January 2016 – One of the curious paradoxes of emotion researchers meeting the real world relates to when the discussion comes to love. You ask a random person to name some emotions and with a high probability Love will come up. With a capital L. When you talk to an emotion researcher, the answer is often quite different.
In the heyday of basic emotion theory, love was relegated to the secondary role of an “emotional plot”. On account of its lack of distinctive facial expressions, love did not make it into the set of basic emotions, which attracted the bulk of empirical research. And yet, many real people will say “… of course you can tell when someone is in love, you can see it in their eyes”, or something like that. So what is going on here? One problem is that the terminology we use to talk about love in everyday language can be confusing, and may be disambiguated in different ways by scientists and the folk.
There is being in love, falling in love, loving, liking, experiencing infatuation, being fond of someone, caring for someone, doing something in a loving way, and many other expressions, often used to ground distinctions that are explanatory and puzzling at the same time (“I love you, but I am not in love with you”; “I thought I loved her, but it was just infatuation”; “I love my mother, but I do not like her”). To add complexity, we use the term “love” and its cognates to refer to a feeling or a behavior or a relationship.
In recent times, as this issue of Emotion Researcher testifies, love has become central in emotion science as well. But this has led to some backlash. Some people feel uneasy that love, perhaps the loftiest of all emotions, might be the object of systematic scientific inquiry. They wonder whether it can be studied at all, and whether it should be: “Can Love really be put under the scientific microscope? Does it not take away the magic?”. These types of arguments are actually quite informative as to the representation of emotions as something separate from us, something that does mysterious things to us. There are many lessons here regarding lay theories.
Every year, when St. Valentine’s Day nears, newspapers and other media in many countries feel the need to write something about love. Quite a few years ago, when I was teaching at Université Laval, I was contacted by a reporter from the Toronto Star. I think he must have been desperate for materials because I clearly indicated that I was not a love researcher. But he did not leave empty handed. Although I did not have a theory of love to offer him, or specific data, I shared with him how what I knew about emotions in general might affect love. The story I told was a very complicated one. It involved the interplay between biology and culture, the role of metaphors and bodily symptoms, and the possible variations on the love theme produced by age and gender.
Alas, most of my story did not make it into the article. This did not stop my team and colleagues, who were
quite amused by the interview, to insist on calling me Dr. Love for a couple of months at least. I realized that being a love researcher is something that creates more snickering than being impressed in your peers. But, I should not complain. At least I was not a real love researcher. If you ask Elaine Hatfield, a pioneer of scientific research on love, she can tell exciting stories. For example, she and Ellen Berscheid received a Golden Fleece award from Senator Proxmire for maximally wasting taxpayers’ money. How so? Because they were studying love! What a horror. What a waste. You can read the whole story, which is almost too good to be true (but it is true!), here.
The unproxmirean question I wish to ask to my fellow emotion researchers is: Why we do not study love more? There are two major problems to be solved: streamlining language and finding the right experimental procedure. Firstly, as I mentioned before, the concept of love is used inconsistently in everyday language and that makes it more complicated to create a narrative of how it works than for other emotional states. Secondly, how do you study love scientifically? Consider as a contrast the example of fear (By the way I can give an hour-long talk on how it can annoy me when people say “for example fear” – given that fear seems to have a very clear structure and evolutionary narrative, but that is a separate column though):
1) Snake appears
2) Person freaks out as manifested in physiology, expression, action tendencies, and subjective experience
3) Person acts or regulates
See, nothing complicated here. But how could we map this to love? It is easy to get a snake or a picture or video of a snake and confront people in the laboratory with it. If you wanted to study the response to a loved one, you need to have a different loved one for every subject. See how complicated it quickly gets? But of course it is doable. Consider Jim Coan’s research (If you do not know it – check out his TED X talk) on the responses to threat while people are in an MRI scanner. Typically, there is a condition in which a loved one (married in the earlier studies) or a stranger holds the subject’s hand – and lo and behold interesting things can be found in the brain. The goal of Jim’s research is not to find a neural correlate of love as a feeling or a process, but the moderating effect of a love-relation on an acute threat. In this case love doesn’t hurt (as the song would have us remember), but it comforts. This is an example of relatively rigorous research that can be done with loved ones. In other words, the worries that love cannot be systematically studied, even with neuroscience methods need not be an issue. And of course you find other examples in this special issue.
So, if we assume that there is nothing worrisome about studying love and that it is also technically possible, let me close with a final argument. Love is often a very very strong emotion – and I can think of nobody more eloquent in making this argument than Nico Frijda. Nico was a very passionate emotion researcher and he was no stranger to arguing for the study of strong passions – associated to sex, or for example jealousy. Sometimes, it is tempting to think of basic emotions as ‘the strong ones’ as opposed to what some might call secondary emotions. But think of jealousy – this can be one of the most intense feelings, associated with massive action tendencies, and motivating people to be violent, likely even more so than anger.
As president of ISRE, I think love is an excellent case of why it makes sense to unite researchers working on emotion from different cultures, from different disciplines, and to have an acute sense of the historical dimension as well – how the representation of love changed over the course of human history and how it relates to our phylogenetic ancestors and relatives*. Love is like oxygen, Love is a many splendored thing. All you need is love — this is a quote from a scene from Moulin Rouge, a true work of love on love, by Baz Luhrmann, where song titles are connected that all deal with the seemingly magical and essential quality of love. I love to use this excerpt (try the link) in my emotion courses when we touch on love. So it’s very befitting to have a special on love – in fact, not the first ISRE newsletter – let me correct myself, sourcebook! – to do so. And I hope it will not be the last.
*A nice read? How about Richard Shweder’s You’re not sick, you’re just in love: Emotion as an interpretative system.