually seem to tend to be good friends than enemies. Interactions allow for people to find similarities between each other. The longer people talk to someone, the better they seem to feel about them.
But why does it happen? Why do proximity and interaction lead to liking?
One of the reasons could be because we don’t get the opportunity to interact with people often so we sample from what is available to us. It’s more likely that we’ll have friends from the same school. But, it seems that even in a small barely inconvenient distance, people seem more likely to be friends or enemies with people who are closer to them in distance. So why does this happen?
Anticipation of Interaction
It seems that the process of liking someone can start way before an actual interaction. Just mere anticipation of interaction can make us like that person a little more. That’s probably how crushes are developed?
Mere exposure effect (familiarity principle)
It seems that the more we hear or see something or someone, the more we like. It’s constantly used in marketing and advertising. New products are constantly bombarded to us until they feel familiar. We seem to associate good feelings with the things we are familiar with. People seem to get attached to and even fall in love with people who feel familiar to them.
We also seem to like ourselves more when we get to see ourselves more. It seems individuals usually prefer their mirror photos and their friends prefer non mirrored photos due to the mere exposure effect. We’re more exposed to mirror reflection of us and hence we tend to like it more.
Proximity and interaction increase familiarity. But that’s not enough for a friendship or a relationship, right? We aren’t friends with everyone with whom we cross our paths. The secret ingredient for growing friendships is similarity. Similar personality, background, interests, attitudes, values, etc pull us closer towards a person.
Personality and opinions
We seem to like people whose opinions and personality are similar to ours.
Interests and experiences
We seem to like people whose interests and experiences are similar to ours. Furthermore, people enrolled in a certain academic track tend to have more or less similar life experiences.
We seem to tend to like people who have similarities in appearance to us as well. People who wear glasses seem to like people who also wear glasses.
Actual vs perceived similarity
It seems that people’s belief about how similar they are is more important than the actual similarity. Liking seems to increase with people’s belief about the similarity, not so much by the actual similarity.
Similarity seems to especially be important in romantic relationships. So, sorry, opposites do not attract. People might hook up or start a fling with someone very different than themselves for an adventure but eventually, for a long-term relationship, similarity is the key.
It seems that we like to be liked. Just knowing that someone likes us can get us attracted towards them. Liking also can potentially make up for the lack of similarity. It even seems to over ride our attraction towards the attractive people.
Men seem to be more likely than women to admit that physical attractiveness is important to them. It seems that both men and women pay attention to the attractiveness of others. But, some studies show that men value it a little more than women. But when it comes to actual behavior men and women seem to be more similar than different.
The matching phenomenon
This hypothesis argues that people who have similar social desirability tend to make happy couples. If one of the partners in a happy relationship is less attractive physically, they have other redeeming qualities that make up for the lack of physical attractiveness. They have other qualities in them that makes them socially desirable. This also explains why some young attractive women end up marrying older men who have high social status.
Attractive = good stereotype
We learn early on that physically attractive people are also good people. In movies, heroes tend to be good looking. Children learn it through fairy tale cartoons. People perceive physically attractive people to be kinder, caring, loving, etc.
Since attractive people are favored more in society, they develop more confidence. But social skill doesn’t come from physical attractiveness but rather from how you treat yourself and how others treat you.
Does attractive merely means physically attractive?
Physically attractiveness is of significance but it doesn’t cancel out other traits. Some people are more judgmental about physical appearance than others. What attractiveness affects is first impressions. First impressions are important but they are not everything.
What is attractive?
Attractiveness is whatever people find attractive in any given place or time period. Cultures, where resources are scarce, seem to find chubby people attractive. Cultures that have an abundance of resources tend to find slimness more attractive. Although, despite the differences, people from within and across cultures seem to agree on what is attractive.
Symmetry and averageness of facial shape seem to make some people appear more attractive than others. Perfectly average physical features seem to make people more attractive. The average leg length to body ratio seems to be more attractive to people as contrasted with both long and short legs. Seems a perfectly average look is easy on our eyes and our brain and we tend to like them. Our brain factors in all the people we’ve seen in our lives and creates a mental model of what should a man or woman look like and we like whatever is closer to that image.
Evolutionary basis of attractiveness
Evolutionary psychologists assume that people look for the signals of health, youth, and fertility. Women tend to prefer resourceful men. Women who are looking for short term relationships tend to go for more attractive men but women looking for long term relationships look for other traits as too much attractiveness can often bring infidelity.
Men might like women with hourglass figures because they have regular menstrual cycles and generally are more fertile. The reproductive capacity of women seems to attract men across multiple cultures. During ovulation, women seem to prefer men with more masculine faces, voices, and bodies. They seem to wear more revealing clothes during that phase. Their ability to identify the sexual orientation of a man increases. Strippers who are ovulating also seem to receive higher tips from their customers. Evolutionary psychologists argue that our mating habits are driven by our primal instincts.
What we find attractive also depends upon what comparison standards are we using. We all have very different social comparison standards. Our barometer for comparison is different. People who tend to rate their attractiveness higher might feel it’s gone lower when they meet people who they consider are more attractive than them. And, in this day and age of photoshop and social media, we are constantly bombarded with attractive faces that do not even exist in real life. Photos taken in perfect lighting, angles, and precisely edited. People spend a lot of money on diets, supplements, cosmetics, etc. without deriving any satisfaction from it because the standard is impossibly high.
People we like become more attractive to us
Likability can drastically increase attractiveness. So, in some ways, beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder. We not only think attractive people are likable but also likable people are attractive.
While we do seem to like people who have traits we desire but do not have in us and sort of dislike people who have traits we dislike in us. But, for the most part, similarity attracts. Hence, opposites do not seem to attract. Someone young might decide to go for one for adventure but it doesn’t seem sustainable for the long term.
Does flattery work? How does self esteem affect attraction?
- Flattery only works when it’s genuine. If you compliment someone who hasn’t washed their hair for weeks for having great hair then it’s obviously not going to work.
- Also, what is flattery attributed to? If the other person feels that you’re trying to get something from them by being nice to them then it’s again not going to work.
- People with low self-esteem need more encouragement and have a harder time associating compliments with attentiveness and care whereas people with high self-esteem do tend to associate compliments with their partner valuing them, caring about them, and being attentive to them.
- People who have recently gone through social rejection are hungry for social approval. This seems to explain rebound relationships. Also, as a random trivia, people seem to eat more after fasting.
- Approval that comes after disapproval is tremendously rewarding.
What is Love? (Apart from the fact that love is weird)
What is love?
Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
Let’s try to answer Haddaway’s question here. What is love?
It seems that we can divide love into two categories
- Compassionate love: The love and affection we have for someone that doesn’t bring physical and psychological arousal.
- Passionate love: An intense desire for a person with physical and psychological arousal.
All our romantic movie leads portray an example of passionate love. Twilight, 50 shades of grey, divergent, etc.
Does culture affect love? (societal psychology of love )
Although we all experience love. How we define love and how we find it varies across cultures. How people experience love also seems to vary across cultures. In collectivist society romantic love is given less importance before marriage whereas in individualistic society romantic love is considered a must for marriage. Research shows Americans value passionate love more and Chinese value compassionate love more. We all seem to express, define, and experience love in very different ways across societies. In a collectivist society, romantic sacrifies are made for the sake of the family.
Attachment theory assumes that the attachment style we develop during our early childhood for our parents and caregivers influences all our relationships in our lives.
- A secure attachment style comes with a lack of fear of being abandoned. People in secure attachments view themselves as worthy of love and feel that they are loved.
- Avoidant attachment style comes with avoidance of close intimate relationships due to past experience with abandonment.
- An anxious attachment style comes with a fear of abandonment. A fear that people will not love you back the way you love them resulting in anxiety.
How do relationships end?
Individualistic people expect the passion to stay alive despite situations and circumstances and are often left disappointed. Couples who constantly work towards keeping the relationship alive seem to be able to stay in long term committed relationships. Whether a person values commitment or just gets swayed by a slight change in feelings and emotions is also important. Long-term relationships tend to endure through tough times and turbulences and persist but keeping relationships alive also involves a fear of ending the relationship, a feeling of moral obligation towards the other person, and not paying attention to potential alternative partners.
Survey data shows, people who are in an unhappy marriage, when they persist through a tough time together tend to be able to convert the unhappy marriage into a happy one.
People seem to tend to stay married …
- If they get married after the age of 20.
- If both partners grew up in a stable two-parent household.
- If they dated for a long time before getting married.
- If both are well educated.
- If they have a stable income and decent jobs.
- If they live in a small town or a farm.
- If they did not get pregnant before marriage.
- If they both have similar age, beliefs, faith, and education.
Love is weird (psychology of love) -> Conclusion
It’s hard to define love. The definition varies across cultures. How we feel it, experience it, and express it also differs. But, there are some similarities between individuals and across cultures. We can explore love from evolutionary, psychological, physiological, sociological, and cultural perspectives but there’s always more to discover. So, if you feel love, experience it. If you love someone, express it. Thanks for reading and keep loving!
- Principles of Social Psychology Open Textbook Library
- Social Psychology by By David Myers and Jean Twenge
- Pearson Social Psychology