Southerly by David Haywood

41

The Science Behind The Three Most Important Words In The English Language

This is a transcript of an episode of Public Address Science which was originally broadcast on Radio Live, 19th May 2007, 2 pm - 3 pm.

You can listen to the original audio version of the programme by clicking on the 'Play the audio for this post' link at the top of this page or the 'Audio' button at the bottom of this page.


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Theme music...

Background:

[FX: People saying the phrase 'I love you' in Dutch, Hebrew, Japanese, Bulgarian, and English.]

Voiceover:

It doesn't matter where you live in the world or what language you speak, that is the message that everyone wants to hear. Love is one of the most powerful emotions in human experience. But, from a scientific perspective, why is love so important -- and can we make any scientific predictions about its eventual outcome?

To answer these questions, I visited Professor Garth Fletcher, a research psychologist at the University of Canterbury. I began the interview by describing his 'intimate relations' laboratory.

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Interviewer:

It's basically a room that's wired up so that Prof Fletcher can observe people interacting. I can see a one-way mirror on one side of me, and at least one camera -- am I missing any...?

Prof Garth Fletcher:

Three...

Interviewer:

... there's three cameras here, and presumably microphones hidden all around the place as well?

Prof Garth Fletcher:

Yes...

Interviewer:

When you have people in here interacting, how do you measure or observe the way that they're behaving?

Prof Garth Fletcher:

That's a good question.

We're interested in behaviour, and we're interested in how people think, and we're interested in how people feel. Our aim is to try and understand how those three domains contribute and work together -- specifically in terms of dyadic or couple interactions.

So we do a lot of research where we bring people who are dating, or bring people who are married (in some cases) here , and we might get them to do a variety of tasks. Frequently we'll get them to have discussions with each other, and usually we will have video recording of their behaviour -- we'll have close-ups of their faces, [and so on].

One of the things we've done in the past (in several studies) is develop a procedure where -- once people have had a ten minute discussion -- we take identical video copies of that, and then we separate up the couples.

So we keep one person in this lab; we put the other one in the other lab (and, of course, these labs are soundproof); and then we get them to review the tapes, and get them to report what they were thinking and feeling. Provided you do it straight away it seems like quite a powerful mnemonic, and it's surprising what people can remember.



Interviewer:

One of the things that you have studied -- which I find quite fascinating -- is the role that evolutionary selection plays in partner choice, in terms of attractiveness. I guess we're all familiar with this from the animal kingdom, where the parrot with the brightest feathers... or, I don't know, the lion with the biggest mane attracts a partner. [Presumably] this also happens in human relationships?

Prof Garth Fletcher:

Well, yes, indeed. There is the equivalent of the lion's mane, and the feathers on the bird, and the redness of the band on the woodpecker's leg in humans. And, in terms of humans, we have a pretty good handle actually on what people are looking for.

Basically, I always think they come down to the 'big three'. The first of the big three -- and this is numero uno, and you find this across cultures -- is that people are looking for a partner who's kind and trustworthy and warm and loyal.

Now, that's obvious, but nevertheless you still have to do the research. You still have to find out -- okay -- that might be a stereotype, that may be a first guess, but is it true? Well, the general answer is that it's true, and that it's true for both men and women.

The next one down the list, which is not quite as important, but pretty important, is attractiveness and being healthy. Being attractive, being fit, those kind of factors. And again you see this around the world. But we do find a characteristic gender difference there, and that is very much in accordance with the stereotypes -- which is that for men attractiveness is more important than for women.

The third one is finding someone who has status and resources, or who has the

potential -- ambitiousness and so forth -- to get resources and to attain status. And here you find a sex difference, but it's in exactly the opposite way. Here women rate it as more important than men, so it's the mirror image of attractiveness.

Interviewer:

Well, that's an interesting question: which is the more shallow sex, in that case. Is it better to look for physical attractiveness or affluence?

Prof Garth Fletcher:

Well, you know, the question is really: why? Evolutionary psychology has, I think, the most plausible and parsimonious explanation for this pattern.

It's all to do with something called parental investment. Humans are a bonding species, we live together over many long years, and both male and female help raise the children. Only about three per cent of mammals [bond] like this. In every single [case] -- every single one -- the male will help to raise the offspring by guarding the nest, or bringing food, or helping out in some fashion to support the mate and help raise the young.

But even in humans it's still a little asymmetrical -- because the female still invests somewhat more. The male can use that strategy of trying to impregnate as many females as possible, [but] for the female that strategy is closed off, because the woman is only capable of producing so many children. Plus the energy requirements of pregnancy, and so forth, are greater. So the woman normally invests to a greater degree than the man does.

Therefore you would expect women to be perhaps a little choosier, but also to be focussed on slightly different things than the male. The main carrier of good genes is probably attractiveness, [and] the male is particularly interested in that feature.

The woman is a bit more interested in those features

of the partner that are going to help her to provide for the children, and help to provide for her, and help to raise the family. So the female will be more interested in status and resources -- things that will contribute to the raising of the family.

Interviewer:

When you talked about the main drivers that people are looking for in terms of partner selection... in some cases looking for a warm, kind person, and a successful person, might not necessarily be compatible -- they might be contradictory. How do people make a trade-off between the three main different aims in this case?

Prof Garth Fletcher:

Well, that's a very good question, and we've actually studied this in part -- as have other people. We published a study one or two years ago, where we looked specifically at the trade-offs that men and women will make.

What we found, interestingly, was that there were gender differences. So that, for example, a woman will be quite likely to trade-off someone who has got high status and resources against not looking that great...

Interviewer:

Thank goodness for that...

Prof Garth Fletcher:

Hmmm, right...

Men are likely to trade-off the other way around. They're more likely to trade-off someone who -- if they haven't got very much in the way of status and resources, that's okay -- as long as they've got something else to bring to the table. And oftentimes that's being pretty attractive.

People will even trade-off to some extent on how intimate and loyal and kind a person is... although in a long term relationship the way people will see that is probably as a necessity rather than a luxury.

Interviewer:

Turning to the application of evolutionary theories -- is there a way to apply it to relationships... to

help people solve their relationship problems, or identify where their relationships might be going wrong?

Prof Garth Fletcher:

Many years of research have shown us what the predictors of relationship success are in western cultures. [The] two main predictors are communication and interaction -- and the second biggest predictor is really people's attitudes to each other, and their attitudes to the relationship.

But, basically, if we get couples in here and look at their behaviour we can probably predict what's going to happen down the track about 80 to 90 per cent of the time -- we'll know whether they'll be together in another three years, five years, ten years. It's not perfect, but it's not bad...

Interviewer:

It's extremely good...

Prof Garth Fletcher:

... we know how to do that -- it's not that difficult to do, actually, if you know what you're doing.

Interviewer:

I guess I have to ask -- is that an alarming piece of self-knowledge to have when it comes to your own relationships?

Prof Garth Fletcher:

Well, it's an interesting question... I don't know that I'll answer it directly. But intimate relationships, and sexual relationships, contain some of the most powerful emotions that we know of: grief, love, sexual jealousy. And I've experienced all three -- as many people have.

One of the main things those experiences taught me as a scientist, was that these emotions have very powerful motivating properties. They need to be taken very seriously -- they're worth scientific investigation.

When you understand something pretty well from a scientific angle, it doesn't do anything to prevent the emotions or cognitions or normal behaviours occurring. And you have completely normal relationships, which occur in precisely the same way as everybody else's does. Which is very fortunate...

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Voiceover:

Next week on Public Address Science: the equally emotion-provoking subject of biofuels.

Theme music...

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Further information on the science of intimate relationships:

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