Sexy Science: The Weekly Scientist on The Other Big C

Commitment issues in relationships have been the cause of many a broken heart. Relationships have been rapidly torn apart by suspicions of infidelity, mainly via the 21st century medium of Facebook. The saucy inbox messages or the inappropriate pokes can lead to heated arguments, days in bed, and copious amounts of ice cream being consumed. However, scientists have found that there may actually be a direct link between love and commitment.

“It’s in my nature” is the age-old excuse frequently uttered by the male species when being caught looking at the blonde bombshell with the low cut top. Yet, they may have to rethink their strategy as research undertaken by Gian Gonzaga and his team has shown that individuals in love are able to suppress thoughts of attractive alternative partners. It may not be so easy to get out of that sticky situation after all.

From an early age on we are fed the idea of a “happily ever after” with our chosen partner. In countless Disney films, a happy ending always features along with loving proclamations of spending an eternity together. But is there any scientific proof that love protects us from sin and ignores the sexy señorita that struts past?

Previous work has shown that love has a direct effect on several physiological and behavioural systems, all of which help to maintain commitment. Furthermore, it has been suggested that when couples are in a relationship, they find their possible alternative love interest inferior to their partner. In another study by Miller, it was shown that people in relationships spend less time peeping at other members of the opposite sex and tend to rate them as less attractive than their mate; this then perpetuates feelings of faithfulness towards a single partner.

In light of these previous studies, Gonzaga’s team set up experiments to find out if love helps with staying committed or whether our debated polygamous nature overrides our emotions. The participants, who were all in relationships, were shown photographs of other attractive alternative partners of the opposite sex and asked to rate them from 1 (least attractive) to 10 (most attractive). The participants were then split into two groups. The first group was instructed to write about the sexual desire they felt for their partners, while reliving the memory of the attractive alternative. Group two also had to write about their love for their partners, but this time while suppressing thoughts of the alternative.

Results showed that the “love group”, which used the suppression technique had reported fewer thoughts of the attractive alternative than the “desire group”, who actively thought about the alternative. These findings suggest that being in love can switch on some kind of commitment device. Maybe love is enough to keep two people committed to each other for life?

Suppressing the thoughts of other potential mates is perhaps the driving factor behind fidelity. Every romantic moment, every thoughtful gift or loving gaze is perceived to be an expression of love, and over time these gestures increase our focus on our partners. This not only gives us that warm fuzzy feeling inside but also, more importantly, diminishes the temptation to look for another partner by causing an individual to subdue any thoughts of an alternative option. This ultimately helps to maintain commitment and therefore a monogamous relationship.

This thought suppression method is not only limited to love and commitment. Studies have shown that individuals can suppress emotionally disturbing or frightening thoughts. The human mind can put huge resources into trying to forget certain experiences and can eventually master this technique.

So, fellas the next time you ask your lady if she loves Edward Cullen as much as the rest of the world, and her answer is “he looks like he needs a hot meal and a tan”, rest assured she probably loves you.

Sarah Greenidge

Editor’s Note: Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! If you liked what you read and are begging for some more, then please check out the author’s blog:  It’s all about one young girl’s journey into the world of science. Exciting!

One Comment
  • Emma S
    15 February 2011 at 12:02
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    Really interesting- I didn’t know there was evidence yet for a contradictory argument to the “natural” urge to cheat. I’ll definitely be checking out the blog.

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