What’s Science Got to Do With It?

Can anyone really make sense of romance? Researchers keep trying because, frankly, we want answers

Image courtey of Flickr user clarescupcakes.co.uk
Image courtey of Flickr user clarescupcakes.co.uk

Applying science to love is a fool’s game.

As much as we want there to be rules that always hold true, romance continues to confound us. And yet the quest goes on, with scientists checking hormone levels, doing brain scans, taking countless surveys with the goal of making love and attraction a little less inscrutable and knowing that our appetite for answers never wanes.

Take, for instance, the new book, “The Science of Relationships: Answers to Your Questions About Dating, Marriage and Family, and its companion website.  It’s all about the science, compiling research on the subject of love, while acknowledging, as co-author and Colorado State psychologist Jennifer Harman puts it, “the more work all of us do, the more we realize how much we don’t know.”

Among the things the scientists think they do know:

  • When women are ovulating, they tend to be attracted to more manly men; when they’re not, they prefer guys with a softer side.
  • Opposites may attract, but they dont’ last. People with similar body types tend to do better together in the long run.
  • Women who listen to romantic lyrics are more likely to give their phone numbers to men.
  • Men do not, as conventional wisdom has it, think of sex a few thousand times a day.  It’s more like 34.
  • And this stunner: Everyone, including members of your own sex, looks better when you’re drinking. Who’d have thunk it?

The soulmate trap

Even companies in the business of matchmaking now say they’ve turned to science.  When outfits such as Match.com, eHarmony or Chemistry tell people they can help them find their soulmates, they usually cite their use of algorithms.  Ah algorithms, the secret sauce of personalization.  I mean, if they can help Google come up with matches for every word in the world, they should be able to zero in on the person of your dreams, right?

Don’t bet on it.  Certainly, that’s the advice of Eli Finkel, an associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern University and one of the authors of a study on online dating websites that will be published this month in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Not that the researchers were able to analyze the matchmakers’ algorithms–it is secret sauce, after all. But Finkel says singles shouldn’t get their hopes up.

The problem, he and co-author Benjamin Karney, of UCLA, wrote in the New York Times yesterday, is that scientific studies suggest that you can’t really predict if two people can sustain a relationship until after they meet. What really counts is how they resolve disagreements. Also, online services tend to base their recommendations on similarities in personality and attitudes.  That may make for some fun dates, but, based on reams of research, it apparently doesn’t make a big difference over the long haul.

Conclude Finkel and Karney: “None of this suggests that online dating is any worse a method of meeting potential romantic partners than meeting in a bar or on the subway. But it’s no better either.”

There’s another downside to online dating, according to a different study, this one by researchers at the University of Rochester.  Because singles now have so many potential choices online, it found that more of them are treating the Web dating experience like a visit to the Amazon site, shopping for potential dates like shiny objects, running through mental checklists as they scroll through profiles. All of which results in unrealistic expectations that if they just keep looking, they’ll find a soulmate. Good luck with that.

Animal attraction

When it comes to demystifying attraction, though, sometimes only studying animal sex will do. Take , for example, new research that found that boosting the estrogen level in a male garter snake attracted dozens of other male snakes eager to mate with it.

But my personal favorite among recent studies involved fruit flies. Seems that researchers at the University of Michigan introduced a male fruit fly into a special chamber containing two female fruit flies. First, however, they decapitated the two females so, according to the report, they couldn’t “influence” the male fly.  (What, bat their lashes? Purse their lips?)  What they found is that the male was attracted to the headless female that smelled younger.  And then they repeated the experiment, and  this time the male made a beeline to an older fly because it has been covered with a younger fly’s pheremones.

So much for old spice.

Love talk

Here’s more of what’s new from the love and marriage front:

  • Missing link: A study at the University of Utah found that when couples were separated four to seven days, their levels of the stress hormone cortisol rose and they didn’t sleep as well.
  • The L word: Contrary to what most of us think, researchers at MIT discovered that it’s men who tend to say “I love you” first in a relationship. And the men usually were happier than the women when their partner said it. Unless it was after sex. Then the women were happier to hear it.
  • Maybe because it lasted longer: In her book, “The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us,” University of Texas scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum says that research shows that our first kiss leaves a stronger impression than our first sexual encounter.
  • The look of love: British scientists found that women thought a man was more attractive if they saw a photo of a pleasant-looking woman looking at him.
  • What? Text messages don’t count? Just under half of the women surveyed in a British study said they’ve never received a love letter.  And only 10 percent of the men surveyed said they had written one.

Video Bonus: So where did all this Valentine’s Day stuff start? Would you believe a pagan ritual with an animal sacrifice?  You should probably stick with candy.

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