The science of love and attraction

Our sexual preferences can seem random and unpredictable, but professor James Giles is helping us get to the bottom of it

You feel a rush of excitement and nervousness. Your heart pounds, and your senses are overwhelmed. Just looking at someone can fill you with this sensation, with love. But while it seems like your insides are on fire, the core of your feeling is really an existential desire to engage in a complex exchange of mutual vulnerability and care.

“Love might be a mystery, but it can still be explained,” says philosopher and psychologist James Giles, who is currently teaching psychology at Roskilde University, and also lectures at the University of Cambridge.

The analysis of love and sexual allure has been an in-depth study for Giles. An esteemed author and lecturer, his findings and theories have provided precious insight into our love lives, though they can at times surprise.

Take, for example, a scene that plays out in a popular YouTube video, which he uses in his teaching. A man casually walks up to a woman on the street, brimming with confidence. He tells her how pretty she is and promptly asks her out for dinner. She accepts the compliment but refuses his bold gesture. He continues to pursue her as she walks on, trying to persuade her to change her mind, but she firmly resists.

But when they stop by his car and he opens the door, she pauses. It’s a Ferrari.

“Is that your car?” she says. “Yes,” he replies. “Oh, well then maybe I am free for dinner tonight.” To our delight, he ruthlessly rejects her.

“Now, people often think that things like possessions make a man more sexually attractive,” explained Giles. “In this example, however, it is obvious that the woman is not attracted to the man, but only to his money. But isn’t this really what is going in most such cases, where possessions seem to render someone more attractive? For possessions have nothing to do with sexual attraction, which is solely concerned with physical appearance. And the same could be said of apparent sexual attraction to someone’s personality. For personality is only attractive if the person’s physical appearance sexually attracts us first.”

p11 Giles.Murmur photo DONT CROPThe four orientations
Giles (right) argues that love falls into four categories. The dependency orientation is characterized by the need to be cared for, and the paternalistic orientation by wanting to care for others, without being cared for yourself.

The final two categories sound a little more extreme, but Giles assures me they are versions of love most can still identify with. The sadistic orientation makes you crave power and thrive on other people’s vulnerability. Its opposite is the masochistic orientation, in which you desire to be controlled, humiliated and even harmed.

“This could be the constant pursuing of someone – the more rejection and hurt you endure, the more you want them – and sometimes we’re willing to go to extreme lengths.”

The big question is why we bother, when relationships have the potential to be so damaging? The answer lies in the brain. Last year, researchers from Yale University discovered distinctive neurological differences between two varieties of love, ‘selfless’ and ‘romantic’.

Published in the American journal Brain and Behavior, the researchers found that ‘selfless love’ – relating to a deep desire for someone else’s happiness without it being reciprocated – activates the same reward center of the brain as cocaine. It’s like having your own supply of never-ending stimulants.

Romantic love, on the other hand, activates parts of the brain associated with habit formation. This can make love feel like the high and lows of a drug addiction, where you always want more and will do almost anything to get it.

Favourable family ties
According to Giles, our first primal feelings of love are experienced in our infancy, formed through a strong maternal bond that teaches us habits of love and affection.

“We often seek to repeat that mother-child relationship in our adulthood. But it’s not just mental, it’s also physical. Our first sexual experience is essentially with our mothers, from the constant skin-to-skin contact through the act of breastfeeding.”

Our families affect our sexual preferences well into adulthood, argues Giles, pointing to studies that have shown that people who have positive relationships with their parents are likely to select sexual partners who resemble them.

We may also choose our partner to fulfil a sense of deficiency in our own lives, he argues. As we grow, we feel a loss of the early and intimate affection from our opposite-sex parent. The affection from our opposite-sex partner becomes a sort of replacement for that parental love. This is the basis of heterosexual attraction, according to Giles.

With homosexual attraction, evidence suggests that its basis might be a lack of affection from or absence of the father. It is interesting that women who report problems achieving orgasm also tend to report poor relationships with their fathers.

“Most people don’t like to accept the idea that they aren’t complete, but in all cases desire seems to be driven by a sense of lack,” he says, adding that these theories aren’t rigid rules.

“It’s important that we acknowledge that while these theories are substantiated, they’re not always going to apply to everyone.”

Newer perspectives
In Giles’ new book, Sexual Attraction: The Psychology of Allure, he discusses the fundamental elements of sexual attraction and different levels of engagement. He argues that sexual attraction and sexual desire are two different things, and identifying their differences allows us to shed light on our own relationships.

“Attraction can be explained as a sense of being helplessly drawn to the attractive person, like an external force or a magnet that has its source in the other person. Sexual desire, however, is something we experience as coming from within ourselves and being directed outwards.”

Giles’ book discusses in detail the experience of sexual attraction—what he calls “allure”—and argues that sexual attraction is widespread, occurring to varying degrees in most interactions between men and women.

But while his pioneering work might leave us wanting more, he says the discussion of sex is still a huge taboo in some academic settings.

As an example, he recalls a lecture he gave at the University of Guam, where he found his proposed discussions were unwelcome due to the audience’s firmly embedded cultural and religious influences.

“’Are you trying to make me doubt my faith?’ one woman irritably asked after I gave a lecture,” he recounted. “’Of course,’ I said, ‘This is a university!’ I don’t want people to lose their beliefs, I just ask that they keep an open mind. After all, what could be more important than understanding one of our most primal and powerful behaviours?” M


By Lesley Price

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