Time Magazine’s Science Editor Talks About The Science Of RomanceChemical stimulus and other factors have been proven toplay a major role in how and who we romance. Jeffrey Kluger, TimeMagazine’s science editor, joins us live to discuss the science ofromance and whether or not we can control who and how we love.
PL: It is The Business Shrink program. Another liveedition of The Business Shrink program with your Business Shrink,Peter Morris, who is in London today. I’m Peter Laufer to tell youthat we are live. Had a little trouble getting everyone together andgetting everything working but it is now. And we are pleased towelcome Time magazine science editor, Jeffrey Kluger, to the program.There is a terrific cover story in Time magazine thisweek that attracted Peter Morris’ attention. And let’s get right tothat. Jeffrey Kluger, please say hello to The Business Shrink, PeterMorris, he’s got some questions for you.
Jeffrey: Hello, Peter. Thank you for having me.
TBS: I’m honored to have you and you certainly wrotea great article and put a great story together. And when I meanstory, I’m talking about the facts as they are. And I would almostsay, you wrote the magazine this week. I guess there’s so many placesthat are rich with ideas and I’m going to try and focus on thingsthat either appear to be new, path breaking observations or insights,or areas that could be bones of contention. Let me start with anotion about romance which maybe we’re in agreement of. It seems tome that romance, at the beginning, clearly involves chemistry whichhas a lot of components to it, which you break down in your article.Then that period of being in the oasis, or being in lust, or havingtingling sensations, or having everything larger than life, goes onfor a while, but eventually wears off. As you say, it goes intocompanionate love if it makes that next step. My question is, isn’tromance round 1, is the chemistry game. And if it sticks…and thenall the other factors, the absence of some of which lead to a 50%-70%divorce rate, if theyr’e not there, then it’s very hard to stokeromance over the long term. And that’s wear a lot of the big problemslie. Is that a correct assumption?
Jeffrey: Well, yes, but it also depends on howyou’re defining romance. You’re absolutely right that romance doesunfold in stages. And in that 3rd stage, the companionate phase, isstill romance. I think the problems come when people look backlongingly on the passion and breathlessness of the early stage of arelationship. Or even the thrill of dating before you’re even in arelationship and long for that in a long-term relationship or in amarriage. As we say in the story, it is a terrificly thrillinglyperiod in your life and in the relationship. The problem is it’s veryexpensive. I’m not just talking about dating. Because later in yourlife, when you’ve settled into that companionate phase, if youwanted, if you tried to return to that kind of life, that kind ofcomparitive wildness…or at least that kind of comparitive hirestate of activity, you’d pay for it with the serenity and thestrength and the family you’ve built. The thing about humandevelopment is that it’s kind of parsimonious. It’s very frugal withwhat it gets. We don’t have unlimited energy, we don’t have unlimitedtime. The passion of early love just isn’t sustainable. It’s notsustainable if you want the focus. You need the focus of raisingchildren and building a home.
TBS: Let me say to that, that wow, you’re on apowerful point because in a sense, when young people fall in love andthen get married, they often don’t have the frame of reference ittakes people like me, who have a marriage or two, to figure thisout.
Jeffrey: Well, that’s absolutely true. I do thinkpeople tend to go into marriage the way we go into anything else,particularly when we’re young, which is a certain measure of naivity.We see parents and older folks, you know, folks that are older thanwe are back when we were 20, and think well, they’ve sort ofsurrendered the thrill of their early lives to this comparitivedrudgery and this tedium and boy, that’ll never happen to me. So whenit finally does happen to you, on the one hand, it feels like afailure and it feels like something much to be fought against. But onthe other hand, you begin to understand that intuitively, why we’redesigned to develop that way, and why we’re designed, after a certainpoint, not to want to stay out til 3:00 in the morning. And not towant to date a wide range of people. It just requires a certain kindof investment to build a family and have a home that serial monogamyor even looser dating doesn’t allow for.
TBS: That’s well put. You say that very eloquently.But that investment is the subject of millions of books around theworld every year. From Dr. Phil to Chapman to everybody else whotalks about how to make a marriage or a long-term relationship work.I’ve often said to people, making it work so that you can have somelevel of romance, even if it’s not the tingling initial type, takesan investment and takes work. Then the people who are really starry-eyed say, “What do you mean, work?” If it’s not automatic andserendipitous and it takes work, well I don’t want that. And thatnaive notion seems to reside in a lot of people in today’sgenerations who are married and divorced.
Jeffrey: And it’s in every generation. It’s the verynature of things that you don’t think you are going to become yourparents until you do become your parents. And there’s a reason we dobecome our parents. Nature wants us to breed. But nature also wantsus to breed well and protect children into adulthood. That takes alot of work and a lot of focus. That’s just not compatible with wildearly love. Now, you’re absolutely right, by the way, when you saythat that doesn’t mean that all marriages do have to descend intodrabness, drudgery, and familiarity. There are ways to keep marriagesexciting and romantic. Even if you’re calibrating what you mean byexciting down to a different level when you’re past a certain age orare in a certain stage of your life, there’s still ways to keep itromantic and keep it sexy and keep it intimate. That’s the part thatbooks like Dr. Phil and a thousand other people talk about. They mayall be selling the same nostrum, but they’re selling a good one,which is that romance does take some care and nurturing and wateringand sunlight. If you don’t give it to it, it’s going to wither.
TBS: And that’s antithetical to the grandular,chemical notion of romance that many of us carry in our head. You’reabsolutely right. That takes nurturing and caring and watering. Inoticed in your matrix that the test that you quoted by ElaineHatfield and Susan Sprecher, about the the thermometer of love andhow people can rate how much in love they are. And of course, thehigher the better because it goes from low (not at all true) todefinitely true and high. If I look at the words in some of these,it’s amazing, like: I would feel deep despair if…they are obsessiveabout…I have an endless appetite…for me, X is the perfectpartner, romantically…she’s always on my mind or he’s always on mymind…powerful attraction…I get extremely depressed when thingsdon’t go right. Let me tell you, Albert Ellis, who died at 93 and whowas the founder of cognitive therapy, basically publishes books abouthow we undo the miserable tapes we grow up with and the things we sayto ourselves if their phrased in a way that it’s a must and just hasto be, we lead to anxiety, depression, aloofness. If we have a betterversion of those tapes, we’re more balanced and able to have a betterlife. It’s clear to me that the intersect of that tingling firstphase of romance and high love is exactly designed to go off therails if it doesn’t switch gears gracefully with people that wantmore and know they have to work at it.
Jeffrey: Sure, that’s true. One of the things weexplore in the story is the way these feelings get processed in thebrain. They’re processed in 3 key areas of the brain and one of themcontrols the reward sensation, the feeling of exaltation when you’rehorse comes in at the track. Or the sense of pleasant anticipationyou get when you know you’re expecting a big raise or are on your wayinto a restaurant for a big dinner. There’s that low level sense ofexpectation and pleasure and that’s all in the reward system. Thatgets engaged early on when you’re newly in love. Also, thatinformation gets sent to a higher level in the brain where habits androutine and muscle memory is stored. Things like knowing how to typeand knowing how to drive a car. Those are indellible skills. Livingin New York, I’ve got for months even years at a time without gettingbehind the wheel of a car. Then I rent a car and it’s like I droveyesterday because that’s tatooed in my brain.
TBS: Doesn’t happen to me!
TBS: Jeffrey, so much to discuss and relativelylittle time. I want to make a short list of some of the scientificstatements that come out in your article and then you pick and choosewhat you want to respond to. I’d like the listeners to hear thisbecause they may not read it or they may not read it carefully.Number 1 is: Obviously, smell attracts mates and the question is: Isit ethically correct or incorrect for women or men to alter theirsmell? Almost like neurochemical con-artists. Then you talk about MHC(major histocompatibility) and should that measurement become part ofmarital feasability? And women on the pill…is that something thatpeople should be disclosing or aware of? Then you talk about dopamineand can that be used to reinvigorate a romantic relationship? Thoseare just some of the thoughts that you came up with and my questionsto them.
Jeffrey: The first 3 are all scent related, so I cancertainly answer them as a cluster. First of all, I don’t thinkthere’s anything that raises any ethical flags about people alteringtheir scent. After all, we alter our hairstyle and our hair color andpeople undergo plastic surgery. I mean, we do all manner of thingsall the time. Someone’s still going to see under a bright light inthe middle of the afternoon without any makeup on at some point. Andcertainly, in the course of a marriage, a relationship, to saynothing of the course of a marriage, you are going to smelled in allof your various fragrances and the real ones will come through. Thepower of fragrance is multiple in human beings. And you’re right, avery big one is MHC, major histocompatibility factor, which isbasically a cluster genes which help govern tissue rejection. Thatdoesn’t seem like it would have a whole lot to do with mating andromance, except that a fetus, in its initial phases or throughout apregnancy, really, is alien tissue to a mother’s body. There are allmanner of ways that a fetus prevents itself from being rejected likea bad graph. But one of the things that increases the likelihood thatfetus will be carried to term is if two people have sufficientlydifferent MHC profiles. A lot of studies, human and animal studies,show that people can smell that in one another even if they’re notconscious of smelling something, that they’re noticing and judging.There are studies with human women, with females, in which they areasked to smell the t-shirts of men who wore them, I think for 2nights sleeping. Almost all the women uniformally tend to choose thet-shirts worn by men with a safe MHC. The birth control variablecomes in when women who are on the pill when they are not physicallycapable of conceiving, tend to lose this protective ability. So somewomen may get married while on birth control pills thinking theyfound the man they want. Then they go off and the pill to conceive achild and something seems suddenly off. It may be that for the firsttime they’re smelling a man who might not be the ideal reproductivemate.
TBS: That’s a heck of a take away for the femalereaders, wouldn’t you say?
Jeffrey: It’s a take away for the female readers,but I don’t think any of the research yet shows that MHC problemslead to the loss of all your babies. People do bring more intomarriage than simply what their smell tells them. The sense of smellis a very powerful thing, but it’s only one of many variables.
TBS: And that’s a good point. Yet, the presence ofit lubricates the relationship. The absence of it could stultify it.And yes, if it lubricates, you still have the other thousandvariables.
TBS: And then dopamine. How about that for astrategy?
Jeffrey: Well, dopamine was what we were talkingabout, one of the reward chemicals in the brain. The idea of somehowusing dopamine somehow to manipulate your own manic feelings isimpossibly complicated. An exceeding complicated thing. SSRI, theSelective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors and otherpsychopharmicological drugs that are used to control depression andso forth…
TBS: Like Prozac.
Jeffrey:Exactly. Like Prozac. All, in various ways, manipulate theneurochemical chemistry of the brain. It’s a very complicated soup.And as anyone who has ever taken them or doctors who prescribe themwill tell you, they can carry all kinds of side effects and theresults are very uncertain. So it’s not the kind of thing that anyonecan go sort of stirring around with and believe they’re going to findan aphrodisiac that’s suddenly going to work on all people.
TBS: Well, including the SSRIs are known to reducesexual appetite…
Jeffrey: And again, here we’re talking aboutserotonin, not dopamine, but the larger point is that you’re dealingwith this very very complicated chemical stew and you can’t just tossin a little bit more of one ingredient and expect there not to besome cascade throughout the other ingredients.
TBS: That’s very informative, Jeffrey. You talkabout how romance is an illusion and you say, for the subheading,”Could something that feels so real be a mere trick of the mind?Sure, when the survival of the species is at stake.” As I understandit, and correct me if I’m wrong for the benefit of the audience, yousay it is romantic love is a commitment device. It comes all down tothe welfare of the children, meaning that that constant baselinememory of the tingling phase, if it moves into more sedate orcompanionate phase, that memory which people work at reviving fromtime to time in a good relationship, becomes a bind against the otherimpulses we have to stray sexually or for variety or for things thatwould break the bond. Is that your point?
Jeffrey: Well sure. Once you’ve experiencedsomething, even if you’re not experiencing it that intensely anymore,the memory lives and the mgrams, or whatever the brain tracks arecalled, they certainly live. Plus, we build up subtler things thanjust that early thrill. You build up the shorthand you build up witha long-term partner. You build up the ability to communicate with asingle glance. You build up experiences and family history andchildren and all of these things are much richer and much moreenduring than the early thrill of love. We’re animals and we’re hereto procreate, but we’re also exceedingly sophisticated animals. Atthe end of the story we make the point that romance may all come downto reproduction, but couldn’t we have reproduction without romance inthe same way that you can have language without literature andmovement without dance and all of these things you can have? But wetake it to a sort of transcendant level. If there’s magic in it,that’s where it is. You can certainly reduce it all to science.There’s a lot of people who would say there’s a too reductionistquality to that.
TBS: With all the divorce rates going up and theinternet relationships where, ironically, some of the major aspectsof bonding and romantic bonding, only 2 of the 5 strands of romanceare used. Visual and auditory. Internet doesn’t give you, in the caseof first impressions, olfactory, the smell, tactile or neurochemical.As the divorce rate goes up and people have more options, get moredistracted, get more alienated, evolution may be also involved inreducing dopamine for highs and reducing oxytocin for binding interms of the chemistry of the brain. Is that possible that we’reexperiencing some modifications of the brain chemistry in a gradualway based on the world we live in? Which seems to be very nihilisticand opportunistic and against marriage in a lot of ways? Or a lot ofdistractions?
Jeffrey: Well, Silicon Valley moves a whole lotfaster than human evolution. So if this is true, believe me, thecomputer evolution is eye blink stuff. Human adaptations take yearsand generataions and millenia.
TBS: I agree.
Jeffrey: So, while any one individual may find yourappetites or patience changing a little bit, as you have all of thesevirtual and real world options opening up, it’s a very large leap tosay that the species as a whole is changing.
PL: Live from London, The Business Shrink programcontinues with your Business Shrink, Peter Morris, in the hot seat inLondon as the discussion continues about romance, based on thecurrent edition of Time magazine. Fascinating conversation with Timemagazine science editor, Jeffrey Kluger. Just last few minutes. Andnow, your Business Shrink, Peter Morris, most pleased to welcome tothe program, state university New York, Stonybrook psychologyprofessor, Arthur Aron, who is out here in California for a spell,but is quoted in one of the pieces in Time magazine. Welcome to theprogram. The two of you go at it.
TBS: Arthur, welcome to the show. If I speak fast,it’s only because there’s so much to cover. You’re so interesting inthe work you do. I want to share with the audience briefly the factthat you are doing current research that focuses on, among otherthings, cognitive overlap of self and others and close relationships,which has got to be an amazing piece of research that you’re involvedin. Also, how shared participation in novel and arousing activitiescan enhance relationship quality, which I think everybody would liketo know about. The role of friendship with members of ethnicoutgroups and reducing intergroup prejudice, obviously the Hindus andthe Muslims and certain cities in the world uniquely get along wheremost of the time they hate each other. So I can relate to that as oneexample. And you’re working on highly sensitive people from childhoodand how that relates to their adult functioning. I hope we get achance to get you on and communicate about some of these other topicsas well as the topic at hand right now, which relates to love andromance where you basically say, “It’s not impossible for a long-termrelationship to revive and keep going at various times. The romanticfeelings that are spotted in MRIs that usually come in the tinglingphase.” Is that true?
Arthur: Yup. What we find is that while most people,the quality of their relationship declines substantially. In fact,after 4 years, only about 10 percent of people are as happy as whenthey first got married. But even after 20 and 30 years, there’s asmall percentage of people that are extremely and intensely in love.Very recently, we’ve been doing a follow to our initial FMRI brainimaging study of romantic love with people like that. Our initialresults are just that these people who tell us that they areintensely in love after 20 or 30 years are showing the same brainpatterns. The same activation patterns as we saw in the people thatare newly in love.
TBS: Does that mean, per se, that their sex life hasto be as good? Or as they age, and it sometimes isn’t, that there areso many other qualities that go into love and stimulation andexcitement, that that’s not really a constant?
Arthur: Sex life matters. It matters more to menthan to wome, but it’s not a major factor. As far as aging, aging issomewhat separate. People fall intensely in love for the first timein their 70’s and 80’s. So, one thing that happens in a long-termmarriage of course, is that people are older but the bigger effect isgetting used to the person. Familiarity and the taking for grantedand the lack of novelty.
TBS: Can you begin to formularize or throughanecdotes, describe these people that are in this minority, would yousay that’s 10% or whatever percent? Or 5% or 2%? Can you formularizeor anecdote some of the things that these people have done to keep itthe way that is so wonderful so long?
Arthur: Well, we’re trying to sort that out now. Wehaven’t studied enough of them really to know what makes themdifferent from other in terms of what they’ve done. We know from ourlaboratory studies that it is possible to enhance, even in a fewminutes as well as over weeks, the quality of intense love peoplefeel by having them do novel challenging activities together.
TBS: Such as? Even though this stuff is notempirically done to your satisfaction, can you give us some ideas ofwhat novel things that would be enhancements?
Arthur: In one study we did, and this we are veryconfident of, we showed people a list of 300 activities that couplesdo together. Going to the movies, going sailing and so forth. Andeach member of the couple checked off those things they found highlyexciting, moderately exciting, highly pleasant, moderately pleasant,so forth… One group of couples was randomly assigned to dosomething from a list we gave them of things that both members hadlisted as highly exciting but only moderately pleasant. Another groupspent 10 weeks doing an hour and a half a week of something they bothfound highly pleasant but only moderately exciting. After 10 weeks,the group that did the highly exciting but only moderately pleasantactivities was much happier than they had been at the outset. Whereas there was little change, in fact, even a slight decline for thegroup doing the highly pleasant activities.
TBS: Wow. Can you give me an example of what wouldbe considered a highly exciting but moderately pleasant activity? Forme and the audience.
Arthur: Sometimes this was decided by each couplewhat they thought would be that way.
TBS: I know, but just an example.
Arthur: So, an example…a couple that’s never beensailing that takes a sailing class, it’s a little scary. It might notbe fun. It might be fun, but it might be a little worrisome. So theymight not see it as highly pleasant, but it’s an exciting thing todo. Another couple that goes sailing all the time thinks it’spleasant but not exciting. Going to the movies…movies are anunusual example because even though people do it all the time,there’s also a great deal of shared excitement in identifiying withthe characters and in the process. So, one of the reasons people liketo go to movies, plays and so forth is because it creates that kindof excitement. Even on first dates people often want to do thatbecause it creates an arousal. But anything that’s unusual; taking atrip together, taking a class together…unusual and challenging.Going to do something with new people that you’ve never done. I livein New York and one of my favorite examples for my wife and I is welive in Manhattan and we decided to go to Brooklyn one day. Anyonewho’s lived in New York knows that that’s exciting but you’re not sosure it’s going to be pleasant. Actually, we had a great time. Wetried to make a list of things we can do. At least one a week.Recently we went canoing. We’ve never been canoing before. That wasbefore it got colder here. I’m on the West coast right now. So,anything you can do. We’ve got a whole list of things. We haven’tbeen to the horse races in 30 years. Something that’s new,challenging, interesting that you don’t regularly do.
TBS: A new challenge and not regularly do.
Arthur: It has to be something both of you want todo. It’s not like this is what I’ve always wanted to do and mypartner is sort of reluctantly coming along. The partner has to bereasonably interested themselves. And share.
TBS: By the way, what makes you think, this is aninteresting question for you, when they start out with something theyhaven’t done before, so there’s an excitement factor, but they don’tknow how it’s going to come out, there’s going to be some bittennails, so you can argue moderately pleasant, what happens if it endsup being highly pleasant and exciting? Would you say that’s still OK?
Arthur: That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong withenjoying yourself. The problem is by itself it’s not enough. You needsomething that shakes things up a little to shake up your life. Tonot make things be the same old same old day after day. If it’senjoyable all the better. The reason we did the experiment that waywas to make sure it wasn’t just explained by being enjoyable.
TBS: I got it. And that’s a great point. Nowchanging to something else that you said, you talk about what I call,this is my phrase, the role of cognitive distance, or in effect,liking something because contemporaneous to meeting someone there’s abrain blazing experience. So, emergency landing, if you met someonesitting next to you during that, you may create a bond. You may thinkthe bond was there first, but in fact, the emergency landing createdthe bond almost like a high from a drug or alcohol. Then it may wearoff and it doesn’t have glue. Is that what you’re saying?
Arthur: The answer is, if you meet someone underconditions where your heart is pounding and you’re stirred up, you’relikely to notice them, you’re likely to fall in love with them, to beattracted to them. Whether it lasts or not depends on whether therelationship works out.