Social Psychology – Understanding Love

By: Guari Sarda-Joshi, PhD Candidate

Love is often considered the domain of bards and writers, and maybe even philosophers; but not of scientists. In fact, scientists have been just as fascinated with the process of falling in love, being in love and even falling out of love [1]. Neuroscientists have studied brain patterns typical of people at different stages in a relationship, and sociologists have tried to understand the impact of social and cultural norms on the way love manifests itself. It is left to social psychologists to understand how an individual experiences the event of falling in love, how they define their intimate relationships and what different patterns of intimate relationships exist [2].

The very popular – Passion!

The most popular form of love is called ‘Passionate love’, and is an intense and often unrealistic (and unsustainable) emotional response to another person [3]. People find it difficult to describe this experience, possibly since the logical description of the experience requires effort of the left hemisphere of the brain, while the actual experience seems to be concentrated in processes that occur in the right hemisphere [1]. Although the stuff of fairy- tales, an approximation of passionate love can be developed even in a laboratory setting by asking people to hold hands or gaze into each other’s eyes. This may be due to the associations that people have between such acts and the event of being in love [4]. It may also be that evolutionarily, people are primed by their genes to form interpersonal bonds when they meet an appropriate partner, as the formation of such bonds are more likely to be associated with the production of an offspring and the care of that offspring [1].

An important factor in understanding the different forms that romantic relationships seem to take is the individual’s Sociosexuality. This variable suggests the extent to which sexual satisfaction forms part of the motivation to form and maintain relationships [1]. People who have unrestricted sociosexuality are more likely to form relationships based on sexual attraction, are more comfortable with transient relationships and are less concerned with emotional closeness and commitment. On the other hand people with restricted sociosexuality seem to believe that sexual satisfaction is closely linked with committed intimate relationships; and disapprove of relationships formed on the basis of sexual attraction alone [1].

It seems that a number of different events need to occur for someone to fall in love [4]. First of all, culturally acceptable romantic images need to be available in order for the individual to form an idea of being able to fall in love. Secondly, they need to meet the appropriate person. The exact characteristics that define ‘appropriateness’ differ based on factors like gender, sexual orientation, age, cultural norms, and personal expectations. Finally, the person needs to experience strong emotional arousal that can be interpreted as love [1, 3]. Given the right set of conditions, people tend to interpret any emotional response from frustration to sexual arousal as a sign of being in love. Most cultures have some form of socially accepted image for ‘people in love’. These are transmitted through children’s tales, stories, literature and examination of the lives of public figures. Using these images, as well as information about their cultural and personal needs, people are able to decide the characteristics of the person they could love. If it becomes possible to share an emotional experience with such a person, the individual may start to ‘fall in love’.

This may perhaps explain why some people (prototypically women) reject romantic overtures of persons they ‘consider just a friend’. It may be that this person does not fit their idea of a romantic partner, or that they have not been able to experience significant emotional arousal in the presence of that individual.

Types of love

When people claim that they are in love, or in a relationship; they can mean one of many different things. Given the different motivations that people can have to find a romantic partner, it is not surprising that their descriptions of their relationships are so different [4]. Research by Hendrick and Hendrick has identified six different love styles that people seem to follow [1, 4].

  • Passionate love: It is characterized by intense attraction and sexual arousal, and has been emphasized by both sexes.
  • Friendship love: This is a gentler from of love, based on a well-established knowledge of each other. This form of love is more emphasized by women.
  • Game – playing love: This form of love is shallower, and based on excitement. It has been found to be associated with unhappy relationships, and seems to be mentioned more by men.
  • Possessive love: This type of love is often found to be associated with insecurities in the person who reports it, as well as with inefficient attachment styles. Women who report such a form of love also tend to report the presence of aggression in the relationship.
  • Logical love: This style of love is based on more pragmatic factors (and thus, it is often scorned upon by the believers of romantic love). Women seem to report logical love more frequently.
  • Selfless love: This is another popular notion of love, and involves sacrificing personal interests to support those of the partner.

Another conceptualization of love was provided by Sternberg, who believed that love has three major components – Intimacy, Commitment and Passion [1]. An individual may experience any one of seven forms of love depending of the components of love that were experienced. Intimacy is similar to the concept of friendship, passion is associated with emotional and sexual arousal, and commitment is the extent to which the individual is invested in the relationship [2]. According to this theory, people can move from one kind of love to another as their relationship progresses. Sternberg also suggests that while people most aspire to experience a consummate love that encompasses all three components, this form of love is the most difficult to attain [2].


[1] Baron, Robert A. “Interpersonal Attraction and Close Relationships”. In Social Psychology, (12th ed.). Mumbai: Pearson Education, 2009. Pp. 224 – 267.

[2] Baumeister, Roy F. & Bushman Brad J. “Close Relationships: Passion, Intamacy and Sexuality”. In Social Psychology & Human Nature (2nd ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011, pp. 351 – 390.

[3] DeLamater, John D. & Myers, Daniel J. “Interpersonal Attraction and Relationships”. In Social Psychology (7th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011. Pp. 144 – 165.

[4] Kassin, Saul M., Fein, Steven & Markus, Hazel Rose. “Attraction and close relationships” In Social psychology (8th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2010. Pp. 203 – 250.