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On the origin of love and the allure of affection

For decades (even centuries), the dating formula was simple: find a mate, court, marry, raise a family. These days, the story's not so cut and dry. To better understand the ever-evolving dating landscape, we sat down with biological anthropologist and Chief Scientific Adviser for, Dr. Helen Fisher to talk sexting, dating after 50, and the science of attraction.

The remarks below have been edited for length.

Your background/education is in biological anthropology and evolutionary studies, but when did you decide you wanted to study love specifically?

Oh, you know, I wish I had a sexy answer to that, but basically, it’s more complicated. I’m an identical twin, and even as a child, you cannot grow up as an identical twin without everybody asking you, “Do you have the same cavities in your teeth?” Do you like the same boys? Do you have ESP?” Long before I knew there was something called the nature/nurture controversy, I was very sure that a great deal of my behavior came out of my biology. When I got to graduate school, I was just interested, from the very beginning, in any part of human behavior that had a biological origin. I had a double major in college (psychology and anthropology) and psychology really, at the time, was under the opinion that the mind was an empty slate on which you inscribe personality. I knew that wasn’t true. When I went into anthropology, I began to really see — in 1968 I read Jane Goodall’s book, In the Shadow of Man, and I began to see that chimpanzees could be jealous; that they could be attracted to certain individuals. I began to think to myself, “If there’s any part of our human behavior that must have a biological origin, it would be those behaviors surrounding sex, love, and partnering. Because that’s the way we pass our DNA into the next generation.” Well, okay, there’s got to be some biology to romantic love and feelings of attachment, and sex drive, and the drive to form relationships to rear our babies. So that’s how it really began. Years later, I’d written three books, and I was walking along in Greenwich Village in New York and I began to think to myself, “Could it be that we’ve evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction? One is the sex drive, second was feelings of intense romantic love, and the third being feelings of deep attachment.  And I thought, “Well, I should study all three.”

How has the influence/rise of technology changed the way we date and socialize in the 21st century?

I don’t think it’s changed it as much as everyone else thinks it has. I do not regard dating services as “dating” services. They really are introducing services. The moment you get introduced to somebody and you go out and have a coffee or drink with them, right off the bat you — your ancient human brain jumps into action and you court by its prehistoric rules. All dating services do is introduce you to people. And then, of course, with your own cerebral cortex (and many of the brain regions) you court the way you’ve always courted. Now, there’s no question about it that dating services are enabling people of all ages to meet people. The fastest-growing Internet dating site is Our Time which is’s site for people over 50. You know, the culture has changed. People over 50, say 100 years ago, went to live with their children and basically played the role of grandparents. Now, they’re living alone and they’re expected to court and fall in love, and form a new pair-bond — and indeed do. What the modern dating technology does is enable people, of all ages, to meet a very wide range of people. We’re seeing people able to sustain feelings of intense romantic love and deep attachment, really up until they die. It’s just providing a great deal more opportunity, but once the moment strikes, it’s the same old brain that enables you to do the courting that you’ve always done.

That makes for a perfect segue: With more seniors dating, are the rules, or mechanics of dating, different in your Golden Years?

Well, I think people are less eager to jump in bed the first day they meet. They might want to have sex in the dark until they get a bit used to each other [laughs]. I think the flirtatious behavior is the same. Older people are… I’ll tell you one thing, older people are pickier. I do an annual study with called “Singles in America,” … and when I ask the question: “Would you make a long-term commitment to somebody who had everything you were looking for, but you were not in love with them, the most likely to say, “No, I would not,” were people over age 60. It’s the young that make more compromises in love. The older you get, you’re not as willing to make as many compromises. In fact, the people most likely to form a pair-bond and make a long-term commitment to someone who had everything they were looking for, but they were not in love with them, is young men. I think that’s because they need a mother for their children.

You mentioned the Singles Study. Have any of the results of that study surprised even you?

Oh yeah. They’ve… yeah. Oh yeah. This is the most massive study of singles in America that I know of. We have 20,000 people now. There are lots of things that I — for example, I’ve long maintained that men are just as romantic as women. And I was able to prove it. There’s academic data that men fall in love faster. With the SIA data, which is also academic, not only did we find that year after year that men fall in love faster, because it’s a visual, but they fall in love just as often. They’re just as eager to make a commitment — even if women’s magazines don’t wish to believe it. I tell them over and over, they just can get there. When a man meets a woman he’s in love with he wants to introduce her to friends and family sooner. [Men want] more public displays of affection. Men want to move in faster. Men have more intimate conversations with their wives and girlfriends than women do with their husbands and boyfriends, because women have their intimate conversations with their girlfriends. Men are two-and-a-half times more likely to kill themselves when a relationship is over. Basically, what SIA is doing is showing me that I was right, in some ways.

There are all kinds of things that I like to experiment with. For example, sending sexts; sending sexy photographs through the mail. I really wanted to know how many people do it, how many people share them, and, more importantly, whether the people who are sending their sexy photos are conscious of the fact that this is dangerous. As it turns out, they’re very conscious that it’s dangerous. When I ask the question, “Do you think that sending a sexy photo could jeopardize — and then I have four different boxes — your career, your reputation, your friendships, or your self-esteem?” 75% of people did think it would jeopardize their job, and their reputation. That’s a lot of people, but yet they do it anyway. So of course, as an anthropologist, it’s very easy for me to say, “Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. Here we have an example that the human drive to form a pair-bond is so much more powerful than even the need to get ahead in the office.” Another one that we were all astonished at, we asked, “What do you judge a person by? Right off the bat, what do you immediately judge them by?” And there were a lot of boxes you could check: A person’s hair, their teeth, grammar, the car they drive, the technology they use… Both years, a huge number of both men and women [noted they] judge somebody, foremost, by their teeth and their grammar. I created the question myself, but I wasn’t really thinking I’d get the results I did. But I noticed was, “Oh my goodness. Oh yes, your teeth say a great deal about your age, habits, and personal health. And your grammar says a great deal about your educational background and your socioeconomic background.”

So, Given that many of these findings might be contrary to popular belief, what’s the most common dating misconception that you get asked about?

I don’t quite know. A lot of people, I guess, think it’s dangerous to go online, or that it’s unnatural — maybe that’s it. But they somehow seem to think that it’s natural to walk into a bar and go up and talk to somebody when you have no idea who they are. That’s what’s unnatural.

Do you think that has anything to do with the anonymity of the Internet, and the possibility that everyone could be aggrandizing or could be putting forth a false face?

Bottom line is, they’re gonna’ do that in the bar, too. They may be a construction worker dressed up in a tuxedo wandering around Las Vegas throwing money about. Courtship is not about honesty, courtship is about winning.That’s the point of courtship: winning. You can see people lying to you on the internet, in the bar, at work. What you’ve got to do, is go out with them and talk to them. It’s the only way to figure it out. Some people do it in a bar; a lot of people do it on the Internet. When studies where you met your [most recent] date, they find that 31% of those people met that person online. Only 25% of people met that person through a friend. And then it goes down to like 6% or 8% of people who met somebody at work, or met somebody in a bar. So, the bar’s not the way to go these days, it is the Internet. And I’m really not surprised. It’s cheap. It’s safe. And it’s easy. Why wouldn’t people do it in an age where people are very in a rush?

Can you describe the traits of a successful relationship?

Dr. Fisher with an fMRI brain scannerNow, there are all kinds of psychological things — learning how to argue, learning how to compromise… But let me tell you what I know from the brain, strictly from my studies of fMRI brain scanning. Let’s stick to some real basics. We put people into the brain scanner in China and then we went back, four years later, to find out who was still in love. We found that, of 16 people, there were eight who were still in love, and eight were no longer in love. We looked at those original brain scans to see whether there was any difference, from when we originally scanned them, between those who remained in love and those who did not. We found activity in the little part of the [prefrontal] cortex, almost right behind your eyes, the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, in a brain region that is linked with something called positive illusions — the ability to overlook the negative and focus on the positive. So we know that people in long term relationships are exercising this ability to overlook what you don’t like about a human being and focus on what you do like. That’s number one. The other thing that we did, is we put people who were in their fifties and sixties, all of whom were in a long-term marriage (an average length of twenty-one years), into the brain scanner — because they kept coming to us saying, “We’re still in love, we’ve been married for twenty years, or twenty-one years, or twenty-two years, whatever and we’ve got 4 children and we’re madly in love.”

Americans don’t believe that; they don’t believe you can stay in love long-term. So we shrugged our shoulders, and said, “Okay, we’ll find out.” We put them in the brain scanner and, sure enough, we did find activity in brain regions that include intense romantic love. We also gave them a lot of questionnaires. One of the questionnaires was on marital satisfaction. We found that those people who scored highest on this questionnaire of marital satisfaction showed more activity in the mirror neurons. This is a brain region linked with empathy. We also found activity in several brain regions linked with the ability to control your emotions. Psychologists will tell you a whole lot of reasons that people can get along long-term, but we’ve proven, in the brain, these three specific things that are linked with long-term happiness: Positive illusion (the ability to overlook what you don’t like about the person, and focus on what you do), empathy for the other person, and the ability to control your own emotions.

To draw an analogy: Do you find that people who enter into successful, long-term relationships are more “glass half-full,” or are more willing to, maybe, compromise with their own internal drive? Or does neither of those apply?

I’m going to talk in my speech with Mensa that we’ve evolved four very broad styles of thinking and behaving. One of those four styles is a link with the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen systems. Those people who are very expressive of the dopamine system tend to be risk-taking, novelty-seeking, curious, creative, spontaneous, energetic, and optimistic, and they are drawn to people like themselves. Optimistic people are drawn to people like themselves. I’ve got a study of 30,000 people on that. However, there are other kinds of people who are not as optimistic and they also make good relationships, so I can’t say that optimism is the only characteristic that one needs. If you’re optimistic, you’re going to want somebody who’s optimistic, too. Let’s put it that way.

What are we most willing to overlook when selecting a mate?

First of all, when you fall in love with somebody, brain regions labeled “decision making” begin to shut down [laughs]. You can overlook a whole lot of things when you fall in love. You can overlook the fact that the other person is already married, the fact that the person has a pregnant wife. This is a psychological question; different people are going to overlook different kinds of things. We do know that people tend to gravitate to people of the same socio-economic background, same general level of intelligence, same general lever of good looks, same general religious and social values, and same economic and reproductive goals, so we do know that people tend to not overlook those things. We also don’t overlook size, color, weight, verbal ability, coordination.

What’s the biggest change in the dating scene that you’ve personally witnessed in the past few decades?

I think the biggest change is a real expansion of what I call the “pre-commitment” stage. Marriage used to be the beginning of a relationship, now it’s the finale. What we’re doing now is, long before we move in with somebody, we have our hook-up, we’ve got our one-night stands, we’ve got our friends with benefits, we’re going out in a crowd and meeting the person. We’re getting into bed with them fast. We’re getting to know them — we’re really getting to know the person — before we tie the knot. I just wrote an article for Wall St. Journal that test in which I say much of that.

Interview conducted by Scott Snider.

A Return to Romance: Dr. Fisher will present, “Future Sex: The Science of Attraction,”
Saturday, July 5 at the 2014 Mensa Annual Gathering: Brilliance in Beantown.