“Roses are red, violets are blue, I never knew love until I found you.” Yet again, shops are stocked with glossy balloons, teddies extending cuddly love hearts, and the ‘emblems of eternal passion’; red roses.
While some embrace the excuse for extra romance, others disregard the February 14th festivities as an unnatural, forced expression of feelings, or a con invented by the greeting card companies. In fairness, Valentine’s Day contributed around $18.6 billion to the US economy last year.
Either way, with Cupid time upon us, I find myself wondering about the forces at play behind human attraction, romantic relationships, and love. Attraction takes many forms, but a seemingly essential ingredient in the initial chemistry between two people is physical attraction.
One need only look to the skyrocketing subscriptions to dating apps like Tinder, which sees 3.5 million matches per day, to confirm that we can rapidly make snap-judgments based on appearance. And these “attraction judgements” are very often made in under one second.
Some evolutionary theorists argue that relying on attractiveness to evaluate strangers may be inherent to our biology. This is because attractive features are often reliable cues for good physical health (e.g. having clear skin, good teeth, and lustrous hair).
Other attracive traits seem to have more to do with aesthetics, such as preference for symmetrical faces, and features of average size and shape, with extremes in either direction being undesirable (I don’t know where Angelina Jolie fits into that one).
While physical attraction is often the catalyst in a romantic relationship and remains important, it can often take a back seat in comparison to our attraction to the personality, character and attributes of a person.
We all know of situations where people end up falling for someone who they thought was parked safely in the ‘friend zone’; where chemistry and attraction are not immediately obvious, but develop over time.
There are some psychological theorists who hold that familiarity breeds liking and those who are familiar to us become more attractive. This renders Hollywood’s cliché of opposites attract very dubious.
How often do we sit through a film where two characters interact like oil and water, only to realise, as the plot thickens, that they are actually madly in love and destined to a life of amorous bliss together? Alas, the world of science has yet to prove much reality in these tales.
Undoubtedly, opposites may experience initial attraction to each other. People who are very different from us seem exciting and alluring. Using common sense, we feel our lives will be enriched by connecting with others who have traits and abilities we don’t possess.
But research suggests that, in fact, similarity (particularly in terms of personality) is the ticket to a long lasting relationship. People with opposite personalities may be attracted to each other at first, but it seems that for long term success, conflicting personalities are ultimately incompatible.
A 1990 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology used longitudinal data from the University of California, Berkley, to track couples over time. The researchers found that couples who are more similar on 100 personality related descriptions (e.g. “has a wide range of interests” and “seeks reassurance from others”) were likely to report higher rates of marital satisfaction and lower rates of marital conflict.
Furthermore, the results suggest that partners with similar personality profiles were more satisfied together and demanded less behaviour change from one another. Similarly, data researched from the online dating site eHarmony, shows that similarity between partners is the key to a lasting relationship.
The study of thousands of couples uncovered that opposites, while initially attracted to each other, generally become frustrated by their differences and struggle settling disputes in an equal manner.
Can’t we all think of examples of couples who seemed to have all of the necessary ingredients in place, yet it all fell apart. They had well-matched personalities, they were attracted to each other but eventually that wasn’t enough. The real answer to what lies behind human attraction and romantic love is one that humans have been seeking for and struggling with for a very long time.
History and literature are packed with tales of the intoxication of romantic love: the love between Paris and Helen provoked the downfall of Troy and “never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
Poets, philosophers, songwriters, authors and just about everybody else have pondered the meaning of love for centuries and this fascination continues in modern science.
Recent psychological studies tell us that love-emotions make us feel warm and spark activity throughout our entire body. Neuroscientists have shown that intense feelings of romantic love are associated with activation of dopamine-releasing regions of the brain on fMRI scans.
It would seem, however, that there’s a long way to go before we fully understand the mysterious ways in which love really works. Be it a lucky Tinder swipe, a re-evaluation of your friends, or a dopamine-induced love rush, what harm is a little extra romance on February 14th?
Valentine’s Day has been associated with romantic love since the Middle Ages. Fuelling its 21st century commercialism is not essential to appreciating its potential charm.