Category Archives: Psychology of Dating and Relationships


Valentine’s day romance research round-up


Happy Valentine’s day all! Here’s some romantic research for you:

Sternberg’s triangular theory of love – A popular psychological theory on the different forms of love (and a big indication of how much work the word ‘love’ has to do!)
A neuroscientific look at love – Love. Disney magic or neurochemical explosion? You decide…
Online dating on Valentine’s – Do dating sites get more traffic at this time of year?
Is love blind? – Positive illusions in relationships
Casual sex in college – Probably the opposite of love, but try telling them that…
What is beauty? – The maiden in the love story is always ‘fair’. But what is beauty anyway?


And here’s a love song:


Is love really blind? Positive illusions in relationships

One of the more interesting of our (many) cognitive biases are positive illusions – a tendency to be view ourselves more positively than others, be optimistic about the future, and exaggerate our perceptions of control.  Positive illusions are typically self-enhancing, but if you’ve ever seen a madly in love couple, or been a part of one, you might have the idea that maybe we project positive illusions onto other people.  And it’s true.  People in romantic relationships really do drench their partners in a wave of idealised qualities, and downplay their more annoying aspects. (1)

A number of studies have found that people tend to rate their partners attractiveness as greater than their own (2), but there was one study in particular which was particularly ingenious. (3)  Photos were taken of couples, which were manipulated in a computer to create an array of seven faces – the real photo, three that were more attractive, and three that were less attractive (see ‘What is beauty?‘ for more on standards of attractiveness).  Participants had to identify their partners real face from the fake ones.  Couples who were satisfied with their current relationship tended to pick a more attractive face, couples who were dissatisfied tended to pick a less attractive face!

If you look at your partner and see this, that’s an example of a positive illusion. Or an LSD high. (Credit: NaiM eL NoVaTO)

Why does this happen though?  We’ve already seen that love can have a very powerful effect on us, perhaps these illusions help us to justify staying with a partner, just like a junkie justifies “one more hit.”  That’s an unromantic way of saying that this may just be a normal, healthy way of keeping a relationship going.  And likewise, when a relationship is going badly, the illusions disappear which again could be a way of helping us to make the right relationship choices.

So, our mind may be responding to the amount of satisfaction in the relationship by altering our perceptions slightly, as a safeguard towards helping us stay in beneficial relationships, and against wasting time in bad relationships (when we could be looking for someone new).  And it does seem to be an effective system – one study followed couples over a 13-year period, and found that positive illusions predicted greater satisfaction with the relationship in the early stages of dating and marriage.

So is love blind?  Perhaps not blind, but certainly partially-sighted.  However, this is not a phenomenon that is unique to love.  Our perception of reality is far from objective, particularly social reality, and positive illusions in relationships are just another illustration of the idea that we are specialised organisms rather than rational beings.  Natural selection has ‘designed’ our minds to cut the corners of logic wherever this helps us to solve our problems of survival and reproduction in a more efficient or effective way.  Well, there’s either that explanation, or the ‘love-is-magic’ Disney explanation.  Take your pick.


(1) Murray, S., Holmes, J., & Griffin, D. (1996). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 79-98

(2) Swami, V., Furnham, A., Georgiades, C., & Pang, L. (2007). Evaluating self and partner physical attractiveness. Body Image, 4, 97-101.

(3) Penton-Voak, I.S., Rowe, A.C., & Williams, J. (2007). Through rose tinted glasses: Relationship satisfaction and representations of partners facial attractiveness.  Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 169-181.


Love on the brain

I had to write a piece on love as part of my positive psychology course, and as a die-hard bachelor, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. But, as I looked into the research on love, I found it to be a fascinating area of research. Maybe, deep down, I’m just an old romantic at heart. Love is a topic that scientists have shied away from – perhaps in the same way as studying humour, they worry that they will take the magic out of it. But as Helen Fisher, one of the foremost researchers of love says, you can know all the ingredients of chocolate cake and it will still taste delicious.

One of the more popular early theories was Sternberg’s triangular theory of love. This theory has immediate appeal because it points out three aspects of loving relationships that we can instantly recognise – intimacy, passion, and commitment. A relationship can have any two or all three of these, and in the theory, each combination has its own name (see this article for more on that).

It’s a nice, tidy model. But one problem I first had with it, is that maybe it only has intuitive appeal because I recognise it in Hollywood movies, rather than in people. Is this love?

(Credit: Catlovers)

It may be: Sternberg’s model matches up nicely with some work in neuroscience and animal behaviour. It seems that there are discrete but interrelated emotional systems common to most if not all mammals and birds, which solve the ‘problem’ of mating. These are lust, attraction, and attachment, and they correspond roughly to Sternberg’s passion, intimacy and commitment. Example behaviours are:

  • Lust / passion – craving for sexual gratification, associated with elevated levels of estrogens and androgens.
  • Attraction / intimacy – increased energy spent on the preferred mating partner, in humans this also includes ‘intrusive thinking’ about the love interest. Associated with increased dopamine and norepinephrine, and decreased serotonin.
  • Attachment / commitment – Characterised by mutual territory/resource defence, nest building, close proximity, separation anxiety. Associated with the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin. (see references 1 and 2 for a review of this evidence)

These are powerful chemicals, and the power of love should not be underestimated; in one study, evidence of romantic attraction was found in 147 of 166 societies (3). People elope together because of love, they sing songs because of love, and they kill themselves – and others – because of love. Clearly, it is more than a feeling. What is actually going in this attraction / intimacy part of Fisher/Sternberg’s models that has such a maddening effect on us?

To find out, Helen Fisher stuck a bunch of madly-in-love people in fMRI scanners, while showing them pictures of their loved one. The results? It appears that romantic love is located primarily in the ventral tegmental area of the brain. This is part of the dopaminergic system, involved in reward, want, and craving. It’s the same area of the brain that fires up when addictive drugs are taken, particularly cocaine and the amphetamine derivatives. In other words, love is addictive – literally.

But of course, every rose has its thorn, and love does not always end well. In another interesting study, Fisher and colleagues stuck people who had recently been dumped into an fMRI (4). Where is this experience located in the brain? The same place! But additionally, there was also activation in the nucleus accumbens, an area associated with judgements of gain and loss; the area that lights up when we’re willing to take great risks to achieve a high perceived gain – the same area involved in gambling. This is why we get people going to great lengths to get their love back – they are simultaneously focused on what they have lost and at the same time more likely to take high risks.

So what is love? It is an addiction. It meets the criteria necessary for something to be classed as an addiction (tolerance, withdrawal, relapse). The implications of the above findings are massive – if love is associated with the above neuotransmitters, peptides and hormones, then our experience of love could be influence by anything that interferes with these chemicals – recreational drugs and anti-depressants in particular. In addition to this, the brain areas involved in love seem to suggest that, rather than being an emotion per ce, it is a goal-oriented state.

(Credit: txd)

But, at the risk of leaving on a low note, I’ll finish by mentioning a recent study by the same research team (5). So fond of sticking people into fMRI scanners, this time they scanned couples who had been married for 25+ years, and still report feeling in love with their partners. What was the brain activity in these couples? As Sternberg would predict, they showed greater activity in areas associated with long-term pair bonding in animals. But what about attraction / intimacy? Well, they found just the same activity as they did in the earlier experiments. Perhaps true love can last forever.

PS. The titles of five love songs are hidden in this article. See if you can find them!

Recommended Reading:


(1) Fisher, H. (1998). Lust, attraction, and attachment in mammalian reproduction. Human Nature, 9(1), 23-52.

(2) Fisher, H., Aron, A., Mashek, D., Li, H., & Brown, L. (2002). Defining the brain systems of lust, romantic attraction, and attachment. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31(5), 413-419.

(3) Jankowiak, W., & Fischer, E. (1998). A cross-cultural perspective on romantic love. Human emotions: A reader (pp. 55-62). Malden: Blackwell Publishing

(4) Fisher,H, A Aron, G Strong, DJ Mashek, H Li, LL Brown. (2005). Motivation and emotion systems associated with romantic love following rejection: an fMRI study.

(5) Aceveda, B., Aron, A., Fisher, H., Brown, L. L. (2008). Neural correlates of long-term pair-bonding in a sample of intensely in-love humans. Poster Session#297, Society for Neuroscience, annual meeting


Sternberg’s triangular theory of love

Bob Sternberg is a pretty prolific guy in psychology. Among many other topics, he’s studied intelligence, thinking styles, leadership, and he currently holds 10 honorary doctorates. Below I present a quick overview of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love.

In Sternberg’s theory, there are three main facets of love:

  • Passion – this includes sexual excitement, feelings of euphoria, infatuation, and physiological arousal generally.
  • Intimacy – includes closeness, feeling loved, shared disclosure, empathy, support and sharing.
  • Commitment –wanting to be with the other person, being loyal, long-term relationships.

With passion, there is the initial infatuation, the strong emotions, and the attraction. With intimacy, the lovers become closer, inter-dependant, and psychologically their self-concepts begin to overlap. Commitment is the most volitional of the three, the decision to take steps to maintain the love and the relationship.

There are actually eight types of relationships that the model loosely predicts. You can have none, any one, any two, or all three of the presented aspects in a relationship. I drew a diagram below to illustrate. I had visions of this being a glorious and beautiful feat of graphic designery, but it ended up looking like it had been thrown together in 20 minutes using Microsoft Word. Mainly because I did, in fact, throw it together in about 20 minutes using Microsoft Word:


  • No aspects = Nonlove
  • Intimacy + Passion = Romantic love
  • Intimacy + Commitment = Companionate love
  • Passion + Commitment = Fatuous love
  • Intimacy + Passion + Commitment = Consummate love

So in romantic love you’ve got the passion, and the sharing and caring stuff, but the long-term commitment is not there. I can imagine this can be a frustrating situation. In companionate love, you’re in it for the long haul, and you’re each others’ best friend, but the lust isn’t there. Fatuous love sounds pretty good, if perhaps less stable; the heat is there, and so is the long-term commitment to make the relationship last, but you do without all the lovey-dovey-yucky-disney stuff. And consummate love is the crem-de-la-crem, the combination of all three aspects.

It’s an interesting model. Do you recognise any of your current or past relationships in it? Or those of anyone you know? It is tempting to suggest that nowadays, younger people appear to be mistaking romantic love for one of the other combinations which involve commitment. Tomorrow we’ll look at love in more depth, but right now I have the strangest urge to listen to my “Best of Power Ballads” double album…

Recommended Reading:


Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93, 119-135.


Casual sex in college

No, before you get excited, that wasn’t an offer. Psychologists have chosen some fascinating topics for study. The evolutionary roots of personality. The nature of mental disorder. The antecedents of a fulfilling life. And now… “What happens when college students get horny!”

Most ‘first-time’ experiences happen in the context of a romantic relationship, but there is a trend now, towards sex with a friend, or with strangers. And the earlier your first time is, the more likely you are to have casual partners in the future. So ‘casual sex’ can refer to hook-ups with a friend (some papers in the scientific literature really do refer to it as a ‘hook up’) or stranger, and can be of long or short duration (the relationship, presumably; not the act itself).

This move towards more casual sex seems to be the general trend, rather than specific to a particular subculture. The reasons for this could be many – greater availability of contraception, alcohol, changing social norms. The explanation is unclear, but as a lot of experimentation happens at college, this seems to be a good place to look.

Catherine Grello, Deborah Welsh, and Melinda Harper carried out a large survey, which asked people about their hook ups, alcohol use, previous sexual experiences, and also included a validated measure of depressive symptoms. (1) The results were pretty interesting. I present to you….

The psychology of the hook-up


Sure I’ll call ya… (Storem)


Firstly, as the stereotype might predict, more males than females reported having engaged in casual sex. Maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t see how this adds up unless:

  • Females are viewing casual sex as something more
  • Males are viewing something more as casual
  • Males are hooking up more off-campus than females

Also in line with stereotypes, females typically expected the hook up to be the beginning of a romance (18% female vs. 3% male), while more males expected the relationship continue on a casual basis (33% male vs. 16% female). Interestingly, females were more likely to view the sex as ‘experimentation’.

First-time experiences

As predicted, those who had earlier first-time sexual experiences were more likely to hook up. But more interesting is this: females who engaged in casual sex tended to describe their first sexual experience more negatively than either males or females who did not hook up.

Alcohol and drugs

Again fairly obvious, but alcohol and drug use were commonly involved in hooking up – 65% of those who reported casual sex were either drunk or high at the time. Beer goggles earning their money?


Males who had the lowest levels of depression, and females who reported the highest levels of depressive symptoms were the most likely to engage in casual sex. Added to this, the more depressive symptoms a female reported, the more casual sex partners she was likely to have. This did not hold true for sex with a romantic partner, which had no relationship to depression. Why are symptoms of depression higher among females who hook up more? The authors suggest a few possibilities:

  • They are seeking external validation from sex
  • They are maintaining a depressive cycle by unconsciously selecting partners with whom a healthy relationship is unlikely
  • The depression increases the desire for a healthy relationship, and they engage in casual sex to try to get into a romantic relationship

And what about the less depressed males, why are they more likely to hook up? One possibility is simply that they are more attractive, as evolutionary theories predict that females perceive a self-confident man as having more resources.

There were also more depressive symptoms in males and females in the people who regretted their hook ups.


Incredibly (or not?), 21% of those who hooked up were involved in a relationship with another person at the time! That’s one in five! Maybe they should try Urge Surfing whenever they feel the, umm, need. No gender was more likely to cheat than the other. When someone did cheat, they reported that the sex was less ‘affectionate’ than those who were not cheating.

While people who cheated did tend to regret the experience, they did not have higher symptoms of depression.

Although there are a number of limitations to the study such as whether the results are transferable to other colleges, and it was limited to heterosexual sex (due to not enough gay or bi participants), some of these results are very interesting, particularly the link between casual sex and depression. But maybe this is the wrong time of year to be talking about hook ups. Tomorrow we’ll look at love.


(1) Grello, C. M., D. P. Welsh, and M. S. Harper. (2006). No strings attached: The nature of casual sex in college students. The Journal of Sex Research, 43(3): 255-267.