The Science of Love: How we´re hardwired for Dating

22. February 2011

Scientists in a wide range of disciplines – evolutionary psychology, sociology, neurology, biology, anthropology – have made tremendous strides in the last decade in understanding the evolution and operation of human emotions.

Poets may not appreciate that the mysteries of romance are being deciphered and decoded, but can take comfort in the fact that no matter how much we learn, we are still products of nature and nurture.

Same environment, but different experiences.

There is no escaping the mix of genetics and rearing that makes us who we are, but we can learn a thing or two by staying abreast of current research in the science of love. In this article, you will discover why we are hardwired for dating. A cynical fellow may see the following findings as adding to his bag of tricks, but if reads the whole article, he’ll realize that women hold the best cards in this game.


STATE OF THE SCIENCE: We make judgments without being aware of doing so
APPLICATION TO DATING: Guys, especially, need to watch their personal hygiene

Women’s magazines follow these kinds of stories. Men’s don’t. Figures.

Current brain research indicates that we often make snap decisions based on subconscious fear even before consciously processing sensory data. (The famous example is reacting to a snake in the grass before knowing that you’ve seen it.)

This correlates strongly with a study at Indiana University that shows both men and women making their first (very influential) judgment of “romantic potential” within ten seconds.

She likes you clean and aromatic, buddy.

Fact is, they’re all right, to a degree. The ways in which these various influences combine, and the amounts of each ingredient, are as varied as the people trying to figure them out. One thing is clear: for women, a man with bad breath or body odor is an instant loser.

Guys, you’re not guaranteed anything by brushing your teeth, showering daily, and using Right Guard. But also use cologne sparingly– and for goodness’ sake, don’t start a battle of aromas with your deodorant, cologne, and hair gel fighting it out. Keep it simple.


STATE OF THE SCIENCE: Humans select for traits as well as appearance
APPLICATION TO DATING: Try being a little patient

If she’s mulling you over, that’s a good thing.

Kevin Kniffin is an anthropology professor at Binghamton University and an honorary fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His Binghamton colleague David Sloan Wilson, a renowned evolutionary biologist, is the other half of an interdisciplinary team that brings two distinct disciplines together to pose new and different questions.

Kniffin and Sloan present some interesting evidence. Their 2004 article in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior acknowledged the many past studies which show people make quick, unconscious assessments of symmetry when looking at potential partners. However, they showed that a person’s perception of another’s beauty changes quite measurably over time.

Men make a big deal about being thoughtful. They’re faking.

Positive personal traits, like loyalty and honesty, correlated with higher ratings of physical beauty over time. If someone you’ve known for a while gets better looking to you – and this goes for both women and men – it could mean you are developing feelings for them.


STATE OF THE SCIENCE: Good enough to keep feminists from picketing
APPLICATION TO DATING: Humans are expected to rise above mere animal drives

This is your brain with writing all over it.

Robert Kurzban is a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor who has been studying what attracts people to one another. He arranged a series of speed dating events at which he studied the interactions between male and female students, polling the participants throughout the testing. It turns out that men base those initial, subconscious assessments (subjects of a lot of other research) on a woman’s body mass index (BMI) and facial symmetry.

Guys need to be the right size, like gals,
but need some additional help.

Women, however, based their subconscious choices on both BMI and whatever evidence they can ascertain concerning hygiene, fitness, and social status, including both income potential and educational attainment. The reason that evolutionary scientists of different disciplines – such as evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology – team up for research is because people are complicated!


STATE OF THE SCIENCE: People develop “little platoons,” as a wise fellow said
APPLICATION TO DATING: Find common ground – we are attracted to what they know

Little platoons and concentric circles –
that’s where you’ll date and marry.

Studies conducted in 1982 by Richard Moreland and Robert Zajonc found that simple proximity encourages attraction. Their findings were confirmed in subsequent studies that also indicated single people generally dated and married within close circles of acquaintances.

People will choose the most likely partner from those they see at church, in the neighborhood, at school, and wherever they make their other relationships. Nearby people are, of course, more available.

Moreland teamed with researcher Scott Beach in 1992 to find that repeated exposure to “new stimuli” created opportunities for affection and bonding. Researcher Lisa DeBruine’s further demonstrated humans’ comfort with the familiar with a 2004 study, showing people prefer faces similar to their own. The familiar, evolutionarily speaking, is safe and certain.


STATE OF THE SCIENCE: Again, it’s another partial explanation; the hormonal one
APPLICATION TO DATING: You have to ride it out, but be aware of what’s happening

Is it really all just neurotransmitters and hormones? Does it matter?

Some researchers explain attraction, the “foundation” for love, as simple biology. Dr. Helen E. Fisher of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University posits three stages of love, all driven by powerful hormones and brain chemicals.

Testosterone in men and estrogen in women initiate the initial stage of “lust,” followed by the second stage of star-struck attraction. This is due to a cocktail of adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin – excitement, pleasure, and focus, with a real kick. The third stage, attachment, is likely driven by two powerful hormones, vasopressin and oxytocin.

Bottom Line

The more we learn, the more we discover how little we know. This reflection is a reminder that science is a process, not a product. It evolves and amasses new knowledge, which gradually offers better, more complete explanations. Our current best explanation for love, then, is that it’s still a mystery.

Doesn’t look particularly inscrutable, but…

Over time, we will develop a better understanding of the brain chemistry of a person in love. We’ve learned much about how the brain works, and how it calculates and maneuvers for genetic advantage. It will take a bit longer, no doubt, to figure out the heart.

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