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Why Can’t We Choose Who We Fall In Love With?

October 22, 2010

It’s certainly a strange thing to think about, isn’t it?  How many instances of unrequited love have you seen take place?  I see it all the time.  Love just sort of happens, and sometimes we even fall in love with people who are not what we need.  So why are we built this way?  What purpose does involuntary love serve?  What possible benefit could such a thing confer upon us?

Harvard professor of psychology, Steven Pinker, breaks down human romance using a combination of Game Theory, Economics, and Evolutionary Psychology in the lecture below.

You can watch the lecture in its entirety if you want, but to get to his discussion of romance,  jump to 8:30 in the first video below.  That’s where it starts.

If you’d rather read the transcript, I typed it all out.  This is some great information.

“Ok, now let me turn to an example of our emotional life and, I’ll begin with a puzzle: Why are our emotions about other people often passionate and seemingly irrational? Examples would be pursuing vengeance until the day you die, far out proportion to the initial injury, defending your honor with duels and other public displays, falling head over heels in love and offering to slay dragons and losing your appetite, and so on. The conditional theory for human passion, it comes out of the romantic movement 200 years ago. The romantic theory is that all of us house a primal force, part of our legacy from nature, that is fundamentally irrational and maladaptive unless it’s channeled into art and creativity. And again, that brings up the hydraulic metaphor that I mentioned at the beginning of the talk.

Well I’m going to present a very different theory, that comes from a number of economists and game theorists, that I’ll call the strategic theory, coming out of the theory of paradoxical tactics – that a sacrifice of freedom and rationality can paradoxically give an agent an advantage in promises, threats, and bargains, cases in which two parties have both overlapping and distinct interests. Now just to illustrate just how unromantic this theory is, I’m going to use it to reverse engineer romantic love.

Now as it happens, romantic love has been studied for several decades by social psychologists and sociologists, who have told us that there’s actually a rational component to romantic attraction – basically smart shopping. As anyone who has recently been on the singles scene will attest, love is a kind of marketplace, where all of us at some point in our lives have been in search of the richest, best looking, nicest, smartest person who will settle for us. However, your dream vote is a needle in a haystack and, you might die single if you wait forever for him or her to show up, so all of us have to trade off value against time and, at some point, set up house with the best person we’ve found so far.

Now this leads to a prediction which is abundantly fulfilled, and that is assortative mating by mate value.  That if you look at any large sample of couples, you’ll find that the husbands and wives, or the boyfriends and girlfriends, are closely matched in desirability to third parties.  That is, the 10’s marry the 10’s, and the 9’s marry the 9’s, and the 8’s marry the 8’s, and so on.  But I think you’ll all agree that this conclusion, well established in social psychology, does leave something out of the whole process, and that is the irrational part of love, the involuntariness and the caprice.  All of us know people (and I’m sure many of us are people), who can remember being fixed up with someone who seemed to be the perfect match.  You can tick off all of their traits:  they’re nice, they’re good looking, they have a good sense of humor, and so on, but for whatever reason, you just don’t click.  Cupid didn’t strike.  The Earth didn’t move.  Why would we as a species be built this way?

Well in fact, there are a number of economists who say this is exactly how you ought to build a species, because of an inherent problem for the perfectly rational strategy that I alluded to at the outset, that they call the commitment problem.  Romance is a kind of promise.  You’re promising to spend the rest of your life with someone, to bring up children together, to forgo opportunities to be with someone else.  And there’s an inherent problem with any promise, which is that a hypothetical rational agent may find it in his of her interest to break the promise.  The problem is, how do you guarantee that the promise is credible?

In the case of romance, since you’d have to set up house with the best person you’d found up to a given time, by the law of averages, someone better is bound to show up in the future, the only question is when?  Perhaps Tom Cruise or Cindy Crawford will move into the apartment next door and be momentarily available.  At that point, a perfectly rational agent would drop you like a hot potato.  On the other hand, since you are also a rational agent in this hypothetical scenario, you could have anticipated that and, you would never have agreed to the promise in the first place, anticipating that it would be in the interest of the other party to break it sooner or later.

Well the solution is that if you don’t decide to fall in love for rational reasons, perhaps you’re less likely to decide to fall out of love for rational reasons, and that the very involuntariness of romantic love serves as an implicit guarantor of the promise.  It’s one of many examples in which a lack of freedom or rationality is paradoxically an advantage in situations of negotiation between two intelligent parties.”

– Steven Pinker

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