4 Ways That Modern Love Really Is Blind

Shallowness and jealousy have been with us a long time.

Posted Sep 15, 2014

Poprotskiy Alexey/Shutterstock

As Jack Nicholson once said, “Almost everybody's happy to be a fool for love."

It's highly doubtful that he had evolutionary psychology on his mind when he made this statement, but nonetheless he tapped into a fundamental human foible: When it comes to dating, mating, and relationships, it can be hard for us to see straight.

Why is making accurate assessments so fraught with difficulty in romantic contexts? From an evolutionary perspective, these biases helped our ancestors achieve reproductive success in a prehistoric environment in which that was difficult to do. In a thinly populated world, there were far fewer mating opportunities in a relatively short lifetime. They were also under great threat from infectious diseases and starvation.

Today, however, these challenges are far less relevant.

Think of sugar: We developed a taste for the sweet substance because it provides energy and helps us store fat. For our ancestors, food sources could be scarce and unpredictable—there were no supermarkets with countless choices for ancient consumers—so hanging on to fat was a survival advantage. Yet in modern times, sugar is so abundant it poses a health risk.

In other words, there's a mismatch between our ancient genes and our modern lives—in our diet, and in the romantic realm. Here are four common biases when it comes to love:

  1. We pay too much attention to looks. According to research, physical attractiveness in the romantic realm is an advertisement of health and fitness. In the ancient world, infectious diseases were far more prevalent than they are today. Muscular men with chiseled features, and women with an optimal waist-to-hip ratio were advertisements that their offspring stood a greater chance of surviving and reproducing. Studies show that we still have an attentional bias for beauty.

  2. Women underestimate commitment. Pregnancy and lactation are costly for women, which likely encouraged their preference for mates who demonstrate clear signs of long-term commitment and the provision of resources during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Indeed, research shows that women tend to underestimate the level of commitment on the part of men. After all, it would be more costly for a woman to have sex with a man who will love her and leave her than to underestimate a man's interest and wait until a more committed partner comes along. This may explain why some women may debate for stretches of time whether the number of calls, texts, emails, and dates initiated by a suitor add up to real signs of interest and a possible long-term relationship.

  3. Men overperceive sexual interest. Like their counterparts in the animal kingdom, human males invest less in reproduction and can potentially produce far more offspring in his lifetime than women. Thus it is to their reproductive benefit to have a variety of mating partners, which likely encouraged a keener ability to pick up on signals of interest on the part of women. After all, there's more to lose in underestimating sexual interest and missing out on a sexual opportunity than there is in overestimating sexual interest and losing time pursuing a woman who isn't interested. Research consistently shows that men are biased toward overestimating the degree to which a woman may be interested in him. Perhaps this explains why some guys come on too strong, or don't give up when it seems it's time.

  4. We all get jealous way too easily. The green-eyed monster may not be a flattering human emotion, but has served a useful function over the course of human evolution. In women, jealousy serves to prevent their mates from providing resources for other female rivals. For men, jealousy prevents cuckoldry, i.e., investing in genetically unrelated children. The consequences for both genders would be, evolutionarily speaking, costly. Yet today, both resources and paternity certainty can be more easily accessed, and thus jealous responses can unfortunately misfire.

Dr. Mehta is the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

Connect with Dr. Mehta on the web at: drvinitamehta.com and on twitter and Pinterest! And you can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.

Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse.

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