Out of Character

The surprising truths about the liar, cheat, sinner (and saint) lurking in all of us

What Does The Phrase "I Love You" Really Mean?

The Economics of Being the First to Drop the L-Bomb

"I love you."  That one little statement can mean so much.  If you ask most people, they'll likely tell you that it stands as a sign of true long-term devotion and that men are much more hesitant to say it.  But, as new research by Joshua Ackerman, Vladis Griskevicius, and Norman Li shows, they'd be wrong.

Ackerman and colleagues took an "evolutionary-economics" approach to the question and came up with some truly surprising findings.  As with most things economic, the issues of value and context are intertwined.  Through multiple studies in which they collected data from actual couples, the researchers found that although most people believe women are more likely to say "I love you" first, it's actually men who do (by a 2:1 ratio).  Why?  Most likely, as the authors speculate, it's because men do not want to miss any opportunity to move the relationship to the next level (read sex here).  Now you might say this is a disparaging view toward men - maybe they just really wanted to commit.  That could be true, except for another important nugget the researchers found:  after the onset of sexual activity in a relationship, men reported much less happiness at being told "I love you" by their partners than did women.  If you're a hard-core Darwinian, this makes sense - once a seed from an unlimited source of seeds is planted, it can make sense to begin looking for other fields.  Women, however, have to devote huge metabolic resources to gestating a baby, and so for them, having a man say "I love you" after a relationship moves to a sexual level is much more positive than having him say it before.  In fact, when the researchers asked their participants how honest they felt expressions of love were, a fascinating pattern emerged.  Women believed it to be more honest post-sex than pre-sex.  Men, however, viewed it as more honest pre-sex.  It seems that men and women may have different senses of what "I love you" actually means:  You hear it as "Let's take it to the next level" if you're a man but as "I'm in it for the long haul" if you're a woman.

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As we often point-out, the social mind is continually subject to the push and pull of the ant and the grasshopper (i.e., mental mechanisms favoring short-term gains vs. long-term gains).  And there are fewer venues in life where these different goals are more obvious than in love and lust.  You can almost hear this battle unfolding in the minds of Ackerman and colleagues' participants.  It's just another great example demonstrating that what we believe and how we act is often much more dependent on context than we think.

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David DeSteno, Ph.D., directs the Social Emotions Group at Northeastern University.

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