The Frontal Cortex

The “Science” of Romance

There’s a charming article by Hannah Seligson over at The Daily Beast on the “science” of when to get married. (I’ve put scare quotes around “science” only because it’s not a science at all.) On the one hand, it’s rather obvious that making romantic decisions isn’t exactly a rational process. Charles Darwin, for instance, made up a spreadsheet of reasons why he should and shouldn’t marry Emma Wedgewood.

In the “Marry” column, Darwin entered: “Home and someone to take care of house–Charms of music and female chit-chat. These things good for one’s health. Forced to visit and receive relations but terrible loss of time. My God, is it intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all.”

The antipode to those points, in the “Not Marry” column, was: “Freedom to go where one liked–Choice of Society and little of it. Conversations of clever men at clubs. Not forced to visit relatives, and to bend to every little trifle.”

Needless to say, Darwin didn’t find this list very helpful. We can justify just about any alternative, which is why neurological patients who have lost the ability to experience emotion become so pathologically indecisive. Pascal said it best: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.”

And yet, as Darwin also knew, it can be incredibly difficult to disentangle the knot of feelings coursing through our emotional brain. Is this love? Or is it lust? Can I really spend the rest of my life with this one person? Or am I just going through a needy phase? If our emotions weren’t so vague and ambiguous, then the romantic comedy genre wouldn’t exist.

Or consider this brilliant experiment, by Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron. The setup went like this: a group of undergraduate males were asked to walk across a long, narrow suspension bridge made of wooden boards and wire cables in North Vancouver. When the men walked across it, the bridge swayed and creaked and shuddered. Needless to say, it was a scary experience and triggered all the usual bodily symptoms of fear: escalated blood pressure, racing pulse, clammy hands, etc.

Here’s where the scientists got mischievous. A young woman then approached each male subject and asked if he would mind completing a simple psychological test. Once the test was complete, the woman gave each man her phone number and offered to explain the experiment in detail if he called her in a few days. Some of the male subjects were approached as they were in the midst of crossing the bridge while others took the survey after they’d crossed the bridge and had presumably calmed down. It turned out that the men who took the survey while crossing the bridge were much more likely to call the female researcher in the coming days. Why? Dutton and Aron argued that these men misidentified their fear as eros, and thought their racing pulse was actually triggered by the woman and not the rickety bridge.

This experiment neatly illustrates the difficulty of parsing our emotions. Because our feelings don’t arrive with instructions or explanations – a racing pulse is a symptom of fright and arousal – we often don’t know why we’re feeling what we’re feeling. How, then, can we ever make good romantic decisions? How can we be certain that we’re marrying the right person?

There is no easy answer or secret recipe. I think the best strategy is to practice metacognition, or thinking about thinking. It’s only by reflecting on our feelings – by asking ourselves if we’re scared by the swaying suspension bridge or drawn to her easygoing smile – that we can begin to decipher the inarticulate reasons of the heart. For instance, the first time I met my wife I got so nervous that I gave her the wrong phone number. (This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since I had a readymade excuse to call her first.) But what caused this embarrassing lapse in memory? Why was I so flustered? After a few wonderful dates, I realized that my nervousness was accurate and that my pulse wasn’t racing out of fear. (This self-diagnosis was made easier by the fact that we didn’t exchange phone numbers on a suspension bridge.) I turned into a bumbling fool that afternoon because some peculiar part of my brain “knew,” long before I did, that she was unbelievably special.


  1. #1 Courtney
    April 7, 2009

    Not just good chemistry? 😉

  2. #2 Erin
    April 7, 2009

    This fear-disguised-as-love theory is why James Bond can never stay with just one woman.

  3. #3 Phil
    April 7, 2009

    Maybe the parasympathetic nervous system has a part to play?

  4. #4 Jessica D
    April 7, 2009

    It’s always tricky correlating physiological reactions to emotional state.

    What if the on-bridge subjects viewed the woman as a positive reinforcement/interruption counteracting the primal fear experienced on the bridge?

    What if the after-bridge group, not caring about any positive reinforcement after such personal hardship, felt her post-event approach as a nuisance.

  5. #5 David Brax
    April 7, 2009

    Great stuff!
    Your suggestion on meta-cognition seems consistent with (perhaps derived from?) Schwartz and Clores classic 1983 study “Mood, misattribution and judgements of well-being”. This study showed that peoples judgements about their own state of well-being can be seriously manipulated by irrelevant but mood-changing factors, like weather. The effect is cancelled, however, if the person manages to correctly identify the cause of the mood.

    Also with Williams and Barghs work which demonstrate how people tend to attribute value based on mood/feeling according to what is the most salient object around, which is not always the right object.

  6. #6 OftenWrongTed
    April 7, 2009

    Jonah! That is romantic hearing of your nervousness when you met your wife: Romance isn’t dead and it gives me joy in the present and hope for the future.

  7. #7 amybuilds
    April 10, 2009


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