One thing I’ve realized in the last year is that I really deeply misunderstood what romantic attraction was. Most people I’ve tried to describe this to have been incredulous, since the things I misunderstood seem trivial to them. Nevertheless, I think that for a certain type of person this may actually be a really difficult point. In particular, I think the way romance is generally talked about and portrayed in our culture is kind of misleading if you can’t read beneath the surface. Personally, I only realized these points after reading neuroscience literature on romantic attraction.
So, what did I think romance was? I basically thought it was sexuality plus a special kind of really close friendship. And I thought that dating was basically driven by lust, the potential partners getting along, and maybe loneliness — and I summarily was pretty dismissive of it. That view was consistent with, among other things, the comments friends made when I prodded them about dating (“She’s hella hot!”, “He’s really funny!”). Clearly, this developed in to a deeper relationship in many cases, but I saw that more as a close friendship.
Well, what is romantic attraction? Helen Fisher argues (quite compellingly to me) that Lust, Attraction and Attachment are fundamentally separate things. Rather than fumble with my own description, I’ll provide a list of twelve psychological properties associated with attraction from Fisher’s Lust, Attraction and Attachment in Mammalian Reproduction with abbreviated descriptions (see the paper for the entirety):
- the loved person takes on “special meaning.”
- intrusive thinking about the loved person
- the tendency to focus on the loved person’s positive qualities and overlook or falsely appraise his/her negative traits;
- labile psychophysiological responses to the loved person, including exhilaration, euphoria, buoyance, spiritual feelings, feelings of fusion with the loved person, increased energy, sleeplessness, loss of appetite…
- a longing for emotional reciprocity coupled with the desire to achieve emotional union with the loved person
- emotional dependency on the relationship with the loved person,
- a powerful sense of empathy towards the loved person … and a willingness to sacrifice for them
- a reordering of daily priorities to be with the loved one … including changing one’s clothing, mannerisms, habits or values
- intensification of passionate feelings caused by diversity in the relationship
- sexual desire for the target of infatuation coupled with the desire for sexual exclusivity
- craving emotional union over sexual union
- feelings seem involuntary and uncontrollable
(Fisher make many fascinating points and arguments in the paper, among them evidence for the independence of lust, attraction and attachment; that attraction is associated with high dopamine and norepinephrine and low serotonin levels; that attraction is generally temporary; that the low serotonin levels associated with attraction are similar to that observed in OCD… A lot of this seems plausible, and relatively consistent with the other literature I’ve read (though since I only looked at open access articles and read a bunch of citations from Fisher, my sample may be biased)… However, I’ve been advised exercise greater skepticism to neuroscience papers than other I do harder science, especially where MRI studies are concerned (see Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience).)
A simple example of how this misunderstanding had a real impact on less theoretical issues is that it caused me to severely under value the importance of LGBT rights issues. Of course, I was upset at people being discriminated against and harassed for stupid reasons, but I didn’t appreciate the real depth of what a horrible thing to be discriminated on for, or to have repressed, sexuality would be because I didn’t really realize what being attracted to someone would be like. The dialogue around homosexuality plays right into this: bigots talk about it as a twisted lust, and then a gay couple gets up and talks about how they love each other. But I never heard anyone really talk about what the attraction was like — I probably just wasn’t listening enough, or nodded it off as sentimentalism. It also adds a great deal of depth to the “people don’t choose to be gay” point.
It had other much more severe impacts on my beliefs and actions, but I’m not really comfortable talking about a lot of them.
In the end, the point I wish to make here is that romantic attraction is something much subtler and different from what I thought it was and that this was a very problematic misunderstanding. I’ve also been thinking a lot about whether complying with the romantic drive is actually a good idea (it’s not clear to me), optimal dating strategies and how they vary over ethical constraints and varying utility functions, and how to have a healthy relationship (I perceive many of those around me as not being such). I may write about this further in the future.