Buss on True Love

We have a request for more on romance.  Two years ago The Edge asked "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" David Buss answered:

True love.

I’ve spent two decades of my professional life studying human mating. In that time, I’ve documented phenomena ranging from what men and women desire in a mate to the most diabolical forms of sexual treachery. I’ve discovered the astonishingly creative ways in which men and women deceive and manipulate each other. I’ve studied mate poachers, obsessed stalkers, sexual predators, and spouse murderers. But throughout this exploration of the dark dimensions of human mating, I’ve remained unwavering in my belief in true love.

While love is common, true love is rare, and I believe that few people are fortunate enough to experience it. The roads of regular love are well traveled and their markers are well understood by many – the mesmerizing attraction, the ideational obsession, the sexual afterglow, profound self-sacrifice, and the desire to combine DNA. But true love takes its own course through uncharted territory. It knows no fences, has no barriers or boundaries. It’s difficult to define, eludes modern measurement, and seems scientifically wooly. But I know true love exists. I just can’t prove it.

Eliezer and I both considered this to be clearly wishful thinking.  What else do we insist on believing without evidence?

If the payoffs from romance have changed little since our distant ancestors, then our evolved biases are likely to be pretty functional, at least from a selfish genetic point of view.  Does this make romance a better or worse place to focus our energies at overcoming bias? 

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  • How would we recognize true love?

    Using the kind of criteria that Buss has identified as contributing to love that is driven by genetic self-interest, one approach would be to reverse these variables to discover the kind of love where there is ‘nothing in it’ for one of the partners.

    So: if we imagine a very high status man – say a billionaire genius in the prime of life (aged about 35?), who is handsome, athletic, tall, creative, eloquent…

    Then he marries and is faithful to (but never has sex or children with) a middle-aged, ugly, diseased, bad-tempered, violent, ignorant woman who hates him – she has a large brood of evil illegitmate children from a variety sexual affairs which the billionaire raises as his own, she continues to have affairs with almost anyone, and spends all of his money.

    Yet he sticks with her.

    Maybe that would be true love?

  • zzz

    Bruce G. Charlton:

    David Buss seems to be committing a “no true Scotsman” fallacy. As a matter of fact, most of the “self-interested” criteria that you refer to are perfectly consistent with the general understanding of love.

  • josh

    This is semantic, isn’t it. Of course it exists, if you define it in a way that reflects your prejudgment about what love is supposed to be. What makes something “True” love, seems impossible to define non-arbitrarily.

  • Bruce, I doubt Buss would call your scenario True Love (TM), as he probably means for it to be shared.

    We might fault Buss for playing with definitions, but he is far from alone – the young often look at the “love” of the old around them and vow that their love will be different and importantly better.

  • zzz

    Robin: Despite my last post, I should clarify that there’s no reason to expect that adopting a “selfish genetic point of view” will maximize our overall utility. To the extent that there is a divergence between the two, overcoming biases in love and romance should make us better off.

  • Bruce G Charlton

    Robin – Ah, but true love can’t be shared. If both partners are super-desirable, then then couldn’t do any better; if both partners are repulsive and despicable, then… they couldn’t do any better ;=)

    There is a very funny version of this kind of argument in The Tin Men – a novel by Michael Frayn. Scientists are trying to make an altruistic robot (‘Samaritan’), and (from memory) they make a robot that willingly sacrifices itself to save another. This prototype is criticized on the basis that the ‘expression’ on its dials seems to indicate that it actually enjoys being self-sacrificing, which means that it is not being altruistic after all. And so on.

  • This reminds me of a conversation I had with Joe Hatcher and some other people while I was a student at Ripon. He argued, basically, that a belief in “True Love” could be detrimental to a relationship. More specifically, he said that believing everyone has a “soulmate” somewhere out in the world could lead to divorce and breakups in the face of troubles in a relationship, as such problems are interpreted as a partner being less likely to be a soulmate instead of being viewed realistically.

    Doing a quick Google search for him, I stumbled on this newpaper interview, where Hatcher explains his thoughts a bit more. His answers basically seems to be saying that rationality in a relationship is a good thing:

    “There are different strategies people can use. One is called maximizing, meaning you want the best one you can possibly get. That’s how we typically look at love. But notice what you’re doing. You’re setting it up like the most important thing is the person you choose. If things aren’t going right in your relationship, what’s the problem? It’s the wrong person! . . . That belief that there’s somebody out there for you that if I’m not happy, I’m with the wrong person that’s counterproductive.

  • Anna

    I think “true love” is like math. You decipher all the things you know, want and like regarding the opposite attraction and hope that a moment in time will allow you to create an equation.


  • Yan Li

    “The feminine cognitive style is concrete, practical, embodied, emotionally engaged, synthetic, intuitive, qualitative, relational, and oriented toward values of care. …” (quoted from your previous post)

    I sadly report an abstract discussion of “true love” is neither concrete, nor practical, nor embodied, nor emotionally engaged, nor synthetic, nor intuitive, nor qualitative, nor relational, nor oriented toward values of care …

  • Anna

    Touché.(French expression for right on point)


  • josh

    I heard somewhere that love is a river that drowns a tender reed, but then, that doesn’t even make the faintest semblance of sense.

  • Yan and Anna, if we were to discuss a particular relationship between two real people, we could have a concrete, practice, embodied … relational discussion, but it would be very hard to draw conclusions about bias. It is easier to identify bias if we look at a set of cases, instead of one particular case. So is part of the problem that women are less interested in looking at trends over a set of cases? Even if so, we could still try harder to find more concrete etc. sets of cases.

  • Anna

    I guess you didn’t interpret the song sung by Bette Middler very well.
    I thought it made sense.
    It’s about the planting of a seed.


  • Anna

    So is part of the problem that women are less interested in looking at trends over a set of cases?

    You asked why women are not responding. I responded that if you want women to become interested you would need to change the topics or cases.

    I think the cases and the topics are great. I don’t see why any change needs to occur. If women feel that they are being neglected then they should write about what they believe are biases.

    The way I interpreted was that you jumped into the topic of “true love” initiating a bias that all women are interested in such topics that are solely emotional.


  • Paul Gowder

    I’d ask for a distinction between “love” and “true love.” How much work is “true” doing? Also, how much of his “true love” is phenemonological rather than, say, some actual (“actual!” speaking of vagueness…) property of the relationship (“relationship!”) between the parties. And how much of it is reducible to physical states of the brain? Without those parts of the claim, we can’t even start to evaluate it.

  • ChrisA

    I have always wondered about whether emotions (including love) could survive an uploading of the human mind into electronic form. Any emotions of an electronic mind would be voluntarily chosen by the mind, since once electronic a mind can edit the emotion causing machinary to produce whatever emotion it chooses. If emotions did survive, would they be then “true” emotions by Buss’s definition?

  • Anna, I certainly hope we can get women to write about the biases they see.

  • Jennie C.

    I think someone’s capacity to experience true love depends on the depth of their imagination, how sensitive and open they are, and whether or not they want it. That’s what makes it rare because it takes a rare kind of person to have it. It takes a rare kind of person to be able to conceive of it, recognize the possibility, and allow themselves to have it.