Conformity: Standing up means standing out

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Image of Asch experiment from Simply Psychology

If everyone was jumping off a bridge, would you jump too? Social psychology research suggests you might. Social conformity is a powerful force. So much so that social psychologists generally endorse the idea that people like to stand out, but only in a good way. We want to be recognized for our unique, desirable qualities or achievements, but we don’t want to be caught wearing clothing that has gone out of style, or being ignorant of the latest cultural trends. We want to be seen as individuals, except in ways that would make us seem weird and different and…other. Unsurprisingly, this desire to fit in appears to drive conformity.

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Image from Age of the Sage

In the early 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted his famous conformity experiments. In his experimental paradigm, he had participants complete a line judgment task with several confederates, experimenters posing as naïve participants.1 In each judgment, one line was clearly the match for the comparison line, however, after a few correct judgments, the group of confederates starts to unanimously choose an incorrect answer.1 Even though about a quarter of the subjects still gave correct judgments every time, 76% of the sample was swayed by the incorrect majority at least once, with 27% of participants conforming on 8 to 12 out of 12 trials.1 The group of people who conform most or all of the time is slightly larger than the group that never conforms. Sadly, these holdouts seem to be behavioral outliers. The rest of us feel uncomfortable repeatedly sticking our social neck’s out.

Asch, like many social psychologists of his era, was influenced by the atrocities of World War II, and sought to explain how normal people could subscribe to an extremist movement, and how they could come to be so fearful of standing up to the mounting threat of genocide. The conformity experiments use a simple paradigm of no social importance. It asks participants to make a judgment that should be clear to anyone who can see. When participants are asked to make their own judgments by writing them down, they get the judgments right 100% of the time.1 But the desire to fit in with others is so strong that most people give in at least once when there’s a unanimous, vocal majority.

There are a whole lot of reasons why conformity is bad. One is that groupthink, a state in which groups exhibit certain characteristics in order to achieve consensus at all costs, is partially fostered by a silencing of dissenting opinions.2 And groupthink is pretty famous for leading to bad decision-making, like the choice to launch the Challenger space shuttle against expert advice.3 One person refusing to relent can go a long way to preventing groups from making decisions without considering the full extent of consequences. In the Asch experiments, for instance, having only 1 of the confederates disagree with the group answer dropped participant error rates by over 2/3rds.4 Seeing just one other person stand up to the crowd gives people the courage to do the same.

In a time when there is so much divisive rhetoric about which human beings “belong” in which places, and in which we sometimes bring harm to others in hopes that they will not harm us, conformity is a threat we must remain vigilant against. Whether we are scared to speak up when others move towards solutions that ignore our values, or we are silent while our fellow citizens are targeted, we are contributing to a culture of conformity. Remember that it only takes one person doing to the right thing to make other people do the same. That one person can be you.

  1. Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied70(9), 1.
  2. Esser, J. K. (1998). Alive and well after 25 years: A review of groupthink research. Organizational behavior and human decision processes73(2), 116-141.
  3. Esser, J. K., & Lindoerfer, J. S. (1989). Groupthink and the space shuttle Challenger accident: Toward a quantitative case analysis. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making2(3), 167-177.
  4. Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Readings about the social animal193, 17-26.

New Scarcity: Losing rights feels worse than gaining them feels good

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Image from NBC

People are naturally loss averse.1,2,3 It feels worse to lose $1,000 than it does to not win $1,000. It feels worse to have your house foreclosed on than to not be able to buy one.  It feels worse to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. So when it comes to civil rights, it isn’t surprising that people are more disturbed by new scarcity than they are by scarcity. Scarcity is so alluring it is one Robert Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion AND one of the most common sales techniques used to sell holiday themed sweater sets on QVC.4 Companies can utilize scarcity in all sorts of ways, from offering limited editions to selling one-of-a-kind products. They can even use new scarcity, by doing things like making products that were once available year-round only available seasonally. This creates an even larger demand than having something be scarce in the first place. Once people have had it and they can’t get it anymore, they want it more than ever.

In the wake of the November 8th election, protestors have gathered in cities all over America. Many are confused about the exact point of the protests. But the threat of new scarcity can go a long way to explaining the way people behave when they get a glimpse of what could be, only to face the threat (or reality) of being pushed back into what was. In my course on consumer psychology, I emphasize the significance of new scarcity through 1990s sitcoms. When older millennials were growing up in the 1990s, there were several mainstream television shows on major networks that featured all African-American casts. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Hanging with Mr. Cooper, Sister, Sister…these were shows most people in America watched. They featured black families who were filthy rich, they featured black families who were highly educated, they featured black families with male role models who were police officers and educators.

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Image from Mental Floss

As the 2000s, and now the 2010s, march on, we have seen less and less of this kind of television. Yes, there are more shows available and less people watch the major networks when Netflix and Amazon are churning out some of the most popular shows these days. But at the same time, when we look at the networks, we have seen a return to “diverse” casts like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy composed of at least half white actors, and we have also seen a return to stereotypical portrayals of Black Americans as gang members, rappers and good dancers in shows like Empire, where many of the main characters have served time in jail. It’s new scarcity in action. And it’s crap.*

These days, TV executives doubt the viability of shows with all minority casts, arguing that white viewers don’t want to watch those shows. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None even tackles this issue specifically in an episode entitled Indians on TV. One wonders if these TV execs lived through the ‘90s, or if they witnessed America’s love for Bill Cosby prior to recent revelations about his serious failings as a person, TV dad and Jell-O salesman (how could you, Dr. Huxtable?). There used to be little doubt that Americans would watch a show with an all-Black cast. Now, we wonder if it’s “realistic” to cast African-American actors in all sorts of roles. It’s not a coincidence that the Ghostbusters remake features 3 white scientists and a black MTA worker. It’s a noticeable return to stereotyping African-Americans in the media that has come at the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained steam.

I am not arguing in any way, shape or form that the fact that shows like Family Matters are no longer on air is the reason for the activism of the black community. But I am arguing that Black Americans have glimpsed the future many times in America only to lose it to the march of time. In 1870, congress passed the 15th Amendment guaranteeing American citizens of all races the right to vote. In 2016, black voter suppression has made a serious comeback, prompting one judge to say that black voters were being targeted in North Carolina “with almost surgical precision.” In 1994, Carl Winslow tells off some colleagues after they racially profile his son with no evidence in an episode of Family Matters called Good Cop, Bad Cop that highlights racial bias in the police force. In 2016, Terence Crutcher is killed by a police officer in Tulsa after his car breaks down for looking like a “bad dude.” The national conversation has rolled backwards. We have moved from a primetime television show casting a white cop as the villain, to having people say Black Lives Matter is a hate group, and having our President-elect endorse stop and frisk in Black neighborhoods. New scarcity is on the rise.

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Image from Mental Floss

For many Americans, the threat is losing rights they have already gained. LGBT Americans are worried about losing their right to marry, guaranteed in the Obergefell Supreme Court decision, or Trans kids’ right to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender at their public school, guaranteed by Obama’s executive orders. Many women are worried about losing their right to control their bodies and their medical decisions, guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, something Mike Pence wants to see “consigned to the ash heap of history.” Many immigrants are worried about what will happen to family members who were protected as “Dreamers” under the Obama administration. New scarcity is scary, and rightfully so. Losing feels worse in magnitude than gaining feels good. And Americans have proven they won’t remain silent about it.

 

*Empire is an excellent show! As are Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy! I only use these as examples of newer shows that feature significant amounts of black cast members.

  1. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1991). Loss aversion in riskless choice: A reference-dependent model. The quarterly journal of economics, 1039-1061.
  2. Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. The journal of economic perspectives5(1), 193-206.
  3. Thaler, R. H., Tversky, A., Kahneman, D., & Schwartz, A. (1997). The effect of myopia and loss aversion on risk taking: An experimental test. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 647-661.
  4. Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence(Vol. 3). A. Michel.

Good Germans: Authority and obedience make dangerous bedfellows

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Image of Eichmann’s trial from the Daily Beast

“I was just following orders.” It is these famous words of Adolf Eichmann’s, uttered during his trial for crimes against humanity in 1961, that made Stanley Milgram’s career. Eichmann had been a high level Nazi officer, and was responsible for carrying out Hitler’s final solution by deporting millions of Jews to concentration camps. The world was shocked by the extent of the atrocities of the Third Reich, that the Nazis killed untold millions of people in response to the orders of an unhinged authoritarian leader. Stanley Milgram, the American son of Jewish immigrants, was born in 1933, around the time Hitler rose to power in Germany. By the time 1961 rolled around, Milgram was an assistant professor at Yale, and he had devised and begun his famous Obedience experiments. Milgram posited that authority figures may elicit an uncomfortable level of obedience from their subordinates, as evidenced by the German people getting swept up in a demagogue’s maniacal vision. He sought to prove that completely normal people could commit unspeakable acts against other humans, simply because they were following orders from an authority figure.

Allow me to set the scene. You arrive at Yale University in response to an ad in the New Haven newspaper. You figure you’ll make $4.50 on what has been described as a learning experiment. After being introduced to another man, you are randomly assigned to be the teacher and he is randomly assigned to be the learner. You both move into adjacent rooms. In front of you, there’s a big shiny box with 30 marked switches ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts. You come to find that the learner is hooked up to this machine in the other room. You are told to ask the learner a question and shock him if he gets the answer wrong. You are supposed to administer a higher voltage shock for each incorrect answer. You ask the first question. The learner is correct. You move on. But soon, he begins to be wrong quite a bit, and you are moving fast through the switches. 200 volts. Flick, buzz. 215 volts. Flick, buzz. Finally, you get to 300 volts. The learner is wrong. You flick the switch; you hear the buzz of the shock. Suddenly, you hear loud banging on the wall. The learner is trying to signal you. You look to the experimenter in the room with you. He seems unalarmed. He tells you to keep going.

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Image of Milgram with his shock generator from Aeon

You put your finger on the 315-volt switch and ask your question. The learner is wrong again. You flip the switch. Flick, buzz. The learner bangs on the wall again, trying to signal you. Again, you turn towards the experimenter. You are told that it is imperative to the experiment that you continue. You ask another question. The learner is silent. You look to the experimenter. He tells you that no answer is the same as an incorrect answer. You flip the 330-volt switch. Flick, buzz. Silence. You look at the experimenter. At this point you are getting nervous. You start to sweat profusely. You’re laughing for some reason even though this is not funny at all. You suspect that you may be hurting the other man. You suspect that the other man may no longer be able to respond. But the experimenter tells you that you must continue, that you have no choice. And you do. Question, silence, flick, buzz. Question, silence, flick, buzz. You get to the last switch. 450 volts. It clearly says “Danger-Severe Shock.” You are shaking, completely beside yourself. You ask your last question. Silence again. You put your finger on the last switch. You flick it. You hear the buzz of the shock. You are so relieved it’s over. You’ve never been more disturbed by your own actions in your life. In the other room, you still hear nothing but silence.

When people hear about this experiment, they swear that they would never do this. They would stop as soon as the other man alerted them that he wanted to stop. But 65% of participants shocked the learner all the way until the highest voltage, even though he had failed to respond to 10 questions in a row after banging on the wall. Even though many subjects showed severe signs of distress and expressed concern that they might have hurt the learner, only 14 out of 40 stopped in between the learner’s first protest and the end of the experiment. Most participants were experiencing serious discomfort, but continued to do something they thought was hurting someone else simply because they were told to keep going by an authority figure.

Milgram’s findings even surprised himself. People he had polled doubted that anyone would go all the way to the end, generally estimating that just a few people would actually administer the final shock. But two-thirds of the participants were willing to act outside of their own personal values not to hurt other people, simply because the experimenter asked them to. They were paid up front and told that they could leave at any time without penalty. They were all grown men, not college students. They had never met the other man, a confederate of the experimenter who was never actually shocked, and they had no reason to inflict harm on him. In fact, most participants rated the confederate as being pretty pleasant. Why would people continue to go on when they could have stopped? Milgram had his answer. People are shockingly malleable when authorities are involved. They will often go along with things with little to no explanation as to why they are doing it, and then rationalize their own actions to themselves once they become uncomfortable. Because we don’t like to think of ourselves as bad people, we start to believe that what we are doing is okay. This is classic cognitive dissonance.

When Hitler rose to power in Germany, he did so by appealing to disillusioned Germans who were struggling to feed their families and blaming their struggles on the “impurity” of the Jewish people. He combined hopeful rhetoric about the glory of Germany with hateful rhetoric about how the Jews were responsible for Germany’s challenges. Within 12 years, Hitler had ordered the extermination of up to 6,000,000 innocent Jews. Hitler’s populist, xenophobic talk led to World War II and the largest genocide in the history of the world. The power of a single authority is enough to bring the whole world to its knees. And the men and women who helped Hitler carry out his atrocities? Well, they were just following orders.

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Image from Pinterest

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.

Black Votes Matter: Whitewashing the Election

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Image from the ACLU

As this election reaches the lowest depths of hell, I, like many Americans, find myself sucked into the black hole of election coverage. Last night, I was researching an obviously false internet claim from a #stillbernie bro about Bernie winning as many votes as Hillary in the primaries, and I found this statistic from Pew Research Center:

“While Bernie Sanders (50 percent) edged out Hillary Clinton (48 percent) among white voters overall, 77 percent of black Democratic primary voters chose Clinton.”

From a social psychology perspective, this explains so much to me about what I’ve been seeing on my own social media feeds for months. Bernie did win more votes than Hillary…among white people. Many white people see that a lot of their white friends voted for Bernie and he didn’t win, so obviously something is up. In general, people are prone to the false-consensus bias, which leads them to believe that their opinions, values and actions are largely shared and approved of by others.1 And it doesn’t help that we largely surround ourselves with people who are similar to us and share our beliefs anyway.2 But the electorate is not just made up of white people. Clinton crushed Bernie among African-Americans with 77% of the vote. That’s a resounding defeat. An unequivocal statement. Black Americans clearly chose Clinton. This isn’t a history blog, so we won’t deep dive into America’s ugly track record with civil rights, stretching back to slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise, up to present day as 5 states have active law suits alleging minority voter intimidation and suppression by the Republican party during this very election (Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina). But, suffice it to say, attempting to downplay the legitimacy of the black vote is not a good look, and, you know, is fundamentally opposed to the ideals of our democracy. White people claiming their voices are being systematically stifled in an American election is laughable at best, and downright insulting at worst.

Which white people on my news feeds have been as passionate about the ongoing voter suppression of black citizens as they were about Bernie’s defeat in the “rigged” primaries? I have yet to see one. I haven’t really seen much among white people in general, because white people associate with other white people, at work, on the internet, at their polling places. They don’t necessarily have significant exposure to issues facing marginalized groups, and therefore they don’t have significant exposure to those groups’ opinions about said issues. The fact is, white people often grow up in predominantly white neighborhoods and go to predominantly white schools. They rarely, if ever, experience race-related discrimination, and the absence of that discrimination creates a space to deny its very existence. For many white Americans, black suffering is not that visible. There are 1,080,000 Google search results for “black voter suppression” and 475,000 Google search results for “Bernie Sanders voter suppression.” One of these issues began in 1619, the other began 9 months ago. Talk about unbalanced media coverage.

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Image from the New York Times

Bernie supporters were quick to point to his past as a civil rights protestor and Hillary’s support for the 1994 Crime Bill as reasons that black Americans should vote for Bernie. Yet, black citizens overwhelmingly supported Clinton over Bernie, making it obvious that white democratic voters may be out of touch with what matters to democrats as a group. Such divides even spawned articles telling people to stop Bernie-splaining to black Americans. Gordan Allport’s Contact Hypothesis suggests that the best way to reduce intergroup prejudice and encourage understanding is for people from both groups to have contact with one another.3 The groups have to have positive contact, work toward a common goal, have equal status, cooperate with one another, have the support of the community at large and actually spend a good amount of time getting to know one another for it to actually work. Why don’t a lot of protest-voting white Americans see that many others have a great deal at stake under a Trump presidency? A lot of it may come down to who they have contact with. Without meaningful intergroup contact, it may be impossible for us to understand the experiences of people outside of our own circles.

Yes, Hillary Clinton barely lost the white vote in the primaries, but to ignore the fact that she garnered the majority of the minority vote among African and Hispanic or Latino Americans is to ignore that Clinton definitively won the primary among American democrats as a whole. She just didn’t win among white democrats. But elections are decided by who shows up to cast their ballot, not whichever race has traditionally held power in a country. When elections don’t go our way, it doesn’t mean that they are rigged. To assume that the average white voter reflects the larger concerns of the American electorate is to assume too much in the 21st century. Black Americans have told us in no uncertain terms that they back Clinton, and they always have. And black votes matter.

  1. Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The “false consensus effect”: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of experimental social psychology13(3), 279-301.
  2. Byrne, D. (1961). Interpersonal attraction and attitude similarity. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology62(3), 713.
  3. Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2005). Allport’s intergroup contact hypothesis: Its history and influence. On the nature of prejudice50, 262-277.

This post is as much for me as it is for you: Coping with election anxiety in the final days

Raise your hand if your quota for election stress has been filled. Raise your hand if it was filled months ago. Raise both hands if you’re overwhelmed by the possible outcomes but are still struggling to disengage from election news coverage.

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Boy Meets World. Cory embodies all of our thoughts.

Yeah, me too.

And we’re not alone. In October, the American Psychological Association (APA) released preliminary findings showing that more than half of Americans consider this election as a very or somewhat significant source of stress. These stress levels were the same regardless of a person’s party affiliation (at least America is united on that front). The entire study hasn’t been released yet, but I’m willing to bet that for folks of marginalized groups, that number is even higher.

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The good news is that we’re in the final countdown. As of this post, we have FIVE remaining days. The bad news is that this final countdown is accompanied by a fever pitch of worry, stress, final efforts to rally voters, claims of poll-watching, and antagonism against voters of color. This election is, as I’ve heard several folks say, a veritable dumpster fire for so many reasons. So, if you’re feeling this stress especially, please take note. The APA has offered concrete tips on how to cope (the full press release is here), paraphrased and annotated with my comments below:

LIMIT your media consumption. Read enough to be informed and then close out social media apps. Pick an activity that you truly enjoy, that’s accessible, and that will provide some decompression. Force yourself to do this at least once a day.

Don’t be reluctant to avoid discussing politics if you think the conversation may lead to conflict. It’s OKAY to protect yourself. Try to be aware of how often you’re discussing the election, even with like-minded others.

Stress and anxiety about the outcome is not productive. If you have the time and means, direct your energy elsewhere. Be proactive! Consider volunteering in your community (election or non-election related), especially if you live in a state with critical local and state-level election (hint: if you live in NC, then ding ding ding). Or if you need something less intense, maybe take up baking. This pumpkin bread recipe is a favorite of mine. Yoga is also an incredibly beneficial activity that reduces cortisol and stress.[1][2]

Whatever happens on Nov. 8, life will go on. Checks and balances exist for a reason. We can expect a significant degree of stability immediately after a major transition of government. Avoid catastrophizing, and maintain a balanced perspective. This suggestion, especially, is what many apocalypse-fearing people might need to restore their faith. I’m putting my faith in this point, because I need to, despite my catastrophizing self warning me to disregard it. I urge you to do the same.

Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. It’s the least you can do. And then, of course, take a selfie with your “I voted” sticker and post it with pride. Don’t forget to close out of social media immediately afterwards.

A lot of folks are scared. Some are just fed up and 9 months past cynical. Taking care of yourself is critical in these next few days. Be mindful of what you’re thinking, feeling, eating, doing. Pay attention to your environment and know your triggers.

On Nov. 9, the next chapter begins. Until then, take care of yourself. We can go from there.

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Mindful breathing exercise: inhale as the shape expands. Exhale as it contracts. (Source: mathani.tumblr.com)

 


[1] Chong, Tsunaka, Tsang, Chan, & Cheung. (Jan/Feb 2011). Effects of yoga on stress management in healthy adults: A systematic review. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 17, 32-38.

[2] West, Otte, Geher, Johnson, & Mohr. (2004). Effects of Hatha yoga and African dance on perceived stress, affect, and salivary cortisol. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 28, 114-118.

Psych in Sum: Low information voter or cognitive miser?

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Image from CNN

With the presidential election less than a month away, the pressure is on for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to pick up as many undecided voters as they can before November 8th. But how do voters decide who they are voting for and what kinds of information do they consider? David Redlawsk sheds some light on the process.

The ideal way to make this important decision is through a thorough information search that considers all attributes of all possible candidates. However, most people don’t do this, because, well, our brains are lazy. Instead, we develop various information search strategies in deciding who to cast a ballot for. Behavioral Decision Theory suggests that people tend to settle for “good enough” choices once they feel like they have acquired enough information about the decision. We are “cognitive misers,” in the way that we don’t expend cognitive energy when we don’t have to. There tend to be two sets of conditions under which people make decisions between alternatives; compensatory rules, where alternatives are compared on all attributes such that a low score on one attribute may be redeemed with a high score on another attribute, and non-compensatory rules, where people consider each alternative on one attribute in serial and discard inadequate options immediately.

In situations where decisions can be made easily, people are more likely to employ compensatory decision rules, but in situations that are more complex, people tend to go with a single-elimination non-compensatory system. Further, he found that voters who used compensatory rules had more realistic views of the candidates, including lower evaluations of their preferred candidate and high evaluations of rejected candidates than people who use non-compensatory rules. Single issue voters, like people who vote based only on a politician’s stance on gun rights or abortion, are using non-compensatory rules, and the narrowness of their decision-making process leads to worse decisions. It’s always better to have more information than less!

Redlawsk, D. P. (2004). What voters do: Information search during election campaigns. Political Psychology25(4), 595-610.

Wild horses: Harnessing your love intensity

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For a few months after it was published in January 2015, Mandy Len Catron’s article “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” about the 36 questions to increase intimacy seemed to be everywhere. People shared it all over Twitter and Facebook, sometimes cynically, other times hopefully. This article and these questions, originally from a 1997 article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin claimed to have (at least) a partial solution to the time-old question: Can you choose who you love? Catron shared her experience testing these questions with a stranger, who she ultimately fell in love with and was dating by the time the article was published.

More broadly, this article raises a fair question and an intriguing proposition: maybe we can control the choice of who we love. Or, perhaps, more specifically, we can cultivate the strength of our love for a person. A recent study by Langeslag and van Strien (2016)[1] found that, in fact, love may be less like a light switch and more like a volume setting. volumeIn other words, people likely have the capacity to change the intensity of their love for someone. And there’s an upside to that, of course. As a relationship evolves, it takes on a new depth leading to greater feelings of intimacy and more intense love. But sometimes—often—it doesn’t. People break up. They fall out of love. Sometimes, you love what you can’t have. What then? Who hasn’t been in a situation where they were on the receiving end of inadequate love or where they couldn’t reciprocate the love someone else had for them? Regardless of the position, it’s often devastating.

What do I mean by love? To those who are currently in love, especially in the beginning stages, it defies explanation. It just IS. But love has been defined and measured in many ways. For this study, Langeslag and van Strien focus on two components of romantic love: infatuation (i.e., passion, attraction) and attachment (emotional bonding or intimacy). They recruited 40 participants, half of whom were currently in a romantic relationship and the other half of whom had recently experienced a break-up. People viewed 30 pictures of their partner (or ex-partner) for four rounds while an EEG recorded their brain activity. In the last two rounds, they were asked to use reappraisal (i.e., reinterpreting a situation to change its emotional meaning) when viewing each picture. Most importantly, people who had recently been through a break-up were instructed to use reappraisal to decrease their feelings of love by focusing on negative aspects of the ex-partner or the relationship (e.g., “We fight a lot” or “She’s lazy”). In contrast, participants currently in a relationship used reappraisal to increase their love feelings (e.g., “She’s so funny” or “We’ll get married someday”). People also recorded their levels of infatuation and attachment to their (ex-)partners before and after the EEG. It should also be noted that these participants reported feeling that love was uncontrollable.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who viewed pictures of their exes who used negative reappraisal reported feeling less infatuated and less attached after the images than before. People who used positive reappraisal of their current partners reported higher feelings of infatuation and attachment. And, most convincingly, EEG reports corresponded with these self-reports. In other words, people weren’t just telling the researchers what they wanted to hear or were tricking themselves into thinking they were less heartbroken or more in love than was true. The pattern of brain activity suggested these shifts in thinking were genuine. Now was this a permanent fix? That’s less likely, but there’s no reason to suggest that cognitive reappraisal is a tool that can’t be used in a person’s life just like it was used in a lab setting.

The implications, of course, are encouraging. Using cognitive reappraisal to decrease love intensity after a break-up can speed folks along in the recovery process. For people in long-term relationships, where it’s natural for infatuation or even attachment to fade over time[2], cognitive reappraisal may be a useful tool in maintaining feelings of love. And sure, there are some relationship that aren’t meant to last for a variety of reasons. However, this study suggests that regardless of whether you’re newly single or attached, you possess the capacity to train your brain to feel better. How’s that for a happy ending?

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Otters mate for life. No love regulation needed.


[1] Langeslag & van Strien. (2016). Regulation of romantic love feelings: Preconceptions, strategies, and feasibility. PLoS One, 11, 1-29.

[2] Langeslag, Muris, & Franken. (2013). Measuring romantic love: Psychometric properties of the Infatuation and Attachment Scales. The Journal of Sex Research, 50, 739-747.