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What’s love got to do with it?

Tina Turner posed the question in 1984. This Valentine’s Day, we asked applied behavior analysis expert Laura Dudley for some answers. Photo via iStock.
Since the beginning of time, people have been creating music, literature, paintings, and much more in the name of love.

The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson famously told us, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

But what is love? And why does it make us do the things we do? On this Valentine’s Day, we posed those questions to Laura Dudley, assistant clinical professor and director of the Applied Behavior Analysis program at Northeastern, who suggests that behavioral science may have something to do with it. 

What does it mean to be in love?

For centuries, philosophers, artists, and scientists have attempted to define the concept of being in love. “Being in love” is what behaviorists would call a private event. That is, it is a feeling that is experienced by one person, not observable to others. People may know what it feels like to be in love, but they may have a difficult time describing what that means in words. Other private events include thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

While you may not be able to directly observe “being in love,” there are plenty of telltale signs. Some of those signs may manifest in positive ways, and some may be downright unpleasant. People may experience physiological reactions such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and flushed cheeks. There is even research to suggest that one’s voice may get higher, and pupils get more dilated when in love. In addition to experiencing physiological reactions, people engage in behaviors such as eating more (or less), pacing, sleeping less, and yes, purchasing gifts for a loved one on Valentine’s Day.

What happens when people fall in love?

Neuroscientists suggest that changes in hormone levels may offer an explanation for why people behave the way they do when they’re in love. Behaviorists might suggest that classical conditioning is at play. That is, the object of one’s affection may be associated with other events and stimuli that elicit positive feelings and responses.

Most people are familiar with Pavlov’s research involving classical conditioning. Pavlov discovered that after delivering meat powder to dogs paired with a ringing bell, the ringing bell began to elicit the same responses as the meat powder, even in the absence of the meat powder. The ringing bell had become a conditioned stimulus. This may partially explain the physiological responses that occur when we are in the presence of a loved one. 

Whereas Pavlov’s experiments involved clear conditioned and unconditioned stimuli, when it comes to falling in love it may be less clear what specific events, stimuli, or experiences lead to a loved one eliciting these responses. It may be that the loved one is associated with a prior event in one’s life, or there may be something that occurs during our initial encounters with the person. In any event, what results is a powerful stimulus-response relation with the loved one being the antecedent stimulus, and the response being any number of feelings and responses that are elicited by that person.

Is there any substitute for romantic love today, on a holiday that thrives on it?

Being in love is no doubt associated with positive emotions and behaviors. If you are not in love this Valentine’s Day, you might find that a phone call to a family member, or an afternoon spent with a friend brings you many of the same positive feelings experienced by those in love—but without the large bill.