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

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
 

Labour's Simon Danczuk is flirting with Nigel Farage, but will he answer his prayers and defect?

Matthew Norman
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick