A conversation with the anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University.
Ted Fischer: My name’s Ted Fischer and I’m a professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University.
Question: What is romantic love?
Ted Fischer: We define romantic love as an intense for another with the expectation that it’s going to persist into the future. And that distinguishes it from lust, which is generally fleeting, and also from more companionship love, which doesn’t the intensity of desire that you want to possess the other in some way.
Often it’s characterized by some sort of irrationality. Not doing what a rational person would do in those circumstances. Buying a large gift when you really don’t have the money, or going out to a really nice restaurant, or making that that extra sign of one’s love that you hope will attract the other. And so, really it’s a bit of craziness, romantic love. We’re a little bit off kilter when we’re in love. And that’s the way we talk about it. It’s like we’re under water in some way, or we’re overwhelmed by love. Crazy in love.
Question: What’s the evolutionary advantage of romantic love?
Ted Fischer: Well there’s some clear evolutionary advantage to falling in love, and especially for pair-bonding, a male/female bond, and let’s think back, you know, 20 - 30,0000 years ago when our ancestors were living on the Savannahs in Africa. Human infants are incredibly helpless, and it’s very hard for one person to take care of an infant and also gather food, and hunt food, and run from predators. And so, having some sort of core or familial group makes lots of sense. And so, there are evolutionary psychologists and biologists who would say, “we evolved a propensity for romantic love to create families. So that it’s not just the mother taking care of the child, but a father as well.” Mothers have this natural need to take care of children. The child comes from the mother, has to breastfeed with the mother. Fathers are less inherently attached to the child. And so, there is a theory that males evolved this propensity to fall in love so that they would stick with their partners.
Question: Are there drawbacks to romantic love?
Ted Fischer: An evolutionary biologist would say, “Yeah, we have this propensity that’s evolved that creates all of these positive side effects for us socially,” creating for example. But sometimes those propensities can go out of control. We seem to have a propensity to eat fatty foods, for example, and yet in the society in which we live that’s not so adaptive as it was 10,000 years ago, we should have eaten fat every chance we got. And now we have to sort of fight against ourselves and resist all of that fat. And so it doesn’t necessarily -- it’s not necessarily a contradiction that we could have evolved -- I keep saying propensity, we could have evolved a propensity for romantic love, and yet it’s counter-adaptive some times, too.
But you do find suicides, for example, and that’s as about as dramatic as it gets. A number of cases in India, for example, of young men and young women in arranged marriages or going into arranged marriages and committing suicide rather than spend their life without their truly beloved.
Question: Is romantic heterosexual love the norm?
Ted Fischer: I can and actually let me go back a little bit first and say that romantic love doesn’t have to be between a man and a woman. The evolutionary theory predicts that’s what makes sense. It just sort of fits neatly. But there’s not inherent reason that a man has to fall in love with a woman, and a woman with a man. The same processes of falling in love we find between gay couples and straight couples, and bisexuals across the board. So that’s important to point out. And then along those same lines as you’re saying romantic love varies enormously across cultures. What we imagine as romantic love probably developed in French courts in the 17th and 18th centuries. And this notion of that’s wrapped in love poetry, and sort of the French courtly troubadours and, “I would do anything for my beloved.” Most cultures around the world that’s very foreign. Love is much more pragmatic in many cultures around the world including romantic love. It is a necessity that we live together. It’s a necessity that we form a family. It’s a necessity that we do all of these things. So it’s often much more pragmatic. In most cultures around the world marriages are arranged. And we think of love and marriage -- what’s the Frank Sinatra song? Love and Marriage go together like a horse and carriage. We think of that as being natural. And yet in most societies around the world marriage is arranged, and for very good reasons. The arrangers would say, “My kids don’t know who to marry. They’re too young. They’re being guided by their hormones right now. But we older generation can see what the best match for our children would be.”
And in those cases we can find romantic love evolving after marriage very often. We also find in those case people, young people, who resist their parents arranged marriages, and really follow their heart as we say. And so, the study that we did several years back looked at romantic love cross culturally. The hypothesis of many of our colleagues in anthropology is that romantic love is confined to Europe and to the United States, and to those cultures that have been influenced by us. And in other cultures we find arranged marriages. We find a much more pragmatic approach, and that really isn’t romantic love. But we found that even in cultures with very strict arranged marriage norms, for example, we would find elopements, we would find suicides over unrequited love, we would find love poetry. So even in these cultures with very clear models of how people should pair up, there’s evidence of romantic -- what we would see as romantic love.
Question: How does Western culture influence our notions of love?
Ted Fischer: And I would actually say in our own culture probably our manifestations of love are informed by Romeo and Juliet, and the latest movies we’ve seen at the Cineplex, and love poetry, and so forth. And culture does, even if there’s a biological basis for love, and there seems to be lots of good evidence that there is something electrochemical going on in the brain. Some of these same chemical compounds are found in chocolate and thus we have this folklore about chocolate being the food of love. We can do MRIs and see particular neural networks firing. All of that can still be going on, but it’s important not to confuse a correlation of this brain biology with causation that’s making us fall in love. Our culture, the way we’re raised, our upbringing, our cultural surroundings, all of this is what makes us fall in love in particular kinds of ways. The expectations of love. What do you do on Valentine’s Day? We learn that you’re supposed to give chocolate and that you’re supposed to give roses. We learn all of these things. And this is an interesting aside we can also learn not to love. I mean, children who were brought in especially dysfunctional families often never form romantic bonds, and that’s the tragic other side of this.
Question: How do expressions of romantic love differ elsewhere?
Ted Fischer: One of the most fascinating among the Tiburon Islanders, young males will pluck the eyebrows of their paramours or their beloveds. And this it recalls in some ways, and I don’t want to compare them to apes, but it does recall grooming in some ways. And grooming in chimpanzees and gorillas is a powerful way of creating a relationship between two people. But I love the plucking the eyebrows.
Question: Where is homosexuality completely accepted?
Ted Fischer: How love is manifested varies greatly from culture to culture. And we, I think, often think of our way as the only way, or the best way, or the natural way, and yet it’s not. And this is really the power of anthropology is showing us we naturally think the way we do things is best very often. And looking around the world and saying, “Oh, among the Sambia in New Guinea they form homosexual bonds between men and also have husbands and wives.” That’s a different way of configuring families. A different way of configuring love. And it opens up the range of possibility for us to reconsider the way in which we do things. And it doesn’t mean we have to adopt somebody else’s pattern, but just knowing that we construct this world in which we live, and if we want to we can change it.
There are few notable cases around the world. Among Plains Indians before contact and even shortly after contact, there was a recognized; sometimes it’s called a third gender. So men who would feel like they are truly women, and they would dress as women, and the they would take male husbands, and very much a pattern of romantic love, falling in love, marrying, not having children, of course but still living as husband and wife. So that’s one pattern that we find in a few cultures around the world. More often, interestingly, of men feeling that they should be women. A few cases that we find of women feeling that they should be men and dressing as men, but that seems to be more transgressive for cultures in some way. So that’s one pattern.
Question: Are women sexually shunned in any cultures?
Ted Fischer: Another pattern that we find, especially, in New Guinea and in the Amazon region are men forming very strong bonds between themselves, and sometimes this is sexual as well as platonic. And in these cultures a very deep suspicion of women. Women is seen polluting, as dangerous, as someone who would suck a man’s life blood out of them, and so in these cultures there’s still heterosexual bonds, and heterosexual relationships and that’s the norm. And yet it’s seen as dangerous. And men feel more comfortable in the men’s house where only men can go. And for example, among the Sambia of New Guinea that involves -- it involves sexual relations. So young boys are taught about sex by having oral sex with older men. And very -- and sometimes -- and then they’re expected then to go through this progression of having sexual relations with older men, then having sexual relationships with younger men, and then becoming heterosexual, choosing a wife and living with that wife and having children. Very often it’s hard for these men to make that transition to heterosexuality because women are scary, and they don’t want to be too polluted by women. So that’s interesting for this notion that heterosexually is natural. It probably is. I mean, most of the Sambia don’t want to continue with these homosexual relations for the rest of their lives. Some of them do and resist pairing up with a woman. But even for the ones who want to be with women, it’s a hard transition because they’ve learned a different kind of sex.
But those are the exceptions around the world. In most cultures around the world heterosexuality is the norm, and not only the norm, but the, you know, the very clearly the norm that other sorts of love are looked down upon. But this changes over time. I mean, there were -- we can talk about ancient Rome. We could also talk about times in the United States or in western European history where homosexuality wasn’t accepted but it also was, it was kind of a screaming secret. There were, you know, spinsters who lived together, or men who liked men, and you wouldn’t talk about it in polite company, but it was one of those things we know it goes on and we just won’t talk about it. So we’ve seen homosexuality even in cultures such as our own that have and even in the very recent past had strong prohibitions against homosexual love. Evolutionarily we would expect, and then if there is an evolutionary basis for it, we would expect that it would have evolved to promote male/female bonding. It just makes evolutionary sense. But it doesn’t mean, I mean, the beauty of humans is we’ve evolved these huge brains so that we’re not slaves to our biology any more. We’re not automatons. We, again, we create our forms of love. We make love. If we can use that as a phrase. And so we can make love in different sorts of ways.
Question: What happens over time to a relationship?
Ted Fischer: I hope my wife doesn’t see this, but I -- there is some sort of chemistry with other individuals, of course, but again, I think, it’s not something fate puts upon us. We create that. We may be at a certain point in our lives where we really want to fall in love even if we don’t consciously realize that. There are certainly fits that are better than others and some people like to partner with people who they fight with. Some people like to partner with people who they never fight with. There are all sorts of variations. So I think there are better fits than others. And sometimes people fall in love at first sight and marry, and make it work, and it works wonderfully. But I don’t think it has to be that way. I think that we can, again going back to this notion of that we make love, we make what we consider to be love as a society, but also as individuals, and we can make it work. And in fact, I would say, I don’t know, I’m sort of going out on a limb here, but I would say that sort of the high divorce rate now and the transients of marriage or not even of marriage, long-term partnerships is partly due to where overly romantic notions of what love should be like. Yeah, there are these moments of euphoria and hopefully they last longer than not. But love is also really hard work. It’s compromising. It is creating this life together with another person.
Question: What do we look for in a mate?
Ted Fischer: Men it is argued tend to like younger women, tend to like particular figures, like large hips, because they’re good for childbearing, and large breasts that are good for breastfeeding. And women tend to like strong, masculine, big-shouldered men, who can take care of their child and them. And there may be some truth to that kind of thing. I think it’s too neat of a system. There are lots of popular books written that way. Lots of -- when I teach undergraduates, they love those socio-biological notions, because it’s just a nice neat little system. But I think it’s too neat. I think that -- and it varies from culture to culture. At different points in our own culture we’ve put on a pedestal more corpulent women. And Andean cultures, for example, the perfect body style for a woman is not the hourglass figure, but more a squat square figure. So it’s too easy for us to extrapolate from current cultural norms and the say this is some sort of evolutionary propensity. There do seem to be more pairings of older wealthy men and younger women, which evolutionary theory would lead us to believe. But you also, I’m always struck by newspaper reports of older women going out with younger men, and you see more and more that these days. And that’s not at all what evolution would have us think.
Question: Is there a seven-year itch?
Ted Fischer: On the one hand, we could say again from an evolutionary perspective it makes sense for women to want to remain committed to one partner or a small number of partners, and for men to have as many partners as they can. Because women are limited in many ways in how many children they can have. And if our biology is telling us we have to reproduce, that that’s our purpose here on Earth, we have to reproduce and have a successful as children as possible. Women only have a period of, maybe 30, 40 years in which they can have children, and then you have nine-month gestation period, and then you have several months after which most women are infertile after they give birth. And so, women can only have so many children in their life times. So mathematically, if we looked at this mathematically, it makes sense for women to try and keep a pair bond going. And then for men, to keep a solid pair bond and then to have other relationships on the side. It’s sort of an insurance plan, a backup plan. And some would say that men have an infidelity gene. That we are biologically conditioned to cheat. And again, I would say whether that’s true or not, and we really can’t say culture is powerful enough to overcome those things. And in either direction it’s powerful enough that, you know, many men, I don’t know if most, I really don’t know the statistics on this, but many men are faithful to their partners. And so, we can overcome any sort of biological imperative that we have not to. On the other hand, there have also been times and places where people don't look askance at having extramarital affairs, and as long as you’re a good husband, and you provide for your family, and you know, you sleep around a little bit, or you have a mistress, or whatever it may be. And not even, you know, look at France today, it’s much more acceptable for a French politician to keep a mistress than for an American.
Question: Have Internet dating sites like Match.com and eHarmony.com Killed Cupid?
Ted Fischer: I’ve have thought about this. And I think it’s -- on the one hand I think that those sorts of sites try to come up with a neat mechanical formula for romantic love that very often doesn’t hold up, despite their advertisements claiming so many marriages from some these match sites. On the other hand, if we create love, and if we think, “Okay, I generally like people like this,” and I have, you know, the sort of social life, or sort of job where I don’t into the kind of people I like, it could be a great way to meet people. So there’s no reason why it couldn’t work. I generally like people who like to go to movies, or go to the theater, or like certain kinds of sporting events, and so I want a partner like that. And so, match sites make lots of sense that way. On the other hand, we can fetishsize the match. Right? We can say, “If I can just tick of all of these boxes then that’s going to be the partner I like.” And that’s setting us up for fall, because it’s still a lot of work. Again, we have to make this relationship work. It’s not as if I find the partner who has all of these traits I’m looking for and ta-da, we’re going to, you know, violins will rise in the background and we’re going to live happily ever after. So I think there’s a danger there as well. And just personally when those sites first came up, I always used to joke with friends and say, you know, “Wouldn’t you hate to have to tell people when you go around and say, ‘how did you meet?,’” “Well, you know, we met on a dating site.” And now I don’t feel that way anymore. I think, you know, why not. It’s a perfectly acceptable way of meeting other people. And so, maybe some of us old-fashioned folks did or still would fetishsize the other kind of running into somebody on the street or at a bar, or being introduced by friends. And yeah, so there’s not single formula.
So I was reading something recently about there’s a phenomenon in Japan of young men who take as their girlfriends these inflatable dolls. And they’re not really sex dolls. They’re more elaborate than that in that they -- although they do have sex with them, I think. And they will take them to dates to restaurants. And so it makes one think or can one have a romantic relationship with a nonhuman, with a piece of technology, or a piece of plastic? And I think so. I think the answer would be yes. But it’s an interesting question. Does love have to be reciprocal to be love? And I think we can create love in our own minds in a way that can probably be rewarding; although, many of us who are involved in relationships with real live people might not clearly see how.
Question: What has Second Life done to the idea of love?
Ted Fischer: Second life is a wonderful example. I’ve read statistics that, you know, the extramarital sex on Second Life is just rampant. So it’s an easy outlet for people to pursue these things. But they seem to be real as well. I mean, people have real emotions invested in this. It’s not as if it’s just a game. And so, I think that technology will probably keep changing the way in which we envision love in that sense.
Question: Does love play a role in our economic decisions?
Ted Fischer: I think love does play an important role in our economic behavior. And it’s something that we don’t allow. I think that the dominant model of human behavior is based these days, is based on economic behavior that we’re relational, that we’re self-interested, and we’re never surprised by self-interest, or selfishness. If we read a headline of an executive that fudged the books and took a big payout, we’re not that surprised. We may be disappointed, but we’re not that surprised. And it’s because we have this notion that in economics and in all aspects of our lives we’re looking out for number one. We’re selfish, rational actors. And yet, love is opposite of self-interest. It’s the exact opposite. And so how -- and yet, none of say that love isn’t important in our lives either. So how then can we incorporate a consideration of love, of concern for others, into our economic behavior? And I think that this is really important. And in fact, we’re seeing now a lot of this neurological research in this evolutionary biological research that is said we’re self-interested, and even love is a way of promoting our reproductive success. We’re seeing now that maybe empathy is also as deeply ingrained as self-interest, and that compassion, and these would have real evolutionary advantages as well. Again, think of, you know, naked humans on two legs, who can’t run very fast living out in the African Savannah 10,000 years ago. We needed to bond together, and not just men, and women, and babies, but groups of people. And so, maybe empathy is as deeply ingrained in our evolutionary history as self-interest is. And in fact, we can see this in -- there are mirror neurons in our brains, and so when we look at another person’s face there are empathy neural networks that get activated, that are very, very important. And so, this means that we are connecting with another person, and we feel for that other person. Adam Smith, is often considered to be the patron saint of economics, and his invisible hand that we looking out for our self-interest we unwittingly pursue the interest of everyone. But what we forget very often is that Smith was also concerned with other interests. Sympathy, the way in which we treat other people, and he very explicably said that we gain satisfaction from seeing other people be satisfied as well, be happy. And we sometimes forget this in our economic equations.
Question: How does compassion relate to consumption?
Ted Fischer: Well actually, I think, we can see it manifesting itself today in consumer behavior. Some of the fastest growing areas in the retail trade these days are in fair trade products, for example, fair trade coffee. You go to the coffee shop, are you willing to pay an extra quarter for this cup of coffee that is fair trade? Now why is that? Now might say you just want to show your status and, “I’ve got plenty of money. I’ll just buy the fair trade coffee.” But I think there’s something deeper there. Very often in these same coffee shops there will be photos up of the people who are harvesting this coffee, be it in Colombia, or Hawaii, or New Guinea. And so, I think that people want to feel a connection with those who are making the coffee, and feel like they’re really helping improve their lives as well. And I would say that’s a form of love. Not romantic love, but it is a form of love. And we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is. Put our money where are feelings are very often in doing that, buying fair trade coffee, buying ecologically conscientious products, which is another really huge growth area these days. So I think we do a lot of this. I think we express love through economic transactions. You can even say that when you go shopping for your family at the grocery store that’s a form of love as well. We tend to diminish love in economics from both directions, both the power of love and economic decisions, but also when we use economics to pursue love. Are you just buying love? But I think when we a gift for someone it’s more than just the economic transaction. There’s really a part of ourselves in that. And not just a gift, cereal for breakfast the next day. It’s a way of expressing love economically.
Question: Is love a selfish act?
Ted Fischer: love is the opposite of self-interest. Love is also not rational. And so, if we think of humans as being rationally self-interested actors, love complicates that, both because it’s the opposite of self-interest and because we’re not rational when we fall in love. And I think that this has big implications for economic and public policy. If we can say, how can we create a society, -- well how about this, so France these days is looking at ways of changing the way they measure economic success. Do we do it by GNP? To the sum of all of our economic transactions, or can we come up with a measure of fulfillment? Can we come up with a measurement that better captures, are people happy? And not happy in this kind of giddy, shallow way, but deeply fulfilled I their lives. And that doesn’t always mean increasing GNP. In fact, sometimes it could be decreasing GNP in some ways. And I think if we introduce love into these economic equations, not just in our consumer decisions, but in public policy as well, it opens up a whole new range of the way in which can conceive of the society in which we live. And I think we see now more than ever after these economic crisis that markets are not natural things. It’s not like a river or it’s not some natural physical force that we’ve discovered. We create markets. Markets are contrivances. And if we realize that it means that we can create the in different ways. We can have them serve our own self-interest. Maybe our self-interest is not working more hours per week, but having more leisure time with our family. Maybe our self-interest is not having 10,000 more square feet of house, but living close to our friends and neighbors, so that we can have more social interaction. And looking at love in those equations really changes things.