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The Psychology of Love

Can psychological research tell us anything about love?

What is love? How do we define it? Is love one thing or a set of many things? Are there different types of love? Is love the same for different types of relationships?

Even as far back as the ancient Greeks, people have struggled with the nature of love. Poets have written about love perhaps as long as poets have been writing.

Psychologists may lack the eloquence of poets but through empirical research, we can study the nature of love systematically. We can observe people in different situations, interview them about their life experiences and develop questionnaires to investigate people's attitudes and behaviors. This way, definitions of love are drawn not only from personal opinion but from scientific investigations.

How are factor analyses used in the study of love?

Is love one entity or is it made up of many different parts? One way to explore the structure of love is through factor analysis. This is an important statistical technique that shows how different items group together. It is used to investigate if a single idea is made up of separate sub-categories.

Researchers create questionnaires based on a series of items, words, or scenarios related to love. They then ask research participants to rate their love relationships using these questionnaires. Through factor analyses, researchers can then identify clusters of items that inter-correlate (or group together). These clusters, or factors, can then be labeled as components of love.

Are there different types of love?

Some researchers suggest that there are many types of love. Others suggest one core feature to love that cuts across different types of relationships.

For example, in 1977 using factor analysis of 1500 items related to love, John Lee categorized 6 major types of love: eros (erotic desire for an idealized other), ludus (playful or gamelike love), storge (slowly developing attachment), mania (obsessive and jealous love), agape (altruistic love), and pragma (practical love).

In their own 1984 factor analytic study, Robert Sternberg and Susan Gracek identified one overarching factor, which they termed interpersonal communication, sharing, and support (later called intimacy).

What is the triangular theory of love?

Drawing from previous research, Robert Sternberg proposed the triangular theory of love in a 1986 paper. In this model, all love is composed of three elements: intimacy, passion, and commitment.

Intimacy involves closeness, caring, and emotional support. Passion refers to states of emotional and physiological arousal. This includes sexual arousal and physical attraction as well as other kinds of intense emotional experiences. Commitment involves a decision to commit to loving the other and trying to maintain that love over time.

Using different combinations of these three elements, Sternberg described eight different kinds of love: nonlove (low on all 3 elements), liking (high on intimacy only), infatuated love (passion only), empty love (commitment only), romantic love (intimacy and passion), companionate love (intimacy and commitment), fatuous love (passion and commitment), and consummate love (all three together).

How does love differ for lovers, family and friends?

Research suggests that the feeling of intimacy, emotional connection, and closeness is central to all types of love. What may differ across relationships is the degree of passion as well as the level of commitment.

We can speculate that all love relationships would have high levels of intimacy; romantic love would have high levels of passion; and familial and long-term romantic relationships high levels of commitment. In fact, Sternberg and Gracek found that the intimacy component of love cut across all close relationships, with similar ratings for family, friendship, and romantic relationships.

In a 1985 study by Keith Davis, spouses or lovers did not differ that much from close friends on liking (similar to Sternberg's concept of intimacy), but did differ on loving (which they conceptualized as liking plus passion and commitment).

Do approaches to romantic love vary across cultures?

The distinction between collectivist cultures and individualistic cultures is frequently made in cross-cultural studies. In collectivist cultures, found in many Asian countries, an individual's identity is tied to his or her social group. In individualistic countries, such as the United States and Canada, the individual's independent identity is prioritized.

People from collectivist cultures expect love to grow as the marriage unfolds over time. There is less emphasis on romance and infatuation. Instead, people emphasize practical concerns, such as income potential and compatibility with the extended family. In contrast, people from individualist countries emphasize the passionate side of love when looking for a spouse. They focus on feelings of excitement and physical attraction.

Using Sternberg's triangular theory of love, Ge Gao measured the role of intimacy, passion, and commitment in 90 Chinese and 77 American couples in a 2001 study. Ratings of passion were higher in American than Chinese couples, but ratings of intimacy and commitment did not differ.

If you want to read more about the psychology of love, sex, marriage, and family (plus many, many more topics), check out The Handy Psychology Answer Book, available at Amazon and Visible Ink Press.


Gao, G. (2001). "Intimacy, Passion and Commitment in Chinese and U.S. American Romantic Relationships." International Journal of Intercultural Relations. 25(3), 329-42.

Sternberg, R. (1986). "A Triangular Theory of Love." Psychological Review. 93(2),119-35.

Sternberg, R. & Gracek, S. (1984). "The Nature of Love." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 4 (2), 312-29.

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