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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.

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The Bathsheba Syndrome: When a Leader Fails

February 14, 2012 Comments off

SPSP

Another leader—no, an entire cadre of leaders—has been found to be a moral failure. Legal authorities have charged Jerry Sandusky, who retired as the defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team in 1999, with the sexual abuse of children who he targeted through his involvement in the charitable organization The Second Mile. Additionally, a number of other administrators and leaders at Penn State University—the university’s president Graham Spanier, vice-president Gary Schultz, athletic director Tim Curley and long-time football coach Joe Paterno—face charges or have been fired from the university because of their failure to take action when Sandusky’s crimes were brought to their attention. Time, research, and investigation will inform fully our judgment of who is guilty and who is innocent, but the indictment states many at the university were aware of Sandusky’s crimes but did not intervene as required by law and by moral standards.

Sandusky and the…

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Studies in Group Dynamics

February 14, 2012 Comments off

Group dynamics are the influential actions, processes, and changes that take place within and between groups. Groups come in all shapes and sizes, their functions are many and varied, and their influence universal. The tendency to join with others in groups is perhaps the single most important characteristic of humans, and the processes that unfold within these groups leave an indelible imprint on their members and on society. To understand people, one must understand groups and their dynamics.

My interest in groups stems from graduate school days, when I had the good fortune to work with such experts on groups as Bob Ziller, Marvin Shaw, and Barry Schlenker. Also, as an undergraduate, I also worked with Russ Clark, who studies diffusion of responsibility in groups and risky shifts in groups.

gd6

Group Dynamics, 6th edition

Resources

Group Dynamics Resources Page: I maintain a page of links and topic summaries on my profile pages at the University of Richmond.

Teaching Group Dynamics: When I teach group dynamics I use both experiential activities as well as more traditional lectures/presentations. The powerpoints for the presentations are online at this site.

Revising Group Dynamics: I am (nearly always) working on revising my book dealing with group dynamics. To motivate myself I keep some notes and ideas in the form of a blog at this website.

The Powerful Influence of Fanship

March 18, 2009 Comments off

I tried to keep Superbowl 2009 at arms length. I was born in Pittsburgh, and have always been partial to the Steelers. So, while I wanted to climb on the bandwagon, I did not want to experience the downside of a sports fans’ dashed dreams. Besides, my school, University of Richmond, had already won the Division 1 National Championship in football. And my alma mater, University of Florida, had already won the Division 1-A National Championship. How greedy can I be?

Greedy. As my coy refusal to connect up with the Steelers dissolved with the last play of the first half–James Harrison’s 100 yard interception and score–I was hooked. I became a gibbering, screaming, hollerin’, 100% diehard fan, risking the post-game depression of a loss for the thrill of savoring a victory.

I usually practice safe fanship, for while having a favorite in the game increases the excitement of the event, the emotional aftermath is usually not worth it. I’ve the makings of a die-hard fan, if I let my dedication get away from me. Not just a fan, but a fanatic: One who engages in extreme, unreasonable devotion to an idea, philosophy, or practice. The die-hard sports fan displays great devotion to a team, with emotions rising and falling with the team’s accomplishments. Fans may not be members of the teams they support, but they are often seem to be very closely connected psychologically to their teams. They are happy when their team wins, but after a loss, fans experience a range of negative emotions: anger, depression, sadness, hopelessness, and confusion.

Say who? Well, Ed Hirt and his colleagues at Indiana University examined this question by asking fans of a men’s college basketball team to watch a live broadcast of a game in the lab. They discovered fans were more depressed after a loss than happy after a win. Compared to the winners, those who watched their team lose had darker moods, they were more pessimistic when rating their mental ability; and they predicted that an attractive person would be more likely to reject them.

Sports fans identify with their team and so experience the team’s outcomes as their own. When the team wins, they can share in that victory. They experience a range of positive emotions, including pride, emotion, happiness, and even joy, and they can gloat over the failure of their rivals. They can, when interacting with other people, bask in reflected glory, by stressing their association with the successful group, even though they have contributed little to that success. They also experience a host of positive interpersonal benefits from supporting a specific team—particularly a local one (Wann, 2006). Fans who support the same team may spend considerable time in enjoyable shared activities and gain from that group experience social support, a sense of belonging, and enhanced overall well-being.

But what if their team should lose? Casual fans can just downplay the loss by switching their allegiance to some other team: cutting off reflected failure. Dedicated fans, whose homes are decorated with team insignia, who wear the team’s colors, and who have based much of their sense of self on their loyalty to the team, cannot avoid failure. Their team’s loss will be their loss, as Warren St. John describes so vividly in his analysis of the fans of Alabama (St. John, 2004). But these die-hard fans can and do rely on a variety of psychological and social tactics to ease the pain of the loss. They may blame their failure on external factors, such as field conditions or the referee. They may spend time talking about past successes, and convince one another that better times lie ahead. They can take solace in their failure collectively, and mourn over their group’s loss together. They may also take pride in other aspects of their team, such as its sportsmanship or esprit de corps (Wann, 2006). But mostly, they suffer.

They may also see that others share their suffering, as well. Fans often vent their frustration by acting violently; fans have been known to even attack the supporters of other teams, with fatal outcomes. The irrationality of excessive fanship is not restricted to self-injury. Sports fans do not only harm themselves; they sometimes attack the police and the supporters of other teams with fatal outcomes. In many cases after important contests fans, often intoxicated, spill into the streets around the stadiums, fighting among themselves and with fans who support the opposing team. Hooliganism is generally associated with other countries; particularly Britain which is famous for the commitment of its sports fans to the national pastime of soccer. But at colleges and universities across the U.S., sports events can spark violence. As one former president of large university remarked “When you win a game, you riot. When you lose a game, you riot.”

Fanship, then, comes with a risk—identifying with a group whose outcomes one cannot control means that one will encounter the joy of victory, but also the agony of a share defeat. That despair can be profound: Suicide rates tend to track the rise and fall with the success of the local college sports team—at least in some college-towns known for strong fan allegiance (Joiner, Hollar, & Van Orden, 2006). However, victory can bring great elation. When the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team beat the Russian national team on February 22,1980, fewer people committed suicide on that daty than had on that date from 1972 to 1989.

Did I mention ALL my teams won their champions? A Football trifecta!

For more information:

The study of basketball fans is reported in: Hirt, E. R., Zillmann, D., Erickson, G. A., & Kennedy, C. (1992). Costs and benefits of allegiance: Changes in fans’ self-ascribed competencies after team victory versus defeat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 724-738.

Dan Wann summaries work that find a positive, benificial effect of fanship in: Wann, D. L. (2006). Understanding the positive social psychological benefits of sport team identification: The team identification-social psychological health model. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 10(4), 272-296.

Thomas Joiner and his colleagues report on the ill-effects of fanship in: Joiner Jr., Thomas E., Hollar, D., & Van Orden, K. (2006). On buckeyes, gators, super bowl sunday, and the miracle on ice: “pulling together” is associated with lower suicide rates. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 25(2), 179-195.

Warren St. John’s analysis of fan mania is a delight: St. John, W. (2004). Rammer jammer yellow hammer: A journey into the heart of fan mania. New York: Crown.

Categories: Group Dynamics Tags:

Community

April 19, 2006 Comments off

Who doesn’t think on occasion, “The river looks beautiful today,” as we catch a glimpse of it from our car window as we rush across it. But few of us love the river the way Karen Abse did. Karen did not call it the “Rivah;” it was “The James” to Karen; a river of force and spirit; water with a temper. She did not just admire it from the Huguenot Bridge or the Browns Island pedestrian bridge. She swam, canoed, and kayaked in it. And on January 21 of this year she died in it.

Karen put in that day to challenge the river’s high white water—it was running 8 feet above normal. But as she moved through the Hollywood Rapids she was caught in what the water dogs of the James call a strainer—trees and debris that jam in the rocks and bridge pilings, forming a trap for anything that the river pushes into its tangle. Karen was a uniquely skilled kayaker; she was certified to teach canoeing, white-water kayaking and sea kayaking. But when the torrent pulled her under the litter of the strainer she could not free herself. Her fellow kayakers tried desperately to save, but their heroic efforts were for naught.

As philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau explained, “The person who has lived the most is not the one who has lived the longest, but the one with the richest experiences.” Karen, each day of her life, lived by Rousseau’s creed. The James River is a serious river, and Karen knew that. But she so loved the river, and the danger did not keep her from it. Her life ended because she took a risk. She understood the risk and did all she could to minimize it. Sometimes, no matter how much we try to prevent harm, accidents happen.

Karen’s friends and family met for her memorial service a week later on the banks of the James, as if we wanted to reassure her river that we held no hard feelings. Her service drew us all together for the first and last time, and even people who knew Karen well were surprised by the diversity of the assembled throng. For Karen was the kind of person that science writer Malcolm Gladwell calls connectors: those who seem to have far more ties to other people than the rest of us. We all are embedded in a network of friends, family, and acquaintances, but connectors are the hubs of a more vast and far-flung web of relationships. And Karen was a unique kind of connector, for she not only linked with people in one-to-one relationships; she also was a member and leader of dozens of different groups and associations. That day in the afternoon sunshine at the river’s edge her softball and soccer teams stood together, wearing their uniforms in her honor. Members of James River Outdoor Coalition and the Coastal Canoeists came with their boats on the roofs of their cars, an honor to their lost member. Her former crewmates of the Lady Slipper, the boat that Karen captained when for many years in the James River Bateau Festival, threw flowers into the river. The artists from the craft cooperative Karen helped found, “But is it Art?,” stood together before the display of Karen’s pottery, weavings, and sculptures. Her sisters, father, and former husband and partner comforted each other, as did the cliques of fellow teachers in Chesterfield County Department of Parks and Recreation, the mountaineers she traveled with each year to climb the highest peaks in the U.S. states, and co-workers in Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. We gathered, not so much as individuals, but as entire groups to salute the contributions of a fellow member and leader.

Sometimes it takes a loss of a person for us see what we so often take for granted: our connections to our one another. The community reels at the loss of every one of its members, but the hole torn by the loss of a connector such as Karen gapes wide. We expect such people to always be with us, and may even be blind to the work they do in of creating unions and associations. Karen was the one who took charge of the situation and organized her groups. She was a community leader, but she liked to work down at the grassroots level, with small groups of Richmonders with specific needs and goals. When she was with us, we each one had to do a little less. With Karen gone, we must step in and do a little more; for ourselves, for our groups, and for our community.

So March found me with a kayak paddle in my hand and river shoes on my feet. I know that I’ll never seek the thrills Karen did in the white water of the rapids downtown, but before she died Karen had planned out a flat-water trip for early March. When the outing faltered after Karen’s accident, I accepted (somewhat slowly) the challenge and agreed to sub in for her. What was it that Rousseau said about “living the most?”

Abu Ghraib: What Makes Good People Do Bad Things

September 18, 2005 Comments off

This article is by Wil LaVeist, who is a writer for Daily Press.

The first American soldier to be tried in the Iraqi prison scandal has been court-martialed. Punishment looms for the other six soldiers implicated so far, and hopefully the arm of justice will grab higher up the chain of command.

But as the finger pointing and buck-passing intensifies, I wonder if we will ever find out why these ordinary and probably decent people allowed themselves to do something so bad.

I posed this thought to social psychology professor Donelson R. Forsyth, who studies how people interact with each other within groups. His book, “Group Dynamics,” probes the good and bad affects that groups have on individual behaviors. “It (the prison scandal) has caused a stir among social psychologists. People have been talking about whether our discipline can explain why these types of things happen,” said Forsyth. He mentioned a 1971 Stanford University study getting renewed attention because of parallels to what happened at the Abu Ghraib detention center in Iraq.

In the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” researcher Philip G. Zimbardo used students to role-play as guards and prisoners. Within two days the guards became abusive, broke the prison rules and disregarded the prisoners’ rights. The planned two-week experiment was aborted within six days because things got out of hand.
“They (the guards) got them (prisoners) to role-play homosexual relationships, which is very spooky in terms of the parallels to the Iraqi prison situation,” Forsyth said. “Their conclusion was that it’s possible for anyone to engage in this type of behavior.”

At Abu Ghraib, American soldiers humiliated Iraqi prisoners in violation of the Geneva Convention rules for handling POWs. During his court-martial Wednesday, U.S. Army Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits testified he took a photo as other soldiers stepped on, punched and forced the male prisoners to masturbate and simulate oral sex. When asked if he knew this was wrong, Sivits, who will testify against his fellow soldiers, said yes and admitted he did not try to stop it.

“It’s a fundamental question. What is morality?” Forsyth said. “We can excuse them, in part, and say that they are in a powerful situation, that it’s war. It wasn’t clear that the higher-ups and those in authority were not condoning the action. But at the same time each one of us is an individual. We’re supposed to have a moral code. Even if we’re tempted to do the wrong thing there’s a bottom line that says, no you can’t do that terrible thing.”

Military structure demands soldiers obey orders from superiors. But a 1961 Yale University experiment showed it doesn’t take much to get people to obey, Forsyth said. In that study, normal people were asked to deliver lethal electric shocks to a “pitifully protesting victim” who did nothing to deserve the punishment. Sixty-five percent of them obeyed and watched the victim suffer. Later they learned the victim was an actor and was unharmed.

“We don’t excuse people for doing bad things because they’re pressured by the situation,” Forsyth said. “We’re always pressured. We just hope we handle it correctly.”

Group pressure fails to fully explain why people would take pictures of the atrocities they are committing. Apparently, in order for a person to be barbaric to others, they must dehumanize the individuals first. Then, to carry out the oppression they must make light of the situation, which may explain why the soldiers were smiling and laughing in the photos. Making light of the situation leads to reveling in it, and that leads to wanting to document the events and share them with others. There are reportedly 1,800-plus prison photos and videos.

The Abu Ghraib images are reminiscent of mob lynching in the United States, where at some events photographers were paid to take photos of a number of smiling participants standing with hanging corpses. These photos were often turned into postcards and mailed. Also, college fraternity and sorority hazing crimes are often uncovered because someone took photos or videotaped the moment.
“Groups are generally a positive experience,” Forsyth said. “But good people can go wrong when put into a group that goes astray. Usually it’s gradual. One misstep is followed by another misstep. You can’t even find the turning point.”

And before we realize it, decent, ordinary people – me, you, a family member or friend – become willing participants in something horribly bad that can’t easily be explained.

LaVeist, Copyright © 2004, Daily Press

Categories: Group Dynamics