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.