Alas, Unequal Love

We each feel a deep strong need to love others, and to be loved by others. (Self-love doesn’t satisfy these needs.) You might think we could pair up and all be very satisfied. But this doesn’t happen for two main reasons:

  1. We each prefer to love the popular, whom more others also love. So a few get lots of love, while the rest get less.
  2. We can more easily love imaginary fictional people than real people. Especially ones that more others love.

So even if you are my best source for getting love, the love I get from you may be far less than the love you are giving out, or than I’m giving out. And a few exceptional people (many of them imaginary) get far more love than most people need or can enjoy.

This seems an essential tragedy of the human condition. You might claim that love isn’t a limited resource, that the more people each of us love, the more love we each have to give out. So there is no conflict between loving popular and imaginary people and loving the rest of us. But while this might be true at some low scales of how many people we love, at the actual scales of love this just doesn’t seem right to me. Love instead seems scarce at the margin.

Can we do anything about this problem? Well one obvious fact is that we don’t love people we’ve never heard of. And we can control many things about who we hear of. So we could in principle arrange who we hear about, in order to get love spread out more evenly. But we don’t do this, nor do we seem much inclined to do anything like this. We instead all devote a great deal of time and effort to hearing about as many popular and fictional people as possible. And to trying to be as popular as we can.

I don’t have great ideas for how to solve this. But I am convinced it is one of our essential problems, and it is far from obvious that we’ve given it all the careful thought we might. Please, someone thoughtful and clever, figure out how we might all be much loved.

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  • Lord

    I think that is what religion is for.

    • I had thought it was what dogs and children are for.

      • Pets & kids do help, as do popular gods who love you, if you can let yourself believe they exist.

      • ColtInn

        I tried, with deep sincerity, to believe in a popular god, from roughly ages 7-8 (my parents were not religious, but I felt I should investigate). When I realised it wasn’t in me to simply believe, I had a sense that I was missing out. Similar thing with pets after realising dogs are man’s best friend because we made them so.

        Kids did change me. I might not be wired for belief in gods but I certainly didn’t miss out on the nuture-your-offspring slice of the code, nor the sense of love that seems most often to accompany it.

  • Mirzhan Irkegulov

    David Burns, popularizer of cognitive-behavioral therapy, devotes a whole chapter to overcoming what he calls “love addiction”. One passage goes like this:

    “There is a difference between wanting and needing something. Oxygen is a need, but love is a want. I repeat: LOVE IS NOT AN ADULT HUMAN NEED! It’s okay to want a loving relationship with another human being. There is nothing wrong with that. It is a delicious pleasure to be involved in a good relationship with someone you love. But you do not need that external approval, love, or attention in order to survive or to experience maximal levels of happiness.”

    Love, attention, affection are not something we absolutely need to survive or even to be happy and content with our lives. In other words, you can be unloved and yet productive, enthusiastic, and have a positive mood on average.

    That doesn’t mean love shouldn’t be a priority for a person once more vital needs are satisfied. Once a person has survival needs and mental health satisfied, sure, maximize love.

    From a transhumanist perspective, suppose we live in a post-scarcity society, where nobody is starving, aging, sick, including me. Of course it would make total sense for me to go to Louvre and see Mona Lisa. It would be a positive utility for me. But as of now I haven’t yet seen it and it would be ridiculous for me to be unhappy about it.

    Being loved is positive utility, sure, but being unloved doesn’t necessitate being depressed, unproductive, having low self-esteem etc.

    • Rigulel

      It’s technically true that love isn’t a Need in the sense that you would literally die without it. But there’s nothing else you can have in life that will increase your happiness as much as “external approval, love, or attention” will (which the possible exception of things that “hack” your reward system like drugs, meditation, or wireheading). If I’m wrong about his please say what’s better than love because that would be very useful information.
      I highly doubt that you can be happy without any social interaction whatsoever but I don’t know enough about the subject to argue.

      • Mirzhan Irkegulov

        “You can be single and happy” and “you can be stranded on an uninhabited island and happy” are 2 different statements, and neither me nor David Burns said anything about the 2nd. The 1st one is much more defensible and I personally am quite confident it’s true.

    • free_agent

      You won’t dies without love, but love makes it a lot easier to reproduce. Hence, we’re strongly selected to desire love.

    • Alfred Differ

      Hmm… I don’t buy it. Without love one does not remain human for long. It is a need like oxygen because we don’t stay sane without it.

    • ColtInn

      If it carries positive utitlity, then by definition, all else equal, being loved is a better state of affairs. I doubt Robin meant that love should be maximised above other, more obviously pressing, needs.

      CBT seems to me little more than Stoicism dressed up in a modern jargon. I dig Stoicism, don’t get me wrong, but I often notice people downplaying the positives in things that the Stoics rightly pointed out were not necessary, and sometimes counterpoductive, to the good life. Adam Smith’s take on it in the Theory of Moral Sentiments seems more useful, because it takes into account the positive and negative aspects of seeking/giving love/praise/blame, and the ways in which it helps/harms not only the individual but the group.

      Maybe I’ve misjudged CBT. I haven’t gone deep with reading it. Point me to some literature if you think it’s a worthwile pursuit.

      • CBT’s progenitor is Albert Ellis’s Rational-Emotive Psychotherapy. Ellis was admittedly a student of Stoicism.

  • Psmith

    “So we could in principle arrange who we hear about, in order to get love spread out more evenly.”

    Online dating and online interaction in general do a lot of this, seems to me.

    • ColtInn

      I don’t know anything about the relative success of online dating and similar. But it seems to me it could just as easily be hurting as much as harming, to the extent that people go searching online for the imaginary partner they have difficulty finding in person, only to realise they can’t be found online either.

      • This is like saying that on-line shopping hurts as much as it [helps] because people looking for blivets discover that they can’t buy them on-line any more than they can get them at a local store. This line of thinking is profoundly intellectually inept.

      • ColtInn

        Actually, it is not at all like saying that online shopping hurts as much as it helps. Online dating shares some qualities with online shopping, but it’s also different in several ways. The ways in it differs in motivation and in function are quite obvious.

        A conversation about shopping versus dating, as a starting point, could be an interesting one, but given your comment it seems you’re more interested in horn blowing than conversation.

      • Of course dating and online shopping are different in several ways … that’s true of all analogies, you stupid dishonest fuck.

      • ColtInn

        Just because you fail to see the relevance, it doesn’t mean it is not there.

        I find it slightly amusing, and slightly sad, that you comment here and above (missing the point in that comment, too) on such a topic in the way that you have. A very brief audit of your commentary here and elsewhere strongly indicates that you have no interest whatsoever in honest conversation, and so I will no longer entertain any of it.

      • The ways in it differs in motivation and in function are quite obvious.

        What are the ways they’re relevantly different?

  • free_agent

    Making sure love is spread evenly strikes me as an odd goal for a society. Of course, we want the love of people, especially those with high status. We also want money, because it, too, is a useful resource.

    • ColtInn

      It strikes me at the least odd goal a society could have. I don’t know about spread equally, but certainly it could be more efficiently spread – not going to people who won’t or can’t use it. Money is a useful resource, but people can always make use of it (and by and large to the benefit of other via merely expressing their preferences via markets). Most people think some level of redistribution of money is sensible. Why not so with love? Is it simply because it is not feasible, and forever resides in the too hard basket, and so just hearing the idea it strikes us a bizarre notion?

  • AnImagined

    “How much do you love me?” is an economist’s love that can
    be priced, whereas “How deeply do you love me?” is a philosopher’s love that cannot be bartered; hence priceless.

    ‘Unequal love’ and ‘to be much loved’ require measurement,
    and quantity, of constantly asking how much more would you do to increase my welfare, my desire, my needs? Forgetting quality, where love is; love is. One loves without questioning inequality or requiring anything in return.

    As for loving an imaginary soul? I would say, everyone is only, fully realised through the imagination of another.

  • g

    I am not sure which of two things Robin means by “We each prefer to love the popular”, etc.

    1. “We all tend to love the most popular people, of whom there are relatively few, so they can’t love us all back, so many of us are denied requited love.” 2. “Popular people are loved more, so unpopular people are loved less, so those of us who are less popular are denied love.”

    The second of these appears to me to be completely content-free and to explain nothing. (In so far as it has any actual implications, they actually come from some facts about the distribution of popularity.)

    The first is not content-free. But if it’s intended to explain the asymmetry in loving — when A loves B, it happens all too often that B cares little for A — it seems to me a much less accurate description of what happens than this: Indeed, we all have preferences, and “more popular is better” is often one of those preferences, but there are lots of others; and our preferences are not always for others like ourselves, nor do they have the property that when A prefers people like B, B prefers people like A. And so love often goes unrequited and many are unhappy.

    This resembles Robin’s account but recognizes that our many other preferences besides popularity have exactly the same sort of asymmetry as popularity does. I may prefer bouncy cheerful extraverts or sombre thoughtful introverts; tall people or short; selflessly generous people or people who make it a priority to look after themselves; etc., etc., etc.; this narrows down the range of most-lovable partners a lot, and there is no reason to expect that just because someone lies in my most-lovable category I am anywhere near theirs.

    Robin’s account of the sources of unrequited love seem to me to be describing a species of aliens sharing some psychological features with humanity but otherwise quite different.

    • I meant both that we tend to love features which induces us to love the same small fraction of people, and that we more directly prefer to love people that others also love.

      • StevenMarks

        Nah, Robby.
        You love only those you are paid (offshore, of course) to love.
        Otherwise, you’ll be out of Mason and selling used Bibles out the back of an ’87 Ford Explorer in Topeka quicker than you can sip a Pepsi or snort a line.

      • Are you alleging that GMU’s tenure system is a sham?

      • StevenMarks

        Knew a Diamond once.
        Wasn’t in the rough.
        Glowed brightly.
        For its bosses.
        In Wichita.

      • Once knew a Marks,

        He didn’t bite as bad as he barks.

  • Robert Koslover

    Hey, it really could be worse. Keeping polygamy illegal seems to be very helpful: (E.g., ). There’s this perspective, too:

  • marshall bolton

    What are you talking about Robin? When my roof leaks I don’t call a dentist, I call a joiner. How can economics say anything about matters of the heart, which the heart can understand? You are saying that it is a tragedy that we don’t get as much love as we give out, and some people get too much – and a lot of the transactions are in the land of fantasy depleting the source.
    Economics must be about greediness. More is better and more for less is even better. But the father of Pascal’s Wager says, “The heart has reasons that reason does not understand”. Lacan says, “Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.”
    You think it is an economic tragedy that we are unhappy and we should do something about it. I don’t. But I would suggest abolishing the word “love”. Babies need love; begetting babies needs love; adults don’t.
    And Van Morrison is even more helpful than Stephen Stills.

  • Alfred Differ

    Douglas Hofstadter’s “I am a Strange Loop” book focuses upon what a ‘self’ is most of the time, but as part of the context he has a section that defines the verb ‘to love’ in a way I found very appealing. A ‘self’ is a recursive structure and ‘love’ is what we do when we copy a piece of some other self onto/into ours. The action applies both to real and fictional people and is broad enough to cover friendship and weak acquaintances. Extending it a bit offers a possible model for how stereotypes work as initiation scripts for new encounters.

    The best definition I’ve seen for ‘famous’ depends on Hofstadter’s description of love. You are famous when you can’t possibly return all the attention you get. Love, therefore, is scarce because attention is scarce.

    The best explanation I’ve seen for the transition children make somewhere around age 7 or 8 when they develop a ‘conscience’ depends on Hofstadter’s description of love. As children mature, their self becomes broader and deeper. At some point, the copying process of others becomes an ‘into’ process instead of an ‘onto’ process. Love is a process with a bandwidth limitation apparently and that makes sense if attention is the primary resource being used. At some point, a self begins to become larger than the input and responds in a different way to it.

    As for being more loved, I suspect that requires a bigger brain. I suspect the advantage we derive from being loved and loving in return drove the evolution of our big brains. Rather than waiting around for larger brains (and women who can give birth to skulls like that) I suspect we are going to have to figure out what the copying process does and imitate it externally. We obviously use a kind of compression technique with our languages, so that has to be part of it. Hofstadter’s Surfaces and Essences book turns to that subject, but not in an effort to expand our capacity to love. He and his co-author look at what languages are mostly and make a persuasive case that they are large analogy webs that go far beyond the lexical structures we write in our dictionaries.

    Obviously, I’ve enjoyed reading Hofstadter. It can’t be done quickly, though.

  • An egalitarian distribution of wealth would lead to a more equal distribution of affection. How many can love a toothless hillbilly? Whereas, foragers aren’t love-starved.

    • UWIR

      “Hillbilly” is more of a description of class than wealth. In fact, I believe there was a show exploring the idea that hillbillies given great wealth would continue exhibiting hillbilly traits.

      • arch1

        (chuckle) You must be confused UWIR, such a concept could never fly. Next you’ll be telling us that in this putative show one of the hillbillies ends up manifesting more true class than any of the ostensibly-classier rich folks who surround him.

  • Gunnar Zarncke

    > We each prefer to love the popular, whom more others also love. So a few get lots of love, while the rest get less.
    > We can more easily love imaginary fictional people than real people. Especially ones that more others love.

    The “we” in this is not qualified. I take it to mean something like “the majority of the population matches this description to a high degree.
    I’m quite sure that a notable fraction doesn’t agree that this matches them (I’d like to see a poll of this). I for one and some of my friends surely don’t fit this. I mean I can stretch but – no (either I have to extremely bend what ‘prefer’ or ‘love’ means or I have very bad introspection (a common human fault so maybe). Example evidence: I didn’t have idols during school and couldn’t really understand why people did.

  • Inequality talk is about taking! Whose affection is Robin plotting to alienate?

  • free_agent

    One interesting exercise is to rate one’s activities in regard to whether they make one loved. E.g., in my case, when I am in a group, especially one where I am presenting or otherwise the center of attention, what is the sex ratio of the group? Commonly, over 75% of the audience will be male. That doesn’t bode well either for gaining love (from women) or showing that I have traits that women find lovable. Compare with the Beatles, who had a high percentage of teenage girl fans, with sometimes hundreds or thousands mobbing them, showing that they had traits that women find lovable and boding well for their future love-status.

    So if one’s primary activities seem to be “sausage parties”, it’s time to redirect one’s efforts.

    • ColtInn

      I think this motivation is the origin of a lot of rock bands. Small time live rock seems to have been on the decline for a while, at least in my neighborhood. I wonder what the substitute/s are.

    • UWIR

      I find it worth noting that the explicit content of your post is that one should curtail one’s time spent in primarily-male groups, and the implicit content of your post is that you expect your reader to be male (expecting your reader to be lesbian is also consistent with your post, but unlikely), thus suggesting that you believe OB to be overwhelmingly male.

      • free_agent

        All of what you say is true, and I’d best a significant amount of money (at moderate odds) that the blog author is male and the bulk of the readers are male.

        OTOH, the original posting seems to follow a male tack on the issue of love, at least within the context of US culture — texts about love for women tend to be oriented more toward “finding The One” than “increasing the amount I’m loved by various people”.

        And the tenor of the comments I’ve seen in this blog seems to be male-typical for our culture.

  • free_agent

    I wonder what the Gini coefficient of love is?

  • ADifferentAnonymous

    Please elaborate on “…at the actual scales of love this just doesn’t seem right to me. Love instead seems scarce at the margin,” particularly with respect to imaginary people. I don’t get this claim at all.

    Occasionally one hears suggestions of people using imaginary or distant-celebrity lovers (lovees?) as substitutes for real ones, but always with the implication that they would drop it in a heartbeat given a ‘real’ relationship.

  • It’s fascinating to see autistics trying to understand love etc.

    “You might think we could pair up and all be very satisfied.”

    Yeah, sure; Robin and I would make a great couple … we just need enter each other’s names into our love generators; what could be simpler?

  • Actualist

    You are right that this is one of our essential problems. However you have framed the problem in such way (“figure out how we might all be much loved”) that no reliable solution can be attained. If you sincerely are interested in the solution then consider the possibility of love itself being the problem: