In late April 1381, Geoffrey Chaucer took a break from his latest draft of Canterbury Tales to write a poem celebrating the engagement of the 14 year old King Richard II to the 15 year old Anne of Bohemia. Parlement of Foules describes a dreamscape through temples with various romantic friezes, and into sunny courtyard where Nature is convening a gathering of birds pairing off with other birds.
Like much of his work, it was a remarkable piece of literature: not only did it usher in a literary style by being set in a fictional “old tradition”, but it also created a new tradition: one that we continue to celebrate today.
So this was on St Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.
OK, so Chaucer was the first person to make the link between romance and love and the various St Valentines - for there were more than one. And for this, we can celebrate (or blame) him for the cheesy Hallmark cards, the not-very-tasty lovehearts, the overpowering amount of red, and the tenuous editorial tie-ins that dominate the second week of February.
Cheers for that, Geoff.
But of course, Chaucer never made sense of love, he just waxed lyrically about it.
Enter psychology. Or, more specifically, enter the field of Interpersonal Attraction. Perhaps not quite as poetic, but certainly fertile ground for research.
I think it not much of an exaggeration to say that there exists no very adequate theory of interpersonal attraction. It has often seemed to me that even we psychologists, who like to pride ourselves in recognising that nothing occurs apart from its necessary and sufficient conditions, have come very close to treating the phenomena of personal attraction as an exception to the general rule. It is almost as if we, like our lay contemporaries, assumed that in this special area the psychological wind bloweth where it listeth, and that the matter is altogether too ineffable and almost passeth even psychological understanding.
Those were the words of social psychology founding father Theodore Newcomb in 1955, posing the problem that’s dogged everything from the first caveman to the latest teenage crush. It’s the kind of “Ur” topic: what makes us like one person and hate another? Why are we drawn to some and repulsed by others? And what makes a love affair turn into something a little more long-term?
And if I had the answer to that, I’d be rich.
In this week’s episode, I’m going to attempt to solve the greatest riddle using three psychology studies. First up, what’s all this about the girl next door?
In 1950, Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter and Kurt Back studied couples who’d moved into married student housing at MIT. The development was called Westgate West. The study was called Social Pressures in Informal Groups: A Study of Human Factors in Housing.
Westgate West consists of seventeen two-floor, wooden, reconverted Navy barracks. Each of the buildings is subdivided into ten apartments, five on each floor. Each apartment consists of a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and a bath. The apartments differ only slightly from one another in the arrangement and size of rooms.
Westgate West’s small houses were arranged in U-shaped courts. All except the end houses faced onto a grassy area. The two end houses in each court faced onto the street. What the researchers were interested in was which couples developed friendships with which, and where they lived.
Friendships developed more frequently between next-door neighbors, less frequently between people whose houses were separated by another house, and so on. As the distance between houses increased, the number of friendships fell off so rapidly that it was rare to find a friendship between persons who lived in houses that were separated by more than four or five other houses…
Their conclusion was that, yes, proximity determined who you ended up hanging out with. And if that’s the girl next door...
How’s about another example.
Say your surname begins with L. On the first day of school, you go to class and the teacher arranges you in alphabetical order. To your left is a person whose name begins with K and to your right is a person whose name begins with M. Five people over is a person whose name begins with Q. At the end of the year, you’re more likely to be friends with Mr M and Ms K than to Q simply because you were more likely to talk with them in the beginning. It’s just it’s easier.
That’s science, folks.
Back in Westgate West, for the most part, people didn’t make friends between floors. But the couples who lived near ground-level staircases and mailboxes had twice as many friends as most other couples They were in the nexus of activity of the housing complex: people came to them because of their proximity to stuff everyone used.
This is a kind of proximity, but it relies on something slightly, subtly different. It’s called propinquity.
Say you have a dog.
You need to take that dog for a walk.
And so every day you and your pup go out to the same park. Along the way, you see your neighbour.
And you see the postman
When you get to the park, you see someone who’s walking their dog, a dachshund. You also see a lady walking a poodle.
The next day, the same thing.
and you notice the dachshund and his owner is there again. No poodle, though.
And once again, the guy with the dachshund is there.
Because you’ve bumped into Dachshund Man three times, and Poodle Lady hasn’t been seen since Monday, you have more propinquity to the dachshund than to the poodle - even though he lives clear on the other side of town and has to drive 45 minutes through traffic to get to this park, which he likes better than any other park in the city, and she lives two doors away from you but turns left out of her door instead of right, and prefers another park. You are more likely to strike up a conversation with Dachshund Man and become friends.
It’s not that simple. But it’s a good start.
Regardless of the fact that you have nothing in common with one another except that you are neighbours, or you have similar letters at the start of your surname or you frequent the same park, you’re still more likely to be friends than if you had lots of things in common but didn’t meet as often.
OK. Study 2.
It is of course a truism that distance per se will have no consequences for attraction; what we are concerned with is something that is made possible or more likely, with decreasing distance.
In 1955, the man who wrote that - our friend Theodore Newcomb - put 17 transfer students into a house just off University of Michigan’s campus. And then he watched.
A student house was rented; male transfer students, all strangers to the University of Michigan, were offered the opportunity of receiving free room rent for a full semester; in return they were to spend four or five hours a week in responding to questionnaires and interviews, and in participating in experiments.
Sounds like a hoot. Theodore Newcomb, or Teddy as he was perhaps known to his friends and lovers, wasn’t always a peeping tom for science. He was born in the northeastern tip of Ohio, the son of a peripatetic minister who moved his family from rural town to rural town throughout most of Theodore’s young life.
In its baldest form, the proposition of propinquity reads as follows: other things equal people are most likely to be attracted toward those in closest contact to them.
After a false start in theology, Theodore settled into psychology. A bit like Chaucer, he was an industry innovator. We’ll be hearing about him again in the series. But for now, the most important thing is what he published in full in 1961 in The Acquaintance Process, based on his observation of those college roommates.
We have neither good reason nor good evidence for believing that persons of similar blood types, for example, or persons whose surnames have the same numbers of letters, are especially attracted to one another...the possession of similar characteristics predisposes individuals to be attracted to each other to the degree that those characteristics are both observable and valued by those who observe them - in short, insofar as they provide a basis for similarity of attitudes.
Newcomb described more nuance in interpersonal attraction than the proximity/propinquity thesis. He said that, in addition to proximity, we are attracted to people who seem to reciprocate our attraction, who we perceive to be similar to us and who we think complement us.
If you like to play piano duets or tennis, you are apt to be rewarded by those who make it possible for you to do so, and at the same time you are apt to reward your partner. Insofar as both partners are rewarded, another evening of duets or another set of tennis is likely to ensue, together with still further opportunities for reciprocal reward. Thus attraction breeds attraction.
Coming back to the dog example.
On Day four of your propinquity with Dachshund Man, you make eye contact.
On Day five, you make eye contact and he smiles. You smile back. You notice that you both are wearing blue shoes and that you hold your dog’s leads with your right hands.
On Day six, you make eye contact, you smile, you notice a book on dog behaviour under his arm that is EXACTLY the same book that just-that-day you put on your Amazon Wish List.
On Day seven, you make eye contact, smile and he says hi.
Your dogs sniff each other. There’s no growling.
By Day 9, you’re sitting in a cafe together. The dogs are asleep under the table. You’re talking about dog behaviour techniques and you discover you agree about the best groomers in the city. Turns out, he really likes Korean food, which you’ve never tried, but have always wanted to. And you happen to be an expert on antique brass door knockers, and he’s been shopping around for *ages* to find one for his front door.
Study 3: will you and Dachshund Man take it to the next level?
I’m going to put my wings on now, and grab my cupid arrow.
Because how that happens is the topic of hundreds of books, thousands of blogs, millions of column inches, billions of dollars in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics and innumerable pop songs.
Of course, very few of these are based on science, so wings and arrows are probably just as effective at transforming Planet Platonic into the Land of Lurve.
The not-very-sexy, entirely rational scientific community likes to pour cold water on things like romance. So what do we know about what turns you on?
First thing’s first: first impressions.
The old adage
You can catch more bees with honey
is etymologically dubious, as technically you attract more bees with nectar.
And although physical attraction is the most consistent experimental factor that predicts interpersonal attraction - in a kind of bleeding-obvious-recursive-loop - unsurprisingly the reasons for this go deeper than simple id-driven animal lust.
Oh sure, it’s still Freudian. Of course it is. We’re talking about sex here. But no, it has nothing to do with your mother.
So one psychoanalytic theory is that we fall in love when we’re dissatisfied with ourselves, and we meet a person who has characteristics that we wish we had but haven’t been able to achieve. Social desirability. Great teeth. Korean food. Antique door knockers.
And by falling in love, we get rid of our deficiencies by merging our identities.
There’s also plenty of research that says we’re attracted to people who look like us. Hello Narcissus!
But one classic study proposes something a little different.
Let’s say that the park you and Dachshund Man met in was engulfed in a giant sinkhole at the moment you first noticed one another. And across the chasm that had just appeared before you, your eyes locked and something… happened.
There is a substantial body of indirect evidence suggesting that sexual attractions occur with increased frequency during states of strong emotion. For example, heterosexual love has been observed to be associated both with hate and with pain.
So say cupids Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron.
Which explains why two totally unattractive people like Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock can fall in love with one another after going around and around the LA freeway in a speeding boobytrapped bus set to explode if it goes under 55 miles per hour.
Here’s how they tested their theory.
The experiment was conducted on two bridges over the Capilano River in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The "experimental" bridge was the Capilano Canyon Suspension Bridge, a flve-foot-wide, 450-foot-long, bridge constructed of wooden boards attached to wire cables that ran from one side to the other of the Capilano Canyon. The bridge has many arousal-inducing features such as (a) a tendency to tilt, sway, and wobble, creating the impression that one is about to fall over the side; (b) very low handrails of wire cable which contribute to this impression; and (c) a 230-foot drop to rocks and shallow rapids below the bridge. The "control" bridge was a solid wood bridge further upriver. Constructed of heavy cedar, this bridge was wider and firmer than the experimental bridge, was only 10 feet above a small, shallow rivulet which ran into the main river, had high handrails, and did not tilt or sway. As subjects crossed either the control or experimental bridge, they were approached by the interviewer.
She was a pretty lady. The men were asked several questions about the effects of exposure to scenic attraction on creativity by either “Donna” or “Gloria” - the same lady - depending on which bridge they’d cross. They were then asked to write a brief dramatic story based on a photo of a woman covering her eyes and holding out her hand to the camera. Each interviewer finished up by giving the unwitting participants their phone number “just in case” they wanted to find out more.
Of course the pretext for the interview was entirely false. We psychologists are bastards, aren’t we.
What they were actually looking for was the amount of sex that the participants built into the story about the photograph, and whether they called the interviewer after the experiment. Out of the 18 people interviewed by wobbly Gloria, 9 followed up. Poor stable, solid Donna, she only got phone calls from 2.
Bottom line: if you want to attract a mate, go bungee jumping.
But unfortunately, once the adrenaline has subsided, we need a few of the traditional reasons to keep the flame alive. Recursively, one of those things is how attractive your partner is. Seriously. Ugly ducklings don’t tend to stay with bombshells.
As well as introducing valentines day to western civiliations, Geoffrey Chaucer was also the first person to say that love is blind. But poor old Geoff wasn’t a social psychologist. As these studies have shows, you’re more likely to be in a relationship with someone you live nearby or encounter more often, or whose qualities complement your own. If that fails, and you still can’t make Mr Dacshund fall in love with you, then I suggest you walk your dogs over a terrifying wobbly bridge.
This has been the N of Us, presented and produced by me, Aleks Krotoski, with editorial support and readings from Ben Hammersley and research from Hannah Wittingham. It wouldn’t be possible without the support of the British Psychological Society.
This week enjoy the romance. Next week, we’re looking behind the curtain to see why the people in power are so farn powerful.
For more on the topic of this podcast and the others in the series, visit thenofus.com, where you can read the full text of the articles in this programme and get aroused by photos of the Capilano Canyon Suspension Bridge.