Is Love Biological or Is It a Cultural Phenomenon?

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When it comes to love, some people would say it is one of the most important human emotions. Yet, despite being one of the most studied behaviors, it is still the least understood. Researchers consistently debate whether love is a biological phenomenon or a cultural one.

Only fairly recently has love become the subject of science though. In the past, the study of love was left to "…the creative writer to depict for us the 'necessary conditions for loving..." according to Sigmund Freud (1910). "In consequence, it becomes inevitable that science should concern herself with the same materials whose treatment by artists has given enjoyment to mankind for thousands of years," Freud added.

Research on love has grown tremendously since Freud's remarks. But early explorations into the nature and reasons for love drew considerable criticism. During the 1970s, U.S. Senator William Proxmire railed against researchers who were studying love and derided the work as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Still, research has revealed the importance of love in child development and adult health. But how do psychologists define this important emotion?

Rubin's Scale of Liking and Loving

In one approach, social psychologist Zick Rubin used a psychometric approach to love to devise a scale. This scale was then used to assess levels of liking and loving. According to Rubin, romantic love is made up of three elements:

  1. Attachment: Needing to be with another person and cared for. Desiring physical contact and approval are also important components of attachment.
  2. Caring: Valuing the other person's happiness and needs as much as your own.
  3. Intimacy: Sharing private thoughts, feelings, and desires with the other person.

Based on this view of romantic love, Rubin developed two questionnaires to measure these variables. Initially, Rubin identified approximately 80 questions designed to assess the attitudes a person holds about others, which were sorted according to whether or not they reflected feelings of liking or loving. Rubin's scales of liking and loving provided support for his theory of love.

In a study to determine if the scales actually differentiated between liking and loving, Rubin asked a number of participants to fill out his questionnaires based on how they felt both about their partner and a good friend. The results revealed that good friends scored high on the liking scale, but only partners or significant others rated high on the scales for loving.

Is Love Biological or Is It a Cultural Phenomenon?

Scientists who hold biological views of love tend to view the emotion as a human drive. While love is often seen as one of the basic human emotions such as anger or happiness, some researchers have suggested that love is instead a cultural phenomenon that arises partly due to social pressures and expectations.

In a Time article, psychologist and author Lawrence Casler said, "I don't believe love is part of human nature, not for a minute. There are social pressures at work."

If love were a purely cultural invention, it would stand to reason that love would simply not exist in some cultures. However, anthropological research suggests that love is a universal emotion. For instance, biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, studied 166 societies attempting to identify romantic love. She found evidence of romantic love in an overwhelming 147 of the 166 societies, or nearly 90% of the time.

This study, along with countless others, suggests that there is a biological component to love—a part of human nature that seeks out and finds love. Likewise, because Fisher could not identify romantic love in every society she studied, this suggests that there is a cultural influence to love as well.

A Word From Verywell

Love is most likely influenced by both biological drives and cultural influences. While hormones and biology are important, the way we express and experience love is also influenced by our personal conceptions of love.

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