LRN founder Michael Gratzke was interviewed for this article which appeared on WIRED shortly after (!) Valentine’s Day:
In the 1960s, a young social psychologist called Arthur Aron was looking for the right area to focus his research on – at the time, the norm in social psychology was to look for something which hadn’t been studied before. Then he fell in love. Soon, he was carrying out experimental studies using university students, and brain scans on people who were in love, falling out of love and recently divorced.
Even if you don’t know Aron’s name, you’re probably familiar his 36 Questions. A set of questions that become increasingly personal as you work through with your partner. In the original 1997 study, two of the lab technicians who did the experiment eventually got married.
“People thought it couldn’t be done,” says Aron, who is now a researcher at Stonybrook University in New York. “Two of the original researchers, some of the first ones, got in huge trouble in the US – because people just didn’t believe it could be studied scientifically. One of the things which helped was some of our first studies, showing the effects in the brain – people see it in the brain, and they think, ‘Oh, love is real!’.”
Throughout history, poets, writers, and artists have tried to piece together what love could be. But it’s only in the last 50 years that we’ve made real scientific progress towards understanding the processes in our brain that give us that giddy feeling. But then along came online match-making platforms, dating apps, and social media – and people were quick to jump to the most dramatic conclusions about how this impacted arguably the most intimate parts of our lives. The problem? There remains little research to say that this is the case.
One problem in social scientific research is the availability of participants – so a lot of research on inter-personal relationships and closeness, particularly decades ago, was carried out with university students. Researchers looking at how to create a close relationship, for example, may carry out experimental studies. “Experiments are the best,” says Aron. “The problem is that even if you bring in people who are already close, they have all these different histories. That’s why we did the 36 questions, because you give two people an activity to do to get close, and then you get people to do a small talk activity for the same amount of time, and you can measure their hormones or their attitudes.”
Other methods include field experiments, surveys, brain scans and representative national surveys. One of the problems is that this kind of research often uses data from people who are easily available, such as university students, or even anecdotal, small group samples. But with the advent of digital surveys, researchers have been able to cast their nets further afield.
“Technology has actually given us new tools to study love. It’s helped us do very rigorous research, and get consistent results across studies which are replicable, on topics which really matter, both practically and theoretically,” says Aron.
Huge amounts of data have helped, too. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, was one of the first to publish research into the processes behind love – how dopamine courses through your brain, which parts light up. Now, her role as chief scientific officer at Match.com has put her in contact with huge amounts of data from all around the US. In turn, that’s helped her chart trends and sift through the sensationalism around love and technology.
“I create these questionnaires, around 200 questions, along with my colleagues,” says Fisher. “We farm it out to groups that collect data, from around the US, and we collect information on a nationally representative group of over 5,000 people. And then you’re just swimming in this data.” Fisher and her colleagues have been doing this for around seven years.
“From my research, it seems like there’s this massive misunderstanding, even if it’s not necessarily a generational gap. I think nowadays, singles don’t have the time or the money – they want to work and they’re ambitious, and they want to be stable before they settle down – so there’s kind of slow love, and much more caution,” says Fisher. Biological anthropologists, like Fisher, argue that the desire to love is a survival mechanism, one which won’t be trampled over so easily by new technology. Others, such as sociologists and critical theorists, also argue that young people now aren’t so taken in by the traditional ideas of marriage, or even a cultural emphasis on romantic love.
“It’s fascinating – people who are now in their late teens, early twenties – they do take love and relationships seriously,” says Michael Gratzke, a professor of literature at Hull University, who has helped pioneer the field of critical love studies. “But they tend to criticise how romantic love is emphasised in society, and they’re more comfortable, I think, with complicated relationships and patterns of love.”
Gratzke emphasises the value of having various perspectives or voices included in a conversation. “Love is so complex that you need experts from all kinds of fields,” says Gratzke, “What’s important in critical love studies is that it focuses on the experiences of actual people.” The proliferation of dating apps, as well as liberalising attitudes to sexuality, has also meant that marginalised communities have new ways to form connections. “A lot of the research into how technology has changed relationships is really only starting to be understood,” says Gratzke. “But we do know that if it’s hard for you to go out to a local gay bar, or if you live in a rural setting, then these technologies can make those relationships, those connections, more available.”
When VCRs came into existence in the 1980s, many speculated that it would kill intimacy, because pornography would become available at home. Even when the printing press was invented, the worry was that it would cause information overload. “Before the first academic articles about Tinder were published, influential media pieces, such as the one by Nancy Jo Sales in Vanity Fair,framed the topic in a very negative way,” says Christoph Lutz, who researches mobile dating at the Nordic Centre for Internet and Society. ”Subsequent research found that the actual practices are much more nuanced and less concerning.” When there’s new technology, people tend to wonder whether it will kill something, or cause a big collapse. But we probably just haven’t figured out how to use it best, and more research on the area will illuminate the way.
“What you get quite a lot is this notion that love has somehow changed a lot recently,” says Gratzke. “If you take literature, where they’re describing a world of landed gentry, and every single person in the room knows the backstory of everybody else, and then they’re ranked, and in a sense, they swipe left and right. We have very great anxieties around romantic love, but we need to have a closer look.”
Want to know more about the future of love and relationships?
This article is part of our in-depth series investigating how technology is changing love, sex and relationships.
From keeping an intimate secret from the internet to the battle to destroy super gonorrhoea, we’ll explore the technologies and ideas changing how we all live and love – for better or worse.