Is it Possible to Define Love?

A woman is attracted to a man who makes her laugh, and a man likes a woman who laughs at his jokes. Brain scans of people who'd recently fallen in love reveal more activity related to love than sex, illustrating that romantic love is a much more powerful experience than sex drive. SHUTTERSTOCK

By Senior Editor Lesley Savage

'What is love?" It's a popular albeit complicated question, and according to Google was the most-searched phrase in all of 2012. Webster's has several definitions for the word, including: "strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties," "attraction based on sexual desire" and "a tennis score." Even though most people understand these definitions, they don't entirely agree on what they mean or how they apply to the individual within a culture. Love is a personal concept—and therefore is subjective—and that concept evolves throughout our entire lives as we fall into, out of and back into it again. Although a concrete cultural definition remains a little nebulous, most can agree love has a lot to do with attraction.

Unlike love, attraction is something scientists—if not your parents—can define. But why we're attracted to someone else is yet another question of personal preference and experience researchers are still exploring. The "rules of attraction" include external factors such as looks, personality and perceived potential, as well as internal variables such as hormone levels and attention span. Questions about the nature of what makes someone attractive (or, more to the point, how we can improve our own attractiveness) are as vexing as they are based on stereotypes and preconceived notions. Are women only attracted to family and fortune? Are men just interested in a pretty face and busty body? Is it really that simple? If the data is to be believed, when it comes to matters of the heart, it's all about the brain.

In an issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Northwestern University's Eli Finkel and University of Texas at Austin's Paul W. Eastwick reported that both genders initially place the greatest value on physical attractiveness, followed by personality and then earning potential. To find out more about how we choose our mates and dates, Finkel and Eastwick invited 163 undergraduate college students to a two-hour speed-dating event. Each student spent four minutes with a dozen potential partners—and then looked at their photographs on a computer and answered yes or no to indicate whether they'd like a date. The participants then rated their choices—based on who they found most attractive and who they thought would have the greatest earning potential. Finkel and Eastwick followed the students for a month to check on their subsequent romantic activities.

Finkel and Eastwick spoke with Newsweek about their research in the Northwestern Relationships Lab and about how men and women might be rethinking old questions about what they want in a mate.

Before you held your speed-dating event, you had participants state how much appearance, personality and earning potential mattered in deciding whether they wanted to see someone again.

Finkel: There was a disconnect between what they said they wanted and what they actually wanted. Physical attractiveness tends to inspire desire a lot. Earning prospects tend to inspire desire a moderate amount [for both men and women].

Why do many men and women have the wrong idea about what they really value in a romantic partner?

Finkel: We all live in a culture where we're bathed in this idea that women are more interested in earning potential than men are. So when we're asked what is it we desire, we say, "I'm a man—I'm more interested in beauty." That's what's sensible to them in the absence of doing a careful analysis of everyone they've ever been attracted to.

Eastwick: Men and women haven't sat down and looked at all the available evidence on all the people they've been attracted to over the course of their lives and come up with a comprehensive answer. People have theories, and those theories guide us, but they might not always be correct.

How does speed dating help you figure out what men and women want in a partner?

Finkel: Speed dating allows you to examine each person's preference across a range of potential suitors. We can look not only at what you said you preferred 10 days before the event but [also] what you actually preferred when you met living, breathing beings. We can compare what you said was important to you and what actually was important to you.

What's the take-home message for people looking for love?

Finkel: Beware the shopping list. When you go into finding a romantic partner, don't have this list of necessary characteristics that you need. Go in with an open mind. Actually meet people face to face. Because you might find yourself surprised by the person you're attracted to. Those sex differences and mate preferences that are so reliable when people report on hypothetical ideal partners disappear when people meet living, breathing partners.

So personality really matters, too?

Finkel: It's not that looks don't matter, or earning potential doesn't matter, or personality doesn't matter. It's that they matter equally strongly for men and women. Looks are most important, personality is second and earning potential is third—at least in the first month of dating.

And that's good news, right?

Finkel: It's good news with regard to earning prospects and bad news with regard to looks!

What's the verdict on beauty vs. brains?

Finkel: It might be that men and women don't differ in how much looks matter in initial attraction. We are running a study now, in collaboration with a speed-dating company, with 6,500 people who were single at the time. Now three years later, we're following up to see whether they got married, and did that person match. What we'll be able to do is see if their stated ideals three years ago actually match with the person they're marrying.

Eastwick: My hunch is that their ideals changed, not that they found the person who matched their original ideals.

The other dating adage is that attractive people get extra benefits in life and may just marry other attractive people, who earn more money. Right?

Eastwick: Attractive women are marrying attractive husbands, and attractive people make more money because attractive people get more of everything in life.

Did you actually get some love matches in the course of your study?

Eastwick: We did create several couples. I don't know if any of those couples are still around today. When we like to brag about the effectiveness of speed dating, we will talk about figures, like one third of our speed daters in the month following the event spent at least some time hanging out with somebody they hadn't known prior to the event.

How did you find the participants?

Eastwick: We always collaborate with student groups. We had to turn away hundreds and hundreds of people.

So lots of students wanted to do their part for research and science?

Eastwick: They'll date for science, yes!

Finkel: We have videotapes of the dates this time. It's funny how frequently people will say things like, "This is kind of goofy, but I'm happy to do it. It's for a study."

This article appears in the Newsweek's special edition, Science of Sex, by Issue Editor Lesley Savage of Topix Media Lab.

Zero Creatives/Cultura/Getty Images