Misunderstanding Romantic Attraction

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):

  1. the loved person takes on “special meaning.”
  2. intrusive thinking about the loved person
  3. the tendency to focus on the loved person’s positive qualities and overlook or falsely appraise his/her negative traits;
  4. 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…
  5. a longing for emotional reciprocity coupled with the desire to achieve emotional union with the loved person
  6. emotional dependency on the relationship with the loved person,
  7. a powerful sense of empathy towards the loved person … and a willingness to sacrifice for them
  8. a reordering of daily priorities to be with the loved one … including changing one’s clothing, mannerisms, habits or values
  9. intensification of passionate feelings caused by diversity in the relationship
  10. sexual desire for the target of infatuation coupled with the desire for sexual exclusivity
  11. craving emotional union over sexual union
  12. 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.

(Read the most up to date version of this essay on github.)

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8 Responses to “Misunderstanding Romantic Attraction”

  1. happyseaurchin Says:

    Be brave, is all I can say about romantic relationships. We can talk about, but really, one’s own existential experience is paramount.

    Keep sharing too, it is interesting to read your perspective.

    I’ve had a good time of it mostly throughout my life, and only twice had over-running hardship. Part of the deal of taking the risk. Which leads me to the following observation of your writing.

    One thing your writing here seems to bely, and correct me if I am wrong since you are capable of making remarkable intellectual leaps, but there is something of a leap that is required. One can not incrementally creep up to a certain kind of love. It is not like an argument that one follows to reach a conclusion. It is more like a conclusion that arrives perfectly formed, and then one has to go about reasoning why it makes sense. It is like the situation where a rock-climber faces a gap which is beyond their ability to stretch to, and thus a leap is required, an all or nothing affair. Actually, it is rather like the leap of faith that lies at the foundation of religious experience. That is, to trust the other without any way of returning.

    And so, there is an aspect of this attraction which is rather dangerous, but you will discover this when it happens. Making sense of it, making it work, finding depths to you you did not know you had, this is the wonder of it.

  2. Nick Says:

    I don’t know where else to respond to this so I’ll just go for it. “domestic skills (especially for males, since it signals that you won’t push domestic work onto your partner” is problematic since you’re talking about people as if they are objects with APIs and a rational utility function (at least, you bemoan the lack of one). People don’t like being objects–do you?

    Here’s a link (sorry for Wikia) that seems to summarize most of what I want to say: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Nice_guy_syndrome

    I think other parts of your essays belie this unexamined assumption as well, but I haven’t teased them all out yet. I’m just drive-by judging, afterall.


    • colah Says:

      Hey Nick,

      Thank you for your criticism. If my response comes off as dismissive to any of your points, please forgive that taking criticism is a very difficult skill I’m working to develop, and it often takes a while for criticism to sink in for me.

      Respectfully, I’d observe that taking a single line from my rough personal brainstorming notes may not be the best basis for criticism.

      > is problematic since you’re talking about people as if they are objects with APIs and a rational utility function

      I don’t quite agree that’s what I’m doing. I’d say that I am trying to rationally understand the most difficult part of my life. Could you elaborate on what you feel I am doing wrong?

      Note that the only time I discuss utility functions is in the the game theory analysis of romance. Before you start drawing inferences, I started there because it was a safe and easy topic to discuss, and there was existing stable literature with very obvious holes in it. I did not think there was anything practical to be learned there.

      > People don’t like being objects–do you?

      I don’t think that I’m objectifying anyone, at least not in the sense I think you mean, though I think that’s a valid concern. Objectifying individual people, whether sexually or otherwise, is deeply problematic. But broad discussion and scientific analysis by necessity can’t deal with individual people. It simply isn’t practical to talk about non-specific people without sacrificing individuality in the discussion. I don’t think there is anything ethically problematic with that.

      > Here’s a link (sorry for Wikia) that seems to summarize most of what I want to say: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Nice_guy_syndrome

      Generally, the Nice Guy issue carries connotations of someone believing they “deserve” to do well romantically because they’re a nice person. I’m drawing no such conclusion. The subsection you were looking at (which I only wrote last night, while half asleep!) is on things you can do that improve dating for your potential partner. The particular sub point was on self improvements. The parenthetical note was observing a potential signally side benefit, since most of dating [UPDATE: I mispoke and meant to say, pre-dating interaciton] seems to be about signaling.

      If you want to accuse me of being a Nice Guy, I think the better point to focus on would be a few points where I observe that certain unpleasant males seem to do disproportionately well. I largely attribute this to romantic strategies that carry negative externalities. I could be wrong. I don’t think a label should be a reason from honest inquiry and consideration.

      I’d like to think that you’re just seeing really superficial similarities between my thoughts and those of someone who is trying to be nice to get sex, think women owe them for not assaulting people, or objectify people. Where as I’m really just trying to think about a topic that I’m finding really difficult. But if this the case, I’d be grateful if you could be more explicit so I can fix this.

      I worry that there may be some inherent distrust of any analytic discussion of romance (possibly because the only groups that normally do so are pick up artists). In particular, that someone who is thinking deeply about these issues in an analytic way must be trying to manipulate people in some way or such. But this is just how I think about things. (Albeit, I don’t usually post things like this online, and this is more thorough than usual.)

      > I think other parts of your essays belie this unexamined assumption as well, but I haven’t teased them all out yet. I’m just drive-by judging, afterall.

      Well, thank you again for taking the time to offer criticism. I will attempt to learn from it.

      One thing I’d mention is that I feel like your comment takes a bit of a harsh tone. I’d observe that you’re reading my personal notes, which I’ve made no effort to promote or advocate, are not intended as an argument in public discourse, and are one of the most personal things I can share. I suspect that, had I met you in person and our conversation had led to such a personal conversation, you would have taken care to gently and kindly raise your concerns, rather than opening with an accusation of objectifying people.

      But as it is, I’m just a (obviously mildly sexist) nameless face on the Internet. (The context you probably don’t have is that this is an issue that I’ve been dealing with mild depression regarding for about a year.) I’m guilty of this frequently and severely as well. I hope you don’t mind me mentioning this, but I think we can all do much better and be much kinder to each other. And talking about it is a starting point.

      • Nick Says:

        I want to thank you for responding openly and honestly. Some people would take this as an attack (which it was) and jump into being deeply defensive and stop listening. You didn’t.

        I was curt for two reasons:
        – i’m writing a frustrating CS assignment
        – i’ve seen the exact surprised-ignorance attitude you’re display all over everywhere, not least in myself (compare: “but how can africa hate me? I buy vegan!”). Just the other night I was standing on a streetside with someone I like a lot, but finding myself strongly disagreeing with his inane characterization of some interaction with a girl as a “date” and trying to figure out if he was being “beta’d”.

        I responded to you for two reasons:
        – i can see that you are going through things i went through/am going through, and i think that since i think like you, you a) generally enjoy getting clarification for its own sake b) my experiences can help you
        – Judging from the rest of your essay-in-progress, I think you are making an honest attempt to work out how to be happy and be a good person. I think you actually have a shot at breaking your own mental boundaries (unlike, ironically, Yudkowsky’s twits http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Roko%27s_basilisk#So_you.27re_worrying_about_the_Basilisk that get themselves stuck in rationality that is literally insane)

        So let me clarify. You link to the not-yet-famous-enough Schrödinger’s Rapist post, and it is almost too perfectly symmetrical because it was not two months ago ( I thank Zilliah for reminding me of this post, ) that this happened: http://captainawkward.com/2013/04/20/476-i-have-anxiety-that-women-will-have-anxiety-about-me-approaching-them/ [note: linking you the angry version because it makes the point so much more poignant to me]).

        I’m not out to labelling you or attack you. I’m interested in pointing out behaviour that is absurd and common (because I’m sooo fed up with seeing it from noobs everywhere–which means I’m mostly fed up with seeing it in myself).

        I don’t think *you* would do such a thing as think women owe you sex or would attack her or say things like “well it’s okay, you’re not really angry with me, you’re just being hormonal” (there are feminist blogs which, with a mixture of dry sarcasm and direct compassion for the plight of poor confused menfolk, take this line and actually expand on it. i’m just going to repeat what they’ve said from memory), but my skimming of your stuffs makes it seem like you’ve internalized some NiceGuy(TM) beliefs. It’s okay, you didn’t put them there on purpose, but try to be aware of them.
        For example, these three hit the nail on the head for me ~even though they Don’t Seem Wrong™~:
        >> The insistence on being close friends and mutually emotionally involved before expressing any romantic or sexual interest may involve some distrust of heterosexual men’s sexuality as inherently dirty or predatory.
        >> The implicit trade of “niceness” (emotional support) for sex is a sexist generalisation that women want closeness and men want sex, so they can trade one for the other.
        >> Nice Guys™ regard women as being moral guardians: that women should choose the nicest men for sex in order to reward them for doing the right thing.
        I grew up anxious and afraid and made myself feel safe by telling myself “at least i’m better than /them/” (for “those brutes”, “those athletes”, “those lazy girl haters”, etc). But that’s a myth. A necessary one, maybe, but it’s time for me to move over it. I sing this to myself now everytime I cringe at my behaviour ON “CUZ THE STREETS WE’RE JUST A GEEZER, TRYING TO MAKE ENDS MEET, YAH”. To apply this to the above, I do have this belief that men only want sex and women only want emotions, but I have observed several times females around me being equally gauche, gross and/or raunchy as any male I might imagine (because they’re just geezers too). One mistake that came out of this sort of reasoning was that I’ve invested a lot of energy into my girlfriend to get her happy and healthy lately didn’t expect anything back from it and didn’t even let her help me back because I felt bad about some choices I’d made re: the relationship –feeling shitty about it, I asked my feminist friend what I did wrong and she pointed out that it’s awful paternalistic (eugh, the worst word in my vocabulary!!!!!) to provide for someone and refuse their help.

        I am reading objectification between the lines of your utility function analysis. I totally get how you think it’s okay because it’s “just rational” and it “isn’t mean” because I used to do that too, but it *is* objectification. Trying to “optimize” for “social net benefit” never works ((I have a theory that humans are irrational on purpose: it’s adaptive to complex nonlinear systems?; maybe the incompleteness theorem and the-map-is-not-the-territory are involved here)) and also, more keyly, reduces the people involved to functions you are trying to find maxima over. You do it to yourself too, probably. Maybe you like it that way–I know I prefer dealing with myself and people that way–but it’s ignorant because it’s autistic.
        “My friends have reported that taking yoga with women makes them feel better. Maybe that’s a good strategy?”?! How is that *not* reinforcing the sexist nonsense you want to be against?

        Rationalizing behaviour to some ethical standard is precisely not what works on the ground–and it doesn’t work not because people suck and don’t care about ethics, but because ethics (and almost certainly your or my particular breed of it) is irrationally rational to the point of squeezing the humanity out of the equation. I don’t know what your experiences are like, but in mine there have been sooo many times that someone I thought I was loving wasn’t feeling it at all–I was doing all the right things, and yet. Hell, I’m in and out of that situation right now and it is . My first goal here is to disseminate experiences so that you don’t need to waste your time generating them for yourself, the mistake is that doing all the right behaviours *without actually being present with your soul* is disrespectful and cold and–and girlfriends or anyone else you use it on react to it the same way. Hell, it even pisses off other autists (last week I got an earful from (redacted)’s visit to (redacted)).
        > most of dating seems to be about signaling.
        is a perfect example of what I’m complaining about. Dating is about forming those fuzzy and psychologically necessary bonds with other human beings. What you’re talking about is how to emulate dating –barely above PUA territory (and PUAs are their own special breed of ignorant; they might trick a few girls here and there but any of their relationships will be them telling themselves they are “Alphaing” while nobody cares–especially not the girl).

        Also your essay is laced with gender essentialism. The problems of intersectionality shouldn’t stop at “it sucks that things happen unfairly to people for no reason”–if you take the symmetry principle far enough you should reach “any stereotype is suspect”. I’ve read in soc papers in passing (but don’t have a good cite to hand :/) that the stddev on all traits anyone has cared to measure is larger than the difference in the means of the female-male groups. (also if you get into Native American third-gender, SEA aboriginal n-gender systems, and western trans politics it gets a lot less clear that there’s really).
        tl;dr: If you think it’s *unfair* that anything happens to men in particular, then stop perpetuating the system where people believe that being a man means anything.

        • colah Says:

          I’m feeling very frustrated by your comment right now, and don’t think I can respond well at the moment. So, I’m only going to respond to a few parts I want to respond to immediatly and may respond to it in full at a later point.

          One broad thing I’m frustrated by is that you keep ‘quoting’ things that are not what I wrote. I realize that you’re trying to achieve brevity by paraphrasing, but they often seem massively different than the original. Since my notes (they’re not an essay) are transient and changing, I worry that someone looking over these comments may believe I wrote something very different than what I did.

          > http://captainawkward.com/2013/04/20/476-i-have-anxiety-that-women-will-have-anxiety-about-me-approaching-them/

          That’s a very relevant link, and I’ll think on it.

          > “My friends have reported that taking yoga with women makes them feel better. Maybe that’s a good strategy?”?! How is that *not* reinforcing the sexist nonsense you want to be against?

          I actually wrote, in my section on reducing the need for romantic intimacy:

          > Multiple (redacted) men have described that interacting with women a lot (eg. by taking yoga) reduces romantic loneliness for them.

          What in that statement is “reinforcing the sexist nonsense”? The implicit acknowledgement that present yoga demographics in North America are 75-80% female? The idea that lonely men feel better after interacting with women?

          Also, please note that I don’t necessarily endorse all the comments and thoughts from people I put in my notes. I disgaree with a lot of it.

          > > most of dating seems to be about signaling.
          > is a perfect example of what I’m complaining about. Dating is about forming those fuzzy and psychologically necessary bonds with other human beings. What you’re talking about is how to emulate dating –barely above PUA territory (and PUAs are their own special breed of ignorant; …

          Hm. Well, that isn’t what I wrote. [UDPATE: That’s incorrect. I did write that in an earlier comment, though not in my notes. It was a misstatement, where I meant pre-dating interaction instead of dating.] I wrote:

          > One important and complicated issues around romantic relationships is the initial signaling that starts them. Expressing romantic interest in someone overtly is a costly action: it can hurt your relationship with them, with other people, make them feel uncomfortable, reduce your social standing, etc. Meanwhile, a positive outcome is fairly unlikely. So, people don’t typically directly express romantic interest. Instead there’s typically an exchange of increasingly stronger signals between them (“flirting”).

          I don’t think I ever suggest, and certainly don’t mean to suggest that dating is primarily about singalling.

          I think it’s a rather large jump to go from there to the suggestion that I don’t think “Dating is about forming those fuzzy and psychologically necessary bonds with other human beings” and that “What you’re talking about is how to emulate dating –barely above PUA territory”

          > tl;dr: If you think it’s *unfair* that anything happens to men in particular, then stop perpetuating the system where people believe that being a man means anything.

          And that’s where I’ll stop right now. I’m feeling pretty upset. I feel like you’re taking everything I write in the most negative sense possible.

          Also, you keep referring to my notes as an essay. Please understand that they’re actually more like a semi-private diary, with personal musings on a compliated issue. And they’re not published in the sense that a lot of them are things I jotted down once and haven’t thought about since, unlike the way I would carefully comb over an essay dozens of times. You’ve gone and raised a lot of my very personal musings in a much more public forum (they were burried in a github repository) and don’t even seem to be giving me the benefit of positively interpreting ambiguity in my raw thoughts. Please allow any future conversation to at least procede with the understanding that that is what they are.

      • Nick Says:

        I read your essay because a friend dropped the link on me without explanation and signed off. I wonder what she wanted me to see. Maybe the section on polyamory being illegal.

        Y’know, a literal reading of s293 criminalizes cheating, threesomes, and fetish clubs, so I would take that with a grain of salt. No one is going to arrest you for having multiple regular dating partners! That’s why “going steady” was slang in the supposedly uptight fifties: because there was plenty of not-going-steady to justify an idiom.

        Legal code is not executed in a vacuum–neither is program code, but our school of thought blinds ourselves to that intentionally in order to make problems tacklable–common practice is intentionally taken into account and considered (afaik, from my polisci and legalstudies friends) part of The Law.

        There are *plenty* of people who enjoy, stumble through, and flail at non-monogamy (many more if you count serial monogamy, which is hardly monogamy at all)–they just don’t bother to put a name on it (which I think is more authentic). It seems like it’s just the geeks who spend more time cataloguing their relationships than enjoying them 😛

        • colah Says:

          I’m not sure if you’re asserting that section 293, in the context of case law, does not leave polyamory illegal, or just would not be enforced?

          (I note that I also mentioned case law I could find. I also note that polyamory advocacy groups are concerned about these issues.)

          Either way, that seems like a really bold claim, and I’m concerned to see you make it so confidently. (A few years ago a friend ran into legal issues, completely unrelated to this, but that also seem ridiculous to me. Even laws that are generally not enforced can suddenly be in the right circumstances.)

      • Nick Says:

        And no, I wouldn’t have said all this to your face if we’d just met at hacklab or something, but you wouldn’t have extemporized at length about such difficult and meaningful topics either.

        I like to think that whether remote or in scary meatspace land, I am now both brave yet judicious enough to call out things that need calling out, and engage in the dialogue that commits me to, openly. I think it annoys some people that I do that, but my close friends are all people who enjoy it and fight me back (and we do argue over tech and books and soc often enough).

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