The Language of Romantic Love

Behavior analysts have focused their attention on a variety of socially important topics. However, there has been relatively less attention and discussion focused on complex human emotional behavior (e.g., love, grief, and rage). The lack of attention to such topics may lead those who are unfamiliar with behavior analysis to the assumption that these topics are beyond the scope of what behavior analysis can address. Fortunately, several distinguished members of our field have offered guidance towards a better understanding of the behavioral perspective as it relates to complex human emotions. I recently had the privilege of speaking to one such member, Dr. Linda Parrott Hayes on the topic of Romantic Love.

Dr. Hayes suggests that one possible reason for the lack of attention to this complex emotion is that “we tend to have such romantic views about it; we fear that a scientific analysis will take away some of its magic or mystery.” However, she reminds us that B.F. Skinner pointed out that a person who appreciates music would not find it any less interesting or any less beautiful because they study it in greater detail. On the contrary, this more thorough account would enhance their appreciation of it. She suggests that this example could be generalized to the study of complex emotional behavior.

Dr. Hayes further contends that a primary obstacle when considering a scientific interpretation of complex phenomena is that emotional actions are poorly conceptualized. It is also difficult to find suitable units of analysis and useful metrics, especially given the fact that more than one person’s behavior is typically involved. However, these reasons for the neglect of such events are without merit. We can already offer interpretations of complex human behavior built on robust empirical evidence through our analysis of verbal behavior.

Dr. Hayes identifies a second consideration when attempting to interpret things such as “love.” This complex emotion is not universally experienced in the same way across people from different cultures. She says that “the kind of romantic, euphoric, sexually arousing experiences that we think of as “falling in love” is a relatively new western concept.” For example, in some cultures, partnerships are arranged, and people don’t know their future spouse before they are married. Hence, much of what we discuss as falling in love is cultural in type. Indeed a lot of our behavior is cultural in nature. Let’s take the example of the concept of “beauty” defined culturally. Essentially this means that a group of people have come to behave similarly in accordance with verbally attributed properties of things. What is “beautiful” varies from group to group. In other words, we are not simply responding to natural features of objects, we are responding to stimulus properties of those objects shaped by our verbal behavior. For these reasons, Dr. Hayes emphasizes consideration of cultural variables when discussing things such as “love.”

My conversation with Dr. Hayes led into a more detailed examination of the behaviors typically associated with “falling in love.” She said: “there’s an awful lot of imagining of the future, and of sharing a life together. From thinking about where to have a second date, to marriage and children, these kinds of behaviors are verbally mediated Almost all of our behavior, with the exception of just the simplest things (and even those have substitutional properties), is verbally mediated.”

When people are falling in love, according to Dr. Hayes, “their ordinary activities are disrupted by intruding thoughts of one’s lover.” The loved person becomes a rich source of extrinsic and intrinsic reinforcement. One of those very powerful reinforcers is direct physical contact with that person, both sexual and non-sexual. The “lover” acts in ways that will potentially contact such strong reinforcers, even when not in their presence. They will engage in all sorts of subtle behavior such as seeing them in their absence, remembering their voice, how they say certain things, how their skin feels, and they will generally spend much of their time thinking about them in some way. She says, “they may even seek out physical stimuli that share some functional properties with that person, such as a picture. They might kiss the picture goodnight, which may seem like a silly thing to do, but it has become a functional alternative to that person in their absence. Other examples include cherishing a partner’s ring, or a sweater, a jacket or some other piece of clothing. In a way, these things allow us to interact with that person, even though they’re not there.” At some level, these things serve as functional substitutes for physical contact with the person who has become the focus of our affection. All of these things are mediated to some extent by our verbal behavior.

The intense feeling of falling in love can be broken down into some of the behaviors discussed above. It shares some characteristics found in other complex emotional behaviors such as jealousy and rage. Complex emotional behavior is central to the human experience. As behavior analysts, we must offer a functional interpretation of the entirety of this experience. This includes advancing scientific accounts of social constructs such as “love.” Those afraid that it might take away its “magic” and “mystery” must consider that such important human emotional behavior must be addressed if we are to inform the general population on issues of emotional health. Else, they are left to seek out advice from popular media outlets that are guided by complex social and financial contingencies, and not by science.

Linda J. Hayes is a Distinguished International Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno where she co-founded the Behavior Analysis Program and served as its Director for more than a decade. She has received numerous awards for her contributions to the training of behavior analysts. She is a fellow of the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) and has served the association in many capacities including two terms as President. Dr. Hayes’ scholarly interests range from the experimental analysis of animal behavior to the logic of science. She is best known for her contributions to behavior theory and philosophy.