Monday, July 03, 2006

Thoughts on non-romantic love

Love is supposed to be a bit like a cocaine rushaccording to Helen Fisher the neurotransmitter dopamine is the culprit that turns the infatuated brain into a Roman candle – a review of her work from a neuroscientific viewpoint is here.

We have known for more than a decade that body odors are a driver of sexual attraction – that women choose men whose smell promises an immune system different from their own. Alternative sweaty T-shirt studies suggest that:
‘what women want most is a man who smells similar to her father. Scientists suggest that a woman being attracted to her father's genes makes sense. A man with these genes would be similar enough that her offspring would get a tried and tested immune system. On the other hand, he would be different enough to ensure a wide range of genes for immunity. There seems to be a drive to reach a balance between reckless out-breeding and dangerous inbreeding'.
Men like a waist to hip ratio of 70% in a woman to ensure good breeding prospects while women like broad chests and rugged strength, but - unlike men - are more firmly focused on brains and status as complementary inputs into their long-term breeding investments.

Where does all this leave romantic love? Well some cultures don’t have it at all – for example societies where marriages are arranged. Perhaps romantic love is naïve positivism – certainly better than cynicism anyway. But love driven purely by biological needs seems as unrealistic as the romantic ideal. Biology doesn’t just drive psychology – the two things go together with our emotional responses registering physically and vias versa.


Tanya said...

Interesting post … apologies in advance for my long response:

I think you are right Harry, biology doesn't completely drive psychology. Beyond the technical results, much of the discussion in these papers is sheer speculation. Sure, that’s the purpose of discussion sections in academic papers, but we should not delude ourselves that the ideas advanced in discussion sections are conclusively supported by results. Instead, they are useful for generating further testable hypotheses. I’m concerned that some people (including peer scientists) attribute credibility to all utterances of scientists simply because some of what they argue is actually well founded. My hope is that we get better and better at this sort of research but meanwhile humbly recognize that much of what we do is not much better than reading entrails.

On the subject of arranged marriages, I wouldn’t classify them as representing the complete antithesis of romantic love. Cultural traditions have meant that a lot of people lie about the extent to which their arranged marriage was a love match … these are cultures that demonstrate a very high preference for stating that they have certain beliefs and practices but actually practice something quite different or, at least, have a range of practices. Scratch the surface and we find that many young people actually choose whom they marry. A little anecdote: I have a friend from a conservative Muslim country: to this day, her father and most of her family does not know that she knew (and loved) her husband for years before an official family-to-family marriage meeting was ‘arranged’.

On the other hand, I have another friend from another conservative Muslim country, who turned 30 and was forced to marry someone he had met only twice and even then, only in the company of legions of family members. He promptly escaped (literally!) to go to graduate school in the U.S. and did everything he could to avoid the marriage. Eventually he went home for a family-induced holiday and when there got to know his wife better. He realized that he really liked her and decided to work like crazy to bring her to the U.S. Now he completely adores her and they are a very happy couple .... and one (for various reasons including love) that I would say is unlikely to break up.

Of course, evidence is not the plural of anecdote, but I think we overestimate marriages initiated through romantic love and underestimate those made through family or personal arrangements and that these estimations bias both our data collection and analysis.

conrad said...

I agree with Tanya on this one, although I probably have even stronger opinions. Rule 1 of evolutionary psychology and these areas of neuroscience : Don't believe it.

An obvious recent example against all these stories about 70% being evolutionarily optimum, women liking rugged men etc. is that women prefer men with effiminant faces (which wasn't exactly the prediction before it was tested).

The other example comes from Stephen J. Gould, who put numerous aweful theories to rest when he pointed out why men really do have nipples.

patrick said...

They're for aligning suspenders, right???

hc said...

I enjoyed these comments which made sense to me. I want to initiate a discussion on love and attraction. I too am skeptical of the neuroscience literature but it is obviously working in areas of great potential value.

I am a hopeless romantic who finds recednt reseaech on love confronting.

Anonymous said...

Can somebody please describe to me the differences between romantic love in voluntary relationships and involuntary relationships (arranged marriage)?

hc said...

Well Anonymous there is the chemistry but there are cultural traditions as well. People with arranged marriages often cannot imagine it being done in any other way - free choice is something perverse that just won't work.

I think women in Islamic marriages often get such a bad deal that constraint to get married is seem as an inevitable part of the process.

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