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To My Valentine: The Science of Love Letters

February 12, 2016 Comments off

In 1779 Benjamin Franklin, when serving as the U.S. envoy to France, fell in love with Anne Catherine Helvétius, the widow of the Swiss-French philosopher, Claude-Adrien Helvétius. In an attempt to win her affections, Franklin sent her many letters expressing his love, admiration, and passion for her. In one he claimed that in a dream he was transported to the Elysian Fields, where he discovered that his late wife and Madam Helvétius’s late husband had married one another. It would, he suggested, only be fair if they avenged this union by themselves marrying. In another, more passionate plea, he wrote “If that Lady likes to pass her Days with him, he in turn would like to pass his Nights with her; and as he has already given her many of his days…she appears ungrateful never to have given him a single one of her nights.”

The lover’s mind, as Alfred Lord Tennyson explained, “lightly turns to thoughts of love” with the arrival of Spring and its harbinger: St. Valentine’s Day. But this holiday brings a responsibility: the crafting of a “written missive that defines and describes the current and/or desired nature of an amative relationship between the sender and recipient”–in other words, a love letter. This burden is lightened, to some degree, by the availability of pre-built greeting cards, red roses, candy hearts, and the Love You! app for your smart phone, but the traditional love letter makes it possible to convey one’s love for another in a more coherent and influential way (and, as Marcus Cicero pointed out, “a letter does not blush”).

But what should you say in your love letter to your Valentine? Should lovers craft sentimental love poems, confess their undying commitment in flowery prose, or pen flirtatious notes that hint at the sexual pleasures found in each other’s arms? Did Ben Franklin’s sly request for a night together endear him to the widow, or would a letter like Kahlil Gibran’s to Mary Haskill be more likely to curry favor in the recipient’s heart: “You are like the Great Spirit, who befriends man not only to share his life, but to add to it. My knowing you is the greatest thing in my days and nights, a miracle quite outside the natural order of things.”

Fortunately, theory and research offer some suggestions to the love-besotted crafter of persuasive prose. Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg’s theory of love, for example, suggests that the ideal love letter should include content relevant to love’s three basic components—intimacy, passion, and commitment.

The three-factor theory of consumate love (Sternberg).

Intimacy is the emotional component: the “close, connected, and bonded” feelings lovers experience. Passion is the motivational component. Like passionate love, it includes physical attraction, sexual desire, sexuality. Sternberg’s third component, decision/commitment, speaks of one’s hope that the relationship will be long-lasting. Words like loyalty, responsibility, faithfulness, and devotion characterize commitment. The consummate love letter would, in theory, combine all three elements.

To test Sternberg’s theory we developed a dozen different love letters and asked men and women to read and evaluate each one’s success in expressing love. Some of the letters were filled with expressions of tender intimacy: “You are my best friend,” “I can share any secret with you,” and “I feel so close and connected to you.” Others confessed ardor and passion: “You are a wonderful lover,” and “Our nights are pure, physical pleasure.” Still others spoke of commitment—a desire for a long-term relationship—or a worry about what the future might bring. And some letters included two of these elements, and one—the super-love-letter—combined all three.

We discovered that, when it comes to love letters, commitment conquered all. The letter that proclaimed “I know we will be happy together for the rest of our lives” and “I couldn’t imagine a world without you in it” was rated much higher, in terms of expressing love, than one that made no mention of commitment or, even worse, explained: “I am really happy being with you, but who knows what’s going to happen.” Adding language that spoke of closeness and caring increased the letter’s good impression with readers, but it was commitment that left readers feeling loved and in love. One woman said “I think he is really comfortable and at ease with me, it gives me a sense of being absolutely secure and comfortable.” A 20-year old man explained “This woman is in love with me and shows total commitment and loyalty to me.”

And what about expressing passion in a letter? Frisky letters, which went on for too long about the sender’s sexual passions, were viewed negatively; they seemed like lust letters instead of love letters. One 20 year-old woman concluded the “relationship appears to be purely physical, with no sentiments or emotional commitment.” Another complained “I don’t want my love letter talking about how crazy sex makes my partner feel.” But what about men? Did they prefer a letter with sensual details to one that spoke of closeness and commitment? No. Men were not as embarrassed by the provocative letters as were women, but they too gave them low ratings.

We also discovered that a message of commitment need not be delivered in a traditional love letter or a card: email will do. In a second study volunteers were told that at some point in the next week they would be receiving a love letter by email. All they needed to do was read it and imagine how they would react if they got such an email from someone they were dating. Once again, it was the message that spoke of the relationship, a future together, and years of happiness ahead that turned the email into a love email.

Unexpectedly, the super-love-letter that combined all three of the Sternberg model elements was not judged as uniquely loving. In the language of statistics, rather than amplifying each element of love, we obtained only main effects, without a hint of an interaction.

To summarize our findings in the language of candy conversation hearts, all the letters said, at some point, “I love you,” but the strongest letters added “Be mine forever” and “Best friends.” The “Hot lover” letter was more likely to backfire than win a heart.


This research, in its small way, is a reminder of the value of the scientific study of interpersonal relationships. There are those who consider the study of liking and love to be a frivolous pursuit. For example, some years back Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin discovered that the National Science Foundation was funding studies of attraction and love. Outraged by what he felt was useless research, Proxmire insisted that “Americans want to leave some things in life a mystery, and right at the top of the things we don’t want to know about is why a man falls in love with a woman and vice versa.” But the study of relationships yields the knowledge needed to strengthen those relationships and enrich people’s lives. People, when asked about sources of lasting happiness and satisfaction, put their relationships with others at the top the list, far higher in importance than career accomplishments, financial security, and material possessions. Health and well-being are linked to physical factors, but also to the quality and reliability of one’s relationships with others (Reis, 2011). Researchers, by studying relationships, find solutions to many of the most basic problems people face as individuals and as a species: divorce, violence, prejudice, conflict, and loneliness. Certainly many questions are worth studying scientifically–it would be good to know, for example, more about the moons around Saturn, the penguin’s top swimming speed, or DNA of the drosophilae–but is there really anything more important than understanding the whys and wherefores of our relationships with others?

References

Reis, H. T. (2011). “It’s Not a Matter of Life and Death.” Personality and Social Psychology Connections. Retrieved from http://spsptalks.wordpress.com.

Social Psychology’s Three Little Pigs

September 21, 2015 Comments off

At the 2015 meeting of the American Psychological Association held in Toronto, I joined with two other fellows of Division 49 (Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy)–Andy Horn and Rex Stockton–to deliver the Fellows Addresses.  In that presentation, I stressed my usual message: That in many cases psychologists overlook the impact of group processes, and so they fail to understand fully the causes of human action. I also reiterated one of the great strengths of Division 49: A strong emphasis on integrating both basic and applied research.  This theme of “unification” is illustrated in what I call the Parable of Psychology’s Three Little Pigs.


Psychology’s Three Little Pigs

Not-so-long-ago in a not-so-far-away land lived three little pigs. These three little pigs grew up in the same neighborhood, attended the same schools, and shared the same passion: houses. The three were fascinated by the various types of structures inhabited by pigs the world over, and they whiled away many a happy hour puzzling over the nature and design of such dwellings. They could think of nothing more meaningful than dedicating their lives to the scientific study of houses and the ways they can be improved and repaired.

As they grew older, however, the pigs gradually grew apart in values, beliefs, and goals. The first pig became intrigued with understanding how houses worked, and embarked on a systematic study of foundations, arches, doors, and windows. So he bought a big armchair in which to sit and develop theory. He converted his pig pen into an elaborate laboratory where he could test out hypotheses, and erected a large sign for all to see. The sign read: Scientific Pig. Using his armchair and laboratory, he developed a particularly interesting theory about round houses that had no windows or doors. Although no one had found any of these houses, other scientifically minded pigs thought the work was interesting.

The second pig was also interested in the theory behind houses, arches, and doorways. The second pig, however, wanted to use this knowledge to improve houses; to repair misshapen houses and possibly make houses of tomorrow better than houses of today. So this pig put a sign in front of his pen that read “Practical Pig,” and began helping other pigs build and repair their houses. Soon, Practical Pig had made so much money from third-party payments that he could afford to build a breathtakingly beautiful house of sticks on a large tract of land in the country.

What, in the meantime, was the third pig doing? Well, it seems that he too was trying diligently to understand the nature of houses. Although Scientific Pig and Practical Pig no longer spoke to one another, the third pig often visited each one to talk about houses and ideas for improving them. When Scientific Pig would describe his studies of round houses, the third pig would ask what the studies say about the structural dynamics of houses in general. And when Practical Pig would talk about building houses out of sticks, the third pig would ask why sticks rather than stone? After many conversations and much research on houses, the third pig managed to build a house that, although it lacked the beauty of Practical Pig’s house, was more useful than the round houses that the Scientific Pig studied. The Third Pig didn’t put any kind of sign in front of his house at all. He knew that wolves can read.

One day a pig-hungry wolf did come to town. When he came to the first pig’s pen the wolf said, “I am hungry, and must have pig for breakfast.”

Scientific Pig, rising up from his arm chair said, “Why eat me? Can’t you see the long-term importance of my work on round houses?”

“No,” answered the wolf as he bit off the poor Scientific Pig’s head.

You see, although the first pig had fashioned a marvelous round house of straw and mortar with strong arches and walls, it had no windows or doors. It was a fine model to be used for testing predictions about houses, but it didn’t protect him from the wolf. The third pig had warned him that building houses with doors would yield both better data as well as safety from predators, but he hadn’t heeded his friend’s warnings.

Sadly, the second pig was also eaten–leaving behind many client-houses that could now never be properly repaired. Practical Pig had build what seemed to be a safe house, but he had used sticks for the walls. Although the first pig had found that “weight-bearing, rigid barriers fashioned from the woody fibers of trees and shrubs can be rendered discohesive through exposure to focused atmospheric pressures of excessive magnitude,” the Practical Pig felt that the first pig’s studies were so artificial that they didn’t have any relevance for “real” houses. In fact, he had let his subscription to JPSP (Journal for Purely Scientific Pigs) lapse, so he didn’t even know about the problems with sticks. So when the wolf huffed and puffed and blew, the house tumbled down and the second pig fell victim.

The third pig survived, of course. When he saw the wolf approach he ran into his house and locked the door. The wolf pushed on the house, but the foundation and structure were too strong. He tried blowing on the house, but the stone walls held secure. He tried climbing on the roof, but the carefully crafted masonry gave him no purchase. The hungry wolf, relented, then left the pig in peace.

The moral of the story is taken from the monument that the third pig erected to the memory of his departed childhood friends. It read:

Knowledge cannot prosper,

When Science is One-sided.

The basic and applied must be

United not divided.

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Source: Forsyth, D. R. (1988). Social psychology’s three little pigs. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 3, 63-65. Reprinted in M. R. Leary (Ed.), The state of social psychology: Issues, themes, and controversies (pp. 63-65). Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.

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