Some regard romantic love as too lightweight for serious scientific inquiry, but presenters at the May Midwestern Psychological Association Annual Meeting in Chicago showed that love can exert a powerful pull on perception and emotion.
"Love is among the most intense motivational and emotional states people experience," said Arthur Aron, PhD, a psychology professor at Stony Brook University. "And it happens quite often, especially among undergraduates, so it's easy to study."
The powerful experience of falling in love can provide a window into a variety of other topics in psychology, including attachment, Aron noted. One such example: Infatuation can spark intense relationship anxiety in otherwise emotionally healthy adults, according to research presented at the conference. A related study found that early romantic attraction can make us view others more positively and as more like ourselves than they actually are.
When clingy is healthy
It's well established that those with an anxious attachment style-characterized by frequent worry over whether others love them-tend to have unhealthy relationships, noted Eli Finkel, PhD, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. However, new research by Finkel and Northwestern graduate student Paul Eastwick found a surprising exception to the rule: Anxiety can actually nurture relationships that are in their early stages.
In as-yet-unpublished research, Finkel and Eastwick measured the overall anxiety levels of 69 college freshman in relationships. Every other week for six months, the participants reported their feelings for their partners in an online survey. On a one-to-seven scale, they rated whether they felt they had found their soul mate and how in love they were. They also reported how much they worried about whether their partner cared about them.
The researchers found that the more in love the students were, the more reassurance they needed from their partner, regardless of their overall anxiety levels. This was especially true of students who were in the first few months of a relationship, Finkel found.
"Experiencing infatuation in fledgling relationships may well draw out anxious behavior in people with the most normal of attachment systems," he notes.
In a follow-up study, the researchers found that those with partner-specific anxiety are likely to engage in relationship-promoting behavior in the early stages of a relationship. In this study, Finkel and Eastwick introduced 163 college students to roughly 12 possible love interests through a speed-dating program in which they had four minutes to talk to each potential partner. Afterward, the students indicated which three people they'd like to see again, and mutually interested participants could contact each other via e-mail.
After the speed date, participants answered questions about their potential matches every three days for a month. They noted how interested they were in each potential match, how much anxiety they had over that person liking them back and whether they had attempted to initiate a date. As in the first study, participants who reported the most infatuation tended also to feel the most relationship anxiety. In addition, the most anxious participants were the most likely to send the initial e-mail, make dates and plan to do nice things for the other person.
The results suggest that, at least in the early stages of a relationship, partner-specific anxiety is normal and can promote relationships, said Finkel. In future studies, he hopes to see how couples transition from this anxious stage to a more secure one.
Love demonstrates its power by holding sway over perception as well as emotions, according to new research presented by Shanhong Luo, PhD, a recent psychology graduate of the University of Iowa. A series of studies by Luo found that romantic interest in another person-even at low levels-casts them in a positive light and makes them seem quite similar to oneself.
Luo manipulated attraction in the lab by bringing in 154 single college students. She gave them the photograph and profile of another student-who was actually uninvolved in the study-and asked the participants to rank him or her on 36 positive and negative adjectives, including the words strong, anxious, affectionate and cold. The participants also noted how similar in personality they felt they were to their potential partner.
But before the ranking began, the researchers told half of the participants the match had expressed romantic interest in them on the basis of their student identification photo. The other half rated the potential partner without that supposed knowledge.
As expected, those participants with a romantically interested match reported greater attraction to him or her than the participants with the neutral matches. The participants who suddenly felt attracted to their match then were more likely to rate him or her as similar in personality to themselves. They also attributed more positive adjectives to the matches' personalities as compared with the participants with disinterested matches.
In a follow-up study, Luo found similar results with 137 actual couples, all college students in new relationships. She temporarily intensified half of the participants' love for each other by asking them to write a description of the moment where they felt most attracted to their partner. Again, the participants who were swimming in feelings of love rated their partners as more similar to themselves and more positive overall.
"Love does seem to make us blind to our partners' weaknesses and shortcomings," she said.