L-O-V-E: A Crash Course In Psychology And Biology

No lovely-dovey content: suitable for loners.

Valentine’s day is coming (or maybe it passed, depending on when you are reading this) and love is all around. Everyone is talking about it, romantic comedies are trending on Amazon Prime, restaurants are advertising atmospheric dinners for two, and qmunicate is preparing a Spotify playlist with the sad, sad songs for the rebels. But what is love? (insert clueless face).

A good place to begin is evolutionary psychology, which tries to explain how our behavior served for survival of the species. Davis M. Buss conducted extensive research into evolutionary advantages of mating preferences, including a 37-country big cross-cultural project in 1989. In ‘Strategies of Human Mating (2006)’, a paper that discusses many of his own research as well as the work of others, Buss found that what we consider stereotypical male preference for young and physically beautiful women, and female preference for good financial prospect and elevated social status of the partner are cross-cultural, and suggested they have evolutionary motivation. Youth and beauty in women are viewed by men as cues for ‘fertility and reproductive value”, meaning that those women should bear healthy children, while good financial prospect and elevated social status assume that the man should be able to provide for his children. In other words, both genders’ mating preferences are supposed to look out for the survival of their offspring.  

The conclusion of Buss’ research troubled me throughout the last two years of high school. However, the samples used in his investigations were not entirely representative, so there is still hope for humanity. Don’t be discouraged!

In 2003, Gobrogge and others conducted a similar study on an American and Canadian sample of heterosexual and homosexual men, looking for age preference in a partner. The results show no significant difference between the two groups in terms of preferred age of a partner, both preferring younger partners. What made a difference was whether they were looking for a partner for a sexual encounter (would accept bigger age difference) or a long-term relationship.

Aside for looks, age and money (yes, this was sarcastic) it also seems that our body odour plays a big part in attraction. In 1995 Claus Wedekind and colleagues found that women who were not using oral contraception at the time found the odour of men with different gene coding for immune system than their own to be more pleasant and sexy. This supports evolutionary idea of finding mates with whom we have a high chance of having healthy offspring. On the other hand, female participants who were on the pill favoured the odour of males with more similar MHC (major histocompatibility complex) in terms of pleasure and sexiness. Intensity of the smell does not influence the rating of sexual appeal nor pleasure. The study suggests that female sexual preference can change with a change in hormones which, Wedekind suggests, “could have influence on the stability of an already existing pair bond.”   

Notwithstanding that we may be looking for partners with different immunity markers, but when it comes to psychological and behavioural traits, we seem to look for similarity. In Markey and Markey’s 2007 study, which was conducted on a large sample of individuals, it was shown that both men and women find romantically desirable those characteristics that they themselves consciously share. Warm people want warm partners, to give an example. However, a second study conducted for the same research paper shows that while partners in happier existing couples do tend to share some personality traits, the happier couples are more dissimilar in the level of dominance than the less satisfied couples. It should be highlighted that the results did not equate dominance with specific gender – it works both ways.

And once there is that special someone to whom we are attracted, then the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine come to work. In simple terms, dopamine is a neurotransmitter which, when released, makes us feel pleasure.  It is connected with both attraction and addiction to drugs.  Many drugs over-stimulate the release of dopamine, making abusers euphoric while under influence and motivating further usage. In the case of attraction, the abundant release of dopamine again triggers euphoria, but is also connected with preferring a specific mate, triggering strongly focused attention and goal-oriented behaviour. Norepinephrine makes our palms sweaty and our heart start racing, it also increases the feeling of joy and reduces appetite. Elevated levels of both dopamine and norepinephrine are connected with heightened female sexual desire when motivated by lust, but not in case of romantic motivation. On the other hand, our serotonin levels drop. Low levels of serotonin are frequent in people with OCD, and Harvard professor Richard Schwartz described the effect of the serotonin drop when one falls in love as the “intrusive, maddeningly preoccupying thoughts, hopes, terrors of early love”.

Finally, when a bonding forms, rather than the mentioned neurotransmitters, our behaviour is influenced by hormones oxytocin and vasopressin. Both take part in the formation and maintenance of attachment between a romantic couple. Although it is hard to distinguish their different roles, as they are a part of an “integrated neural network with many points of intersection” and are regulated by genes on the same chromosome, some functions have been identified. Vasopressin influences “physical and emotional mobilization, and supports vigilance and behaviours needed for guarding a partner or territory”, while oxytocin induces relaxed physiological state that allows consensual sex.

To conclude with, I am not sure if this made you feel better or worse, but apparently that is how love works.

Until next Valentine’s!


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