Raj Persaud: Valentine's Day is about self-love, actually

Psychologists discovered the faces we were most attracted to were those resembling our own

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Even on days other than Valentine's Day, our culture is pretty preoccupied with "romance" - huge industries have grown up encouraging it, including cosmetics, fashion, literature, art, films, TV etc. At the heart of all this commercially encouraged amorous sentiment is the dreamy idea that romance is somehow mysterious - indeed the allure of love is enhanced by its inscrutability. Yet psychologists beg to differ.

Even on days other than Valentine's Day, our culture is pretty preoccupied with "romance" - huge industries have grown up encouraging it, including cosmetics, fashion, literature, art, films, TV etc. At the heart of all this commercially encouraged amorous sentiment is the dreamy idea that romance is somehow mysterious - indeed the allure of love is enhanced by its inscrutability. Yet psychologists beg to differ.

The latest theory about love from psychological research is that basically the strongly positive associations people have about themselves "spill over" to enhance their attraction to nearly anything associated with the self. This new psychological theory is called "implicit egotism" and promises to revise radically the way we think about love.

The new theory explains why, a few years ago, psychologists discovered that the faces to which we were most attracted were those that resembled our own. So passionate love for another is actually all about us - it's basically a narcissistic enterprise. The romantics, of course, refuse to accept this cynical scientific view, but the key point about the research is that our preferences operate below conscious awareness and therefore appear mysterious at first glance, although their underlying "egotism" is revealed by experiments.

For example, a new study finds, rather unromantically, that exactly the same process which leads to us be drawn to our lovers seems to explain how we choose our dogs. Christina Payne and Klaus Jaffe of Simon Bolivar University in Venezuela separated photos of dogs and their owners and found that volunteers could match the pictures more often than chance, using similarity in appearance.

We choose dogs that resemble us because we are driven by a basic desire to feel good about ourselves, and this means we evaluate similarity to the self as strongly positive. Alarmingly in its power and irrationality, this occurs even when the similarity is obscure. Psychologists have demonstrated that, although not consciously aware of it, we express strong preferences for numbers linked to our birth date, and words that have more letters from our own names in them.

Maurice Carvallo and colleagues at the State University of New York in Buffalo even found that the likelihood people would marry someone with the same first letter in their surname was15 per cent to 25 per cent greater than chance.

The theory of implicit egotism - that we are so obsessed with ourselves that it drives our choices at a level below conscious awareness - began with an ingenious experiment conducted back in 1989 by psychologists John Finch and Robert Cialdini of the Arizona State University, who had participants read a biographical sketch of Rasputin, the notorious "Mad Monk of Russia". In this sketch, Rasputin was described in decidedly negative terms. Half of the participants were led to believe that Rasputin shared their own birthday, whereas the other half was given no information about Rasputin's birth date. In the matching-birthday condition, participants made much more favourable judgments of Rasputin's character.

Then, in 2002, a team of psychologists lead by Brett Pelham of the State University of New York made a series of astonishing discoveries - they found, among other things, that people named Denise or Dennis are more likely than usual to make their living as dentists, and that people whose first or last name is Louis are disproportionately likely to move to live in Saint Louis, Missouri. The same applied to Jack and Jacksonville and George and Georgia.

Similarly, they found that birthday number preferences also appear to influence residential choices. People born on 2 February (02/02) are over-represented among the inhabitants of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, whereas people born on 3 March (03/03) are over-represented among the inhabitants of Three Forks, Montana. These findings held for every possible day-month combination for which US cities existed as potential matches (eg, people born on 6 June were over-represented in Six Mile, North Carolina).

So major life decisions such as who we marry, what career we pick, and where we move to are influenced by a tendency to prefer ourselves, and therefore any similarity to ourselves that we find in the world around us.

The findings raise the question of whether all this Valentine's Day pandering to passion is really all about encouraging yet more self-focus. After all, is not the key question this morning how many Valentine's cards did we get, and how many in comparison did you get?

The psychiatrist's advice is to take a break from the pressure to be perfectly romantic, and instead focus on some neglected but possibly more important values - like friendship and concern for others beyond immediate self-interest. Take a break from the self-obsession that marketing encourages and spend today genuinely concerned for others, and by the end of it you might be a kinder human being, which is a lot more valuable than being a more attractive one.

The writer is Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry and author of 'The Motivated Mind', published by Bantam Press

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