In prehistoric times, humans would sit around the campfire and gossip about who in their tribe was in love. Instead, we watch reality television today, says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who studies romantic love.
No show encapsulates that age-old obsession with watching romance bloom and fade more than The Bachelor, the reality TV dating show in which dozens of women compete to win a proposal from one man.
Most people think of The Bachelor as mindless entertainment. But are there scientific explanations for how the contestants act? I spoke with Fisher, a researcher at the Kinsey Institute and the author of the recently revised and republished book Anatomy of Love, about falling in love under pressure, the fear of rejection, and America's cultural obsession with romantic love.
Fisher hasn't been watching this season of The Bachelor in the United States, but she is familiar with the show and an expert on the surging emotions that power it. While she doesn't have a lot of time to watch television, she says that she actually likes reality TV. "I mean I'm an anthropologist, it's fascinating to see real people -- semi-real people -- scrambling for love, and fame."
This interview has been edited for length.
Q. Many of the contestants on The Bachelor say they've fallen in love after such a short time -- just a few dates together. Obviously some people are just playing to the camera, but others actually seem to be telling the truth. Can people really fall in love that fast?
A. I don't think they're lying to you. The brain system of romantic love is like the fear system -- it can be triggered at any time. You can be scared in a second, and you can fall in love in a second. And I think that reality TV even heightens the probability of that, because any kind of novelty drives up the dopamine system in the brain, which is what becomes activated when you fall madly in love. You're in a situation in which the whole world is watching you -- it's very novel, it's very exciting.
In fact, love at first sight really comes out of nature. You can see signs of that attraction in all kinds of animals. All of a sudden, a moose will find a female who is in estrus, in heat, and boom, he's courting like mad. Or take a squirrel in the middle of mating season. She's hopping along and sees a male with a nice bushy tail and nice whiskers, and boom, that attraction system can be triggered instantly. She doesn't have three months to talk about college plans. She's got to get with the program of mating instantly. And this brain system has evolved to enable her to focus instantly on a particular individual and start the mating process with glee, energy, focus, and motivation.
Q. So these are very basic and ancient brain systems, that govern romantic attraction?
A. The basic brain circuitry for romantic love lies way below the cortex with which we do our thinking, way below the limbic system with which we do our feeling, although they're all connected. It lies in brain systems linked with drive, focus, motivation, energy, optimism. In fact, one of the main factories that makes dopamine and starts the whole system of romantic love lies way down in the base of the brain, next to brain regions that orchestrate thirst and hunger. This animal attraction, what we call romantic love, can be triggered instantly. And it's most likely to be triggered under experiences of novelty and excitement.
Q. You have said before that romantic love isn't really an emotion, it's a drive -- like the compulsion you feel reaching for a piece of chocolate or pursuing a promotion at work.
A. It is a drive. There are emotions and cognitive thinking processes involved, but the brain system that becomes activated in all of us when we fall in love is a drive system. And it's very powerful. The amount of clinical depression, suicide, homicide, and crimes of passion that are triggered by being rejected in love are tremendous around the world.
Q. Even more than love, The Bachelor is about rejection, since every candidate except one is rejected. What role does rejection play in forming relationships? Can the fear of rejection really result in romantic love?
A. With rejection, we know what happens in the brain. We put 15 people into a brain scanner who had just been dumped, and we found activity in the basic brain region for romantic love. When you've been rejected, you still love the person. Romantic love, in fact, can become even stronger. The opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is indifference.
On The Bachelor, these people haven't really had much of a relationship with this man before they get rejected. So they might not be suffering from romantic rejection. But they could be suffering from social rejection, which triggers many of the same brain systems of wanting, craving, obsessive thinking and despair. We're a social animal, and any kind of rejection is painful for the human being. Not only that, but the whole world is watching them get dumped. So there's a sense of embarrassment, probably.
But a lot of these people may have gotten what they wanted, which is to be on television.
Q. The Bachelor has this extreme gender imbalance, where dozens of women are competing for one man, or dozens of men compete for one woman. Is there any research that shows how competition for a mate makes them more desirable?
A. There is some data on that. The hypothesis is that when a human sees that somebody else likes what you've got, you suddenly look at that thing a lot harder. Women have always been in competition with each other, I don't understand why Americans don't see that [laughs]. We do want to have sisterhood, and throughout the animal world there are sisterhoods. There are families of female elephants who stick together, or families of female baboons who have a matriline, so sisterhood is certainly a force in the brain.
But when it comes to courtship, you're fighting to win life's greatest prize, which is a mating partner. Bottom line, if you have four children, and I have none, you live on, and I die out. So the game of love matters. And women, just like men, will be inclined to overlook brotherhood or a sisterhood to win the mating game. So when they see the competition, my guess is it heightens their drive to win.
Q. The Bachelor this season in the United States, Ben Higgins, is at the center of some controversy for telling two women that he loves them. What does research say about loving more than one person at the same time? Is it possible?
A. The answer is yes and no. In the very beginning, you can feel tinglings of romantic love for more than one person. Then as time goes by, things happen, people say things that are stupid or rude, or they say things that are funny and kind, and we move toward one rather than the other. So he was probably not lying; he probably did feel the very beginning of romantic love for both of them. But as time goes by, his brain will begin to focus on one of those two. Because that's a basic characteristic of full- blown romantic love, it's focused on one individual.
Q. Why do you think so many Americans are fascinated with The Bachelor? I know you've talked about how romantic love is becoming the core of our lives, in ways that it wasn't a few generations ago. Do we have a cultural obsession with romantic love?
A. There is a cultural obsession with romantic love, no question about it. We've evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction: the sex drive, feelings of intense romantic love, and feelings of deep attachment. In America, I think we're scared of the sex drive. I think we glorify romantic love, and we don't pay enough attention to that profound feeling of attachment.
There are a lot of cultures around the world that were historically terrified of romantic love. They regarded it as a scary and mercurial force that could topple family relationships. A lot of cultures traditionally had arranged marriages, so if you fell in love and you ran away with that person and the arranged marriage didn't happen, the consequences were bad for your whole family. Look at "Romeo and Juliet." It's a story of disaster. When you read poetry from around the world, there is a lot of disaster when it comes to romantic love.
And romantic love is an addiction, we're trying to prove that. We've found that the brain regions linked with cocaine and heroin become activated when you're in love. It's a perfectly wonderful addiction when it's going well, and a perfectly horrible addiction when it's going horribly.
I do think Americans are in love with romantic love. We regularly see only the positive aspects of it, although all around us is evidence of the negativity.
Q. Has that focus on romantic love changed what people look for in a partner?
A. I work with Match.com, the dating service, and we do annual study called Singles in America. When we ask people what they're looking for in a partner, the very first thing they say is 'Someone who I love.' They want somebody who respects them, somebody they can trust and confide in, somebody who makes them laugh, and somebody who they find physically attractive. I don't think 100 years ago people would have made that list. They would have said a respectable man who has my religious beliefs, who can support me and my children.
What's really amazing is that we're willing to divorce even if we're not madly in love. A couple years ago, I asked a question, 'Would you leave a satisfactory marriage if you were not still madly in love?' And something like 33 percent of people said, 'yes.' Now, that's staggering to me! Because 100 years ago if you were in a satisfactory marriage, you were probably lucky. Nobody was going to leave a satisfactory marriage. We want it all now, and actually I think we can probably get it.
Q. Where do you think all of this is heading? You have a theory about why more Americans are involved with "fast sex" and "slow love" - explain that.
A. So with Match, I do this annual study, and every year there are some trend questions. I ask the question, 'Have you ever had a one night stand?' Every year, over 50 percent of people say yes. Then I ask, 'Have you ever had a 'friends with benefits' relationship?' And over 50 percent of people say yes also. And then I ask, 'Have you ever lived with someone long-term before marrying?' And over 50 percent of Americans say yes.
Americans think that all of this fast sex is very reckless, and I had assumed it was reckless too. Then I read a statistic that said that 67 percent of people today in America who are living together with somebody long term have not yet decided to marry a person because they're terrified of divorce. They're terrified of the economic, psychological, personal, social, and financial fallout of divorce. And it suddenly occurred to me, all of this fast sex is not reckless. I think it's caution.
We're now in an age where a person wants to know everything they can about a partner before they tie the knot. What we're seeing now is a very long drawn out courtship phase, and that leaves a lot of time for bad relationships to end. I call it "fast sex, slow love." You get to know a lot about a human being between the sheets, but you don't move straight to the marriage aisle. I think we might be heading into an era of happy marriages because bad relationships can end before you tie the knot.
Q. As an anthropologist, do you think that reality TV plays the same cultural role today that myths, legends or songs played in earlier times?
A. I'm glad you brought that up. This past year, I wanted to know why people watch reality TV, and I asked that question in the Match.com survey. The majority of people checked the box saying that it's just entertainment. Which did surprise me, because I don't think it's just entertainment, knowing what I know about the brain. My hypothesis has always been that people watch these shows to get ideas about their own sex lives, and to share and talk about love relationships with their friends.
You know, for millions of years, we weren't watching 'The Bachelor.' But we were watching somebody putting the moves on our sister across the firelight. And then we would talk with our girlfriends about it. You and I cannot talk about the girl next door, because we don't know the same girl next door, but we both know about 'The Bachelor,' so we can connect on a very local level. Television is sort of the global campfire, we sit around it and respond to it.