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Who's in the Video
Edward (Ted) Fischer is the Director of Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University. Fischer studies cultural anthropology, specializing in matters of economics and moralities. Most of his fieldwork has been[…]

How lovers show affection differs from one culture to another. And even the notion of romantic love itself is not confined to a man and a woman.

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.