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Exploring the psychology of love

Date

12th Feb 2020

Can 36 questions and 4 minutes of staring lead two people to fall in love?

Valentine’s Day is celebrated annually on February 14 and is recognised as a cultural and commercial celebration of romantic love in many parts of the world. This Valentine’s Day we’ve decided to focus our attention on exploring romantic love through the academic lens of psychology. We’ll also consider whether Arthur Aron’s famous experimental study – involving strangers asking each other questions, falling in love and getting married – is just as effective as Cupid’s arrow.

Love is one of the most intense emotions known to humans. Love is at the heart of life and, in particular, romantic love is the focus in a lot of literature, poetry, movies and music.

So why do we enjoy stories about falling in love? The answer could be in our biology. When people start falling in love their attraction is driven by changes in their brain chemicals – dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin flood their brains in areas associated with pleasure and rewards. Resulting in physical and psychological changes, from lowering blood pressure to helping people feel less stressed and happier.

What is it that makes people fall in love?

You might think it’s just about a person’s physical appearance or maybe because they think alike – and you’d be right, those are factors in attraction – but it can be more than that. Researchers have explored this fascinating area and identified 11 factors to predict falling in love.

Arthur Aron (et al. 1989) suggested falling in love could be caused by general attraction as a result of these four factors:

  1. Similarity: How similar we are in our attitude, personality traits and ways of thinking.
  2. Propinquity: Familiarity with each other developed through spending time together, living near each other, thinking about the other, or anticipating interaction with the other person.
  3. Desirable characteristics: Is our outer physical appearance desirable and to a smaller extent on desirable personality traits.
  4. Reciprocal liking: When someone likes you, it can increase your own liking.

Two further factors can help explain why people fall in love, involving mate selection (Aron, et al. 1989):

  1. Social influences: A relationship that satisfies general social norms, and acceptance of the relationship within their social network, can contribute to people falling in love.
  2. Filling needs: If a person can fulfil another person’s need for companionship, love, sex or mating, there is a greater likelihood that they will fall in love.

In addition, these five factors are needed for the love to be a romantic rather than friendship love (Aron, et al. 1989):

  1. Arousal/unusualness: An arousing or unusual environment.
  2. Specific cues: Characteristics can spark a strong attraction e.g. their eyes or voice.
  3. Readiness for entering a relationship: The more a person wants to be in a relationship.
  4. Isolation: Being alone with another person or exclusiveness.
  5. Mystery: The mystery in a situation and as a perceived trait of a person.

The questionnaire experiment that has sparked love

Arthur Aron (et al. 1997) proposed, ‘One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure’. Consequently, to form close, healthy and mutual relationships with another person, we should reveal information about ourselves to that person, who in turn, should reveal information about themselves to us.

This is the basis of Aron’s famous experimental studies. Test subject pairs (who were strangers), carried out self-disclosure and relationship building tasks to form closeness. Aron’s studies received high post-experiment ratings of closeness and anecdotal reports of the impact of the experience, which included a pair who married. It inspired love writer, Mandy Len Catron, to trial the experiment on herself and an acquaintance. They asked each other thirty-six questions then stared at each other for four minutes (the recommended time period). Following their experiment, they began a relationship and Mandy wrote an article about her experience ‘To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This’, which The New York Times published – and her story went viral!

Many other people have also tried replicating the experiment and if you’re curious to see it in action here’s a great video from TEDxSydney ‘How to Fall in Love with A Stranger’:

A love until the end of time…

Aron’s experiment evidently is effective at quickly forming closeness between strangers or even people you already know to deepen your ties. However, arguably other factors such as desirable characteristics play a big part in whether people to fall in love. In addition, though his experiment caused people to fall in love, it hasn’t been tested whether these relationships have been enduring. Staying in love is a lot harder than falling in love. Mandy Len Catron touches on this and more in her TED talk ‘Falling in love is the easy part’:

 

If this blog has sparked an interest in learning more about love and psychology, then check out our psychology courses. On our BSc Psychology, you’ll study our Psychological Development through the Lifespan module where you’ll explore relationships and dating as part of emotional and social development. You can download a prospectus to learn more here.

 

References

Aron, A., Dutton, D. G., Aron, E. N., & Iverson, A. (1989). Experiences of Falling in Love. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6(3), 243–257. doi: 10.1177/0265407589063001

Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363–377. doi: 10.1177/0146167297234003

Breuning, L. (2018, February 13). The Neurochemistry of Love. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/your-neurochemical-self/201802/the-neurochemistry-love

Brogaard, B. (2017, January 12). The 11 Reasons We Fall in Love. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-mysteries-love/201701/the-11-reasons-we-fall-in-love

Greenberg, M. (2016, March 30). The Science of Love and Attachment. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201603/the-science-love-and-attachment

Natale, N. (2018, July 11). 7 physical and psychological changes that happen when you fall in love. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/falling-in-love-changes-your-body-and-brain-2018-7?r=US&IR=T