Why Do We Get Crushes on Both People and Stuff?

Can an entire culture share the same fantasy?

Posted Sep 06, 2009

You know what it's like to have a crush on somebody, right? You can't stop thinking about that somebody, you spend hours daydreaming about your future with them, your desire for that somebody is so overwhelming that it verges on the unbearable.

But have you thought about the fact that this is oddly similar to how you sometimes feel about certain desirable consumer products, from a guitar to an iPhone to a car? It's like the somebody: you feel like your life will only be complete once you acquire the product, you long for it, you are certain that once you have it everything will finally fall into place.

Why should we have such similar fantasies about romantic partners and consumer goods? And I've got some more questions for you. So, let's say that when you were in the 10th grade you developed a staggering crush on, I don't know, Pat, and eventually you went out with Pat and learned that Pat was actually a boring asshole. You then gave up having crushes on people, right? Wrong! You have kept right on with the crush business, despite the fact that it has been demonstrated to you again and again that when you actually get the person or the product, it turns out to be a disappointment, at least relative to the fantasy.

So , that's my second question-can you name another area of life where we hang onto beliefs that are so thoroughly disconfirmed by our experience? Why is that we continue to believe that we've just got to have some person or some thing, when we should know perfectly well that it's not going to change anything?

Third question: How come I know this about you? Psychologists sometimes study people's fantasies, and the basic assumption is that a person's fantasies will be related to their personality and biography. But I know nothing of your history or personality. Here we have a fantasy that seems to be shared by nearly everybody in the society. What causes this?

You might think you know the answer to that one: This is just the way human beings are. Humans everywhere develop longings for what they don't have: the grass is always greener over there, etc. Well, yes and no. Sure, all people develop desires for what they don't have. On the other hand, these powerful longings that are never quite fulfilled may not be universal at all. Historians who have studied romantic crushes have typically concluded that they didn't exist in earlier ages. After all, how much sense do crushes make in a society where any contact with a potential marriage partner has to be arranged by your parents? And most people in earlier historical periods haven't had a lot of consumer goods to fantasize about.

This suggests that the odd behavior of crushes on people and stuff may be generated by our culture. And that would make some sense, because high consumption economies do not work if people are satisfied with what they have. For our economy to work, we always need to want what we don't have. And, strangely enough, we do.

To learn more about this topic, please visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photo by Dan Catchpole.