Might as well face it, you're addicted to love.
- Many writers have commented on the addictive qualities of love. Science agrees.
- The reward system of the brain reacts similarly to both love and drugs
- Someday, it might be possible to treat "love addiction."
Since people started writing, they've written about love. The oldest love poem known dates back to the 21st century BCE. For most of that time, writers also apparently have been of two (or more) minds about it, announcing that love can be painful, impossible to quit, or even addictive — while also mentioning how nice it is.
The idea of love as an addiction is one that is both familiar and unsettling. Surely it can't be the case that our mutual love with our partner — a thing that can produce euphoria, consumes a great deal of our time, and which we fear losing — can be compared to a drug habit? But indeed, many scientists have turned their attention to the idea of "love addiction" and how your brain on drugs might resemble your brain in love.
Love and other drugs
In a 2017 article published in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, a team of neuroethicists considered the idea that love is addicting and held the idea up to science for scrutiny.
They point out that the leading model of addiction rests on the notion of a drug causing the brain to release an unnatural level of reward chemicals, such as dopamine, effectively hijacking the brain's reward system. This phenomenon isn't strictly limited to drugs, though they are more effective at this process than other things. Rats can get a similar rush from sugar as from cocaine, and they can have terrible withdrawal symptoms when the sugar crash kicks in.
On the structural level, there is a fair amount of overlap between the parts of the brain that handle love and pair-bonding and the parts that deal with addiction and reward processing. When inside an MRI machine and asked to think about the person they love romantically, the reward centers of people's brains light up like Broadway.
Love as an addiction
These facts lead the authors to consider two ideas, dubbed the "narrow" and "broad" views of love as an addiction.
The narrow view holds that addiction is the result of abnormal brain processes that simply don't exist in non-addicts. Under this paradigm, "food-seeking or love-seeking behaviors are not truly the result of addiction, no matter how addiction-like they may outwardly appear." It could be that abnormal processes cause the brain's reward system to misfire when exposed to love and to react to it excessively.
If this model is accurate, love addiction would be a rare thing — one study puts it around five to ten percent of the population — but could be considered a disorder similar to others and caused by faulty wiring in the brain. As with other addictions, this malfunction of the reward system could lead to an inability to fully live a typical life, difficulty having healthy relationships, and a number of other negative consequences.
The broad view looks at addiction differently, perhaps even radically.
It begins with the idea that addiction exists on a spectrum of motivations. All of our appetites, including those for food and water, exist on this spectrum and activate similar parts of the brain when satisfied. We can have appetites for anything that taps into our reward system, including food, gambling, sex, drugs, and love. For most people most of the time, our appetites are fairly temperate, if recurring. I might be slightly "addicted" to food — I do need some a few times per day — but that "addiction" doesn't have any negative effects on my health.
An appetite for cocaine, however, is rarely temperate and usually dangerous. Likewise, a person's appetite for love could reach addiction levels, and a person could be considered "hooked" on relationships (or on a particular person). This would put love addiction at the extreme end of the spectrum.
None of this is to say that the authors think that love is bad for you just because it can resemble an addiction. Love addiction is not the same as cocaine addiction at the neurological level: important differences, like how long it takes for the desire for another "hit" to occur, do exist. Rather, the authors see this as an opportunity to reconsider our approach to addiction in general and to think about how we can help the heartsick when they just can't seem to get over their last relationship.
Is "love addiction" a treatable disorder?
Hypothetically, a neurological basis for an addiction to love could point toward interventions that "correct" for it. If the narrow view of addiction is accurate, perhaps some people will be able to seek treatment for love addiction in the same way that others seek help to quit smoking. If the broad view of addiction is correct, the treatment of love addiction would be unlikely as it may be difficult to properly identify where the cutoff of acceptability on a spectrum should be.
Either way, since love is generally held in high regard by all cultures and doesn't quite seem to be in the same category as a bad cocaine habit in terms of social undesirability, the authors doubt we'll be treating anyone for "love addiction" anytime soon.
The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.
- How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
- One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
- Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.
Anger and silence are the two worst reactions.
- A new study conducted various experiments to explore the relationship between anger and judgments of guilt.
- The results suggest that when an accused person becomes angry, perceivers are more likely to view that person as guilty, even though the accused might be innocent.
- Paradoxically, the study also found that people who are falsely accused generally become angrier than people who are rightfully accused.
Imagine your neighbor accuses you of stealing something. You didn't. But your neighbor doesn't believe you. He continues to accuse you. As he does, other neighbors come over and start watching the confrontation unfold.
How would you react to being falsely accused? Maybe you'd be angry. But even though your anger would be justifiable, it would also likely increase the odds that your neighbors would think you're guilty.
That's the key takeaway of new research published in Psychological Science called "Anger Damns the Innocent." The findings are paradoxical: Being angry tends to make the accused come off as guilty, but their anger is usually a sign that they're innocent.
Why is that the case? The study noted that we look to others' emotions to understand social situations. That's particularly true when deciding whether we should trust someone.
For example, past research shows that people use trustworthiness to make judgments about whether someone is guilty. What's more, studies have also found that anger can make people seem less trustworthy. With these two findings in mind, the researchers proposed:
"...that when perceivers are alerted to a suspect's anger, perceivers are apt to find the suspect untrustworthy, prompting a judgment of guilt. Perceivers may even interpret a suspect's displayed anger as an inauthentic attempt to look innocent by faking moral indignation. This would further explain why perceivers deem an angry suspect guilty via perceptions of (in)authenticity."
If falsely accused, stay calm…but not quiet
Across six studies, the researchers explored how laypeople and experts make guilt judgments when the accused person is angry. In one set of studies, participants watched clips of people accused of minor crimes pleading their case on a courtroom TV show called Judge Faith. The results showed that participants were more likely to rate angry defendants as guilty.
In another study, participants read about a fictitious person named Andrew Smith who was accused of committing an armed robbery. The study included four versions of Smith's reaction to the accusations during his hypothetical testimony: angry, calm, silent, and irritated. For the silent condition, the participants read that Smith had invoked the Fifth Amendment. The other conditions included excerpts like:
- Calm: "I really can't believe I'm being accused of this crime."
- Irritated: "I'm irritated that I'm being accused of this crime."
- Angry: "I'm so fucking OUTRAGED that I'm being accused of this crime!"
The participants rated Smith most guilty when he was silent. Beyond that, being angry made Smith come off as most guilty, while being irritated made him seem guiltier than being calm.
Angry mandundanim via Adobe Stock
In a similar experiment, participants read one of two fictitious scenarios involving a man named Nathan. In both, he had been reasonably accused, but not necessarily guilty, of either cheating on his girlfriend or stealing money from his employer.
The participants were randomized to read either an angry or calm reaction. The angry condition was: "Nathan raises his voice and angrily denies responsibility, yelling, 'I am so pissed off that you think I would do this!'" The calm: "Nathan calmly denies responsibility, stating, 'I really can't believe you think I would do this.'" Again, the participants rated the angry response as guiltier.
Is it just laypeople who view anger as a sign of guilt? To test that idea, the researchers conducted a study similar to the previous one, but its participants were professionals who regularly have to make consequential judgments of others' guilt, such as fraud investigators and auditors.
They too rated the angry response as guiltier. Interestingly, the experts also considered remaining silent to be an indicator of guilt.
The falsely accused are angrier
When someone reacts angrily to an accusation, others generally see that person as guilty. But is anger really a sign of guilt?
To test that question, the researchers asked another set of participants to complete one of two tasks, both of which involved editing text. One task was simple, the other difficult. All participants were told they would be paid to complete the task.
After the participants finished the task, the researchers accused them of doing it incorrectly, and therefore they wouldn't receive a bonus payment. This represented a false accusation for the participants who completed the simple task, most of whom had done it correctly. Meanwhile, the participants assigned to the difficult task generally made errors, so the accusations were mostly accurate.
Afterward, the researchers asked both groups how angry they felt. The results showed that those who were falsely accused reported significantly higher feelings of anger than those who were rightfully accused.
Humans are terrible lie detectors
Overall, the results highlight how most people simply aren't good lie detectors. It's a deficit that's likely contributing not only to interpersonal conflicts but also false criminal convictions.
The researchers said their findings add important insights to the field of deceit detection, showing that anger is not a sign of guilt but of innocence.
"This is particularly important because most research on emotional cues of deception finds little to no association between other discrete emotions and guilt," the researchers wrote. "While scholarship on the psychology of anger posits that the social information it portrays is that there is someone else to blame, we find that anger in this context (mis)portrays the opposite to others: guilt."
The study concludes: "There are many reasons to be angry when accused of wrongdoing, but perhaps none as strong as the belief that one has been falsely accused."
Participants with high levels of narcissism showed high levels of aggression, spreading gossip, bullying others, and more.
Narcissism is defined as “entitled self-importance." The term narcissism comes from the mythical Greek character Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image reflected in still water. Aggression is defined as any behavior intended to harm another person who does not want to be harmed, whereas violence is defined as aggression that involves extreme physical harm such as injury or death.
Our review found that individuals high in narcissism are especially aggressive when provoked, but are also aggressive when they aren't provoked. Study participants with high levels of narcissism showed high levels of physical aggression, verbal aggression, spreading gossip, bullying others and even displacing aggression against innocent bystanders. They attacked in both a hotheaded and coldblooded manner. Narcissism was related to aggression in males and females of all ages from both Western and Eastern countries.
People who think they are superior seem to have no qualms about attacking others whom they regard as inferior.
Why it matters
Research shows everyone has some level of narcissism, but some people have higher levels than others. The higher the level of narcissism, the higher the level of aggression.
Unfortunately, narcissism is on the rise, and social media might be a contributing factor. Recent research found people who posted large numbers of selfies on social media developed a 25% rise in narcissistic traits over a four-month period. A 2019 survey by the smartphone company Honor found that 85% of people are taking more pictures of themselves than ever before. In recent years, social media has largely evolved from keeping in touch with others to flaunting for attention.
What other research is being done
One very important line of work investigates how people become narcissistic in the first place. For example, one study found that when parents overvalue, overestimate and overpraise their child's qualities, their child tends to become more narcissistic over time. Such parents think their child is more special and entitled than other children. This study also found that if parents want their child to have healthy self-esteem instead of unhealthy narcissism, they should give unconditional warmth and love to their child.
Our review looked at the link between narcissism and aggression at the individual level. But the link also exists at the group level. Research has found that “collective narcissism" – or “my group is superior to your group" – is related to intergroup aggression, especially when one's in-group (“us") is threatened by an out-group (“them").
How we do our work
Our study, called a meta-analytic review, combined data from multiple studies investigating the same topic to develop a conclusion that is statistically stronger because of the increased number of participants. A meta-analytic review can reveal patterns that aren't obvious in any one study. It is like looking at the entire forest rather than at the individual trees.
Dunbar's number is a popular estimate for the maximum size of social groups. But new research suggests that it's a fictitious number based on flimsy data and bad theory.
- A team of researchers recalculated Dunbar's number using his original methods and better data.
- Their estimates were as high as 520 and were stretched over a wide enough range as to be nearly useless.
- The authors suggest that the method used to calculate the number of friends a person can have is also theoretically unsound.
Since 1992, people have been talking about "Dunbar's number," the supposed upper limit of the number of people with whom a person can maintain stable social relationships. Named for British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, its value, rounded from 148 to 150, has permeated both professional and popular culture.
The Swedish taxation authority keeps offices under 150 people as a result of it, and the standard facilities of the W. L. Gore and Associates company are based around the concept. Dunbar's number was cited in Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book Tipping Point, and it also has a fair amount of academic influence, the original paper having been cited 2,500 times.
It's also probably wrong.
Despite its fame, Dunbar's number has always been controversial. A new study out of Sweden and published in the journal Biology Letters suggests it might be both theoretically and empirically unsound.
Getting to 150
Less well known than the value of Dunbar's number is how he came up with it. The value of 150 is determined by looking at the ratio between the size of the neocortex in primates and the average size of groups they form. These ratios were then applied to data on the human brain, and the average value of roughly 150 relationships was determined.
The point of this study isn't to replace Dunbar's number but to dismiss the notion that such a number can be determined in the first place.
However, this number has always been the subject of debate. An alternative value based on empirical studies of American social groups is a much higher 291, nearly double that of Dunbar, and suggests that the median social network has 231 people in it. That value wasn't calculated by crunching other numbers; it kept coming up again and again when the authors of that study looked at the professional and social networks cultivated by different groups of people.
Yet, even in the face of critics and new studies, Dunbar's number always managed to hang on in popular and academic discourse. That is where this latest study comes in.
A new study with old methods but better data
In the new study, the researchers did similar calculations as Dunbar but with updated information on the size of monkey brains and social networks. While their average human group size was below Dunbar's estimate, the upper boundary of the 95 percent confidence interval ranged between 2 and 520 people depending on what methods were used. Nearly every method gave a range of possibilities with a maximum value higher than 150.
When the authors applied Dunbar's exact same methods from 1992 to their new data, they got an average group size of 69 people — but a 95% confidence interval between roughly 5 and 292. This is far too wide a range to be of any use.
Additionally, the authors discuss the flimsy nature of the theory behind Dunbar's number. Human brains often work differently than those of our nearest evolutionary cousins, as evidenced by our ability to create things like, "Stockholm, symphonies, and science." The idea that we would process social information exactly like other apes do is a bold and largely unsubstantiated claim.
They quote a study by Jan De Ruiter and their rejection of the idea that the ratio between monkey neocortex size and group composition can be carried over to humans:
"Dunbar's assumption that the evolution of human brain physiology corresponds with a limit in our capacity to maintain relationships ignores the cultural mechanisms, practices, and social structures that humans develop to counter potential deficiencies"
So, is there a new Dunbar number?
The point of this study isn't to replace Dunbar's number but to dismiss the notion that such a number can be determined in the first place. The authors go so far as to end their paper with:
"It is our hope, though perhaps futile, that this study will put an end to the use of 'Dunbar's number' within science and in popular media. 'Dunbar's number' is a concept with limited theoretical foundation lacking empirical support."
While this study may not be the death of Dunbar's number — after all, less empirically sound ideas have endured much longer — it may be the foundation for new attempts to determine how large our meaningful and stable social groups can be.