Are Romantic Beliefs Rational?

Platitudes about love resonate with intuition but not logic.

Posted Feb 12, 2020

Laura Ockel/Wikimedia
Source: Laura Ockel/Wikimedia

Roses are red. Violets are blue. I have logically verified my love for you.

This poem isn’t likely to win many hearts on Valentine’s Day. Declarations of love are supposed to drip with passion and sentiment. They’re supposed to express your deepest devotion to your one true love, the center of your life and the object of your desires, whom you cherish regardless of what others say or the obstacles in your way, then and now, always and forever.

This view of love, captured in greeting cards, love songs, and romantic comedies, is not the only view. Some people see love as a feeling that develops slowly and takes work to maintain. They believe that a person can love more than one partner in a lifetime (or at once) and can love some things about a partner without loving everything. They recognize that love will not always save a relationship, because love changes as people change or because love can take a backseat to the other commitments in one’s life.

Whether your view of love is idealistic or more pragmatic can be diagnosed with the Romantic Beliefs Scale, developed by psychologists Suan Sprecher and Sandra Metts. This scale assesses whether you believe in love at first sight (“When I find my true love, I will probably know it soon after we meet”), whether you believe in soulmates (“There will be only one real love for me”), whether you believe that love conquers all (“If I love someone, I know I can make the relationship work, despite any obstacles”), and whether you idolize love (“The relationship I have with my true love will be nearly perfect”).

People who score high on the Romantic Beliefs Scale also score high on measures of femininity, eroticism, and passion. Young adults score higher than older adults, and Americans score higher than people from other cultures. But what may be most telling about romantic beliefs is that they are endorsed by people who rely on intuition and rejected by people who rely more on logic.

The psychologists Bastien Tremoliere and Hakim Djeriouat recently looked at whether people’s tendency to reflect on their intuitions—a disposition known as “cognitive reflection”—predicts their endorsement of romantic beliefs. The researchers’ rationale was that romantic beliefs often reflect unrealistic expectations about love and relationships, and people who hold such beliefs may not reflect on the validity of those expectations. Intuitions about what love should be may cloud their perception of what love actually is.

Tremoliere and Djeriouat measured cognitive reflection with a standard set of brain teasers known as the Cognitive Reflection Test, or CRT. Each question on the CRT is designed to elicit an inaccurate gut response, which can be overridden upon further reflection. Consider this question: “In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?” The correct answer is 47, given that the patch must have covered half the lake one day prior to covering the entire lake, but the question is designed to elicit an intuitive response of 24, or half of 48.

Adults who perform well on the CRT perform well on many other tests of reasoning, including those that measure logical reasoning, probabilistic reasoning, and economic reasoning, regardless of how old they are or how generally intelligent they are. Adults who perform well on the CRT are also more likely to understand science and accept science, more likely to reject superstition and other paranormal beliefs, and more likely to distinguish true news from fake news and coherent ideas from BS.

In line with these findings, Tremoliere and Djeriouat found that adults with higher CRT scores tended to reject romantic beliefs, as assessed by the Romantic Belief Scale. This finding held regardless of participants’ age or gender and regardless of their competence at basic math (which is necessary for scoring high on the CRT but not sufficient). Participants with high CRT scores not only rejected romantic beliefs but also rejected paranormal beliefs, such as belief in psychokinesis, witchcraft, and precognition. Romantic beliefs may thus play a similar role to paranormal beliefs in everyday reasoning; both are endorsed by people who prioritize intuition over reflection but rejected by people who prioritize reflection over intuition.

Romantic beliefs may not be the most logical defensible beliefs, but does that matter? Do they affect the well-being of those who hold them? Research on the dynamics of long-term relationships suggests they do. Couples that endorse unrealistic beliefs about romantic partners—that they should always agree, that they should be able to read each other’s minds, that they should be happy with each other just the way they are—report lower satisfaction with their relationship, an inability to communicate effectively with each other, and an inability to solve their relationship problems. Romantic beliefs that exclude the possibility of growth and change can lead to relationships that do not grow or change.

So, with Valentine’s Day approaching, what’s the rational way to celebrate? Create a spreadsheet with your partner to weigh the pros and cons of your relationship? Get a head start on your joint income taxes? Perhaps it’s just recognizing that Valentine’s Day is part of the unrealistic folklore surrounding love and that what happens on this day shouldn’t make or break a relationship. If Valentine’s Day is your litmus test for true love, you may want to step back and reflect on whether true love is a coherent idea and whether searching for it does more harm than good.