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

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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Recruitment Genius: PA

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A PA is required to join a leading provider of...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
 

The digital world is incredible – but it’s human bonds that make us who we are

Joanna Shields
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness