Why Does The Heart Want What It Wants?

Many romanticize attraction, but perhaps there are psychological explanations.

Posted Dec 22, 2015

 Art by Alexi Berry, used with permission
Source: Art by Alexi Berry, used with permission

“'The heart wants what it wants.' Emily Dickinson wrote that. Though, depending on how old you are, you might associate it with Woody Allen or Selena Gomez.” (Glass, I; 2015). But why does the heart want what the heart wants? Is it as magical as romantics like to believe? Is it as inexplicable as those quoted seem to purport? In this post I’ll explore some of the psychology that contributes to attraction.

Emily Dickinson originally wrote the words in a letter attempting to console a friend whose husband was going to be gone for some time. The tone of the letter, however, suggests there is no consolation, as of course he will be missed incredibly. In the letter she writes, “not to see what we love, is very terrible- and talking- doesn’t ease it- and nothing does- but just itself.” (Sewall, R.B., 1998). The quote indicates that no amount of thought can overcome the longing that the emotion of love creates. (For more on whether this is scientifically accurate, see Psychology Today Blogger Paul Thagard’s post, “Does the Heart Want What it Wants?”)

“The heart wants what it wants” was Woody Allen’s infamous response to questions of his scandalous behavior when he left Mia Farrow for her 18-year-old adopted daughter. According to his article, “Our Woody Allen Problem”, James Rosen says Allen told Time magazine, “there’s no logic to those things”, “you meet someone and fall in love and that’s that.” Again, the words are muttered to explain love and attraction dominating over logic.

In her hit song, “The Heart Wants What it Wants”, Selena Gomez sings, “You might be right but I don't care, There's a million reasons why I should give you up, But the heart wants what it wants.” It is obvious from the lyric that what most call love and attraction win over logical thought.

This theme is evident beyond these pop culture references. I’ve sat in sessions where similar explanations were offered for behavior similar to that above. But as I tell my students, this is psychology, and we seek to know the “why” beneath the surface explanation.

Attraction is one of my favorite topics in psychology. Most people would like to attribute attraction to some mystical force that brings people together. But there are some scientific explanations.

In a chapter from a text written for introduction to psychology, the author writes how most people want to believe they have found or will find their perfect match. He then jokes it will more likely be their perfect match in a five-mile radius. (Coon, Mitterer; pg 558). This joke demonstrates the power of proximity in attraction. Humans tend to form bonds with those that are in close proximity to us regularly. Proximity isn’t just about meeting that special someone you find yourself attracted to. It is also about being in close contact with someone and developing an attraction as a result. This is demonstrated consistently in movies and television, as well as real life.

There is a saying that “opposites attract.” Although I find this to be true in more subtle ways (this will be addressed shortly) the truth is, most people marry within their own race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and religion. We tend to find ourselves attracted to, romantically and otherwise, people that are like us, including our beliefs.

There are deeper, more psychoanalytic aspects of attraction as well. In the excellent book, “A General Theory Of Love”, the authors discuss how memory formation in our childhood leads to attraction to others later in life. Basically, we form strong memories from our early childhood experiences. These unconscious memories guide our attraction to others. The unconscious picks up on the subtlest cues, and though consciously we may not understand why we are attracted to someone, we nonetheless are. This theory beautifully explains how people find themselves attracted to someone who proves to be unhealthy for them. Everyone knows of someone who was attracted to another who later turns out to be unhealthy for her. This could be chance if it happened once, but often people demonstrate patterns in their relationships and to whom they are attracted. This happens when codependents are attracted to alcoholics (who, at the time they met, wasn’t a problem drinker) or an abusive partner, or someone who cannot be faithful. It doesn’t always have to be this dramatic, but extreme examples are readily identifiable. Often there was a parent or other close caregiver that had a similar issue to the partner.  The book does an excellent job of supporting this theory, and illuminating much of what goes into attraction.

The next aspect of attraction I’d like to discuss is the psychoanalytic, and more specifically, Jungian, idea of projection. Many people confuse projections with having found their soul mate. A projection is an internal ideal, thought process, or state that is attributed to another person. In other words, the individual has an idea, unconsciously, of how they want and need their ideal mate to be, and they place these attributes and qualities into another individual. They then observe their love interest’s behavior, and relate it to their ideal. If they do not recognize the projection, they then believe they have found their soul mate. Later, as they come to know the person better, the partner begins to fall short of their expectations. Falling short of expectations so consistently she cannot be the ideal, and often the search for the real soul mate begins again. This pattern of disappointment will continue until an individual realizes the reality of projection, and does not give in to the fantasy that they have found their soul mate.

Earlier I mentioned subtle ways opposites attract. There is a psychological theory called compensation. In compensation, one overdoes an aspect where they feel insecure. For example, they might buy big trucks when they do not feel very manly. Compensation in regard to attraction is similar, although it relates more to the choice in a partner than a weakness. Carl Jung identified personality traits people tend to favor: introvert / extrovert, feeling / thinking, intuition / sensing. It is often contended that people tend to choose a partner that helps bring them into balance. For example, outgoing, social people often pair with quieter, more reserved types. This may often be a function of compensation, which has contributed to the attraction and emotional attachment.

Another aspect of relationships that many prefer to ignore is the bargaining process. This is not an external event, but an internal one. Each person entering a relationship is aware of the attributes that they bring to the table. These can include attractiveness, financial security, a quality of sweetness, intelligence, being a giving person, being attentive, considerate, good in bed, etc. Knowing what attributes’ one brings to the table, the individual wants a comparable partner. This does not mean that one necessarily wants someone exactly as attractive, nice, financially secure, etcetera, as he is, but it means that he wants an equal or slightly better bargain in line with what he values. For example, how many very attractive people have you seen with a partner who is financially secure? The person knows he or she brings financial well-being and security and all the luxuries that come with wealth, and in turn he or she values a physically attractive partner.  The attractive person in this example knows they are very attractive and values financial security.

This example is simplified, although it exists.  The actual bargaining process is more complicated due to the amount of aspects to consider, but this exemplifies the issue. It seems rudimentary that one wouldn’t want anyone beneath what he brings to the table. At the same time, what if he ended up with someone who brings much more? The result would be insecurity, as he would feel the other would soon discover he doesn’t measure up and dump him. He might constantly be on guard to protect himself and catch signs at the earliest possible moment.

It is easy to see how although attraction is a multifaceted and complicated process, it is not all mystery and magic. There are some theories that help explain it, and this post isn’t all-inclusive. Hopefully, however, it removes some of the mystery, and may help challenge what originally seemed like an emotion you are powerless over.  This relates to other posts I’ve written focused on questioning thinking and using mindfulness to choose your thoughts.

Copyright, 2015, William Berry

Armato, A; James, T; Gomez, S; Jost, D; 2013; The Heart Wants What it Wants; Hollywood Records

Coon, D; Mitterer, J; 2010; Introduction to Psychology: Gateways To Mind and Behavior, 12th Ed.; Wadsworth, Cengage Learning; Belmont, CA.

Glass, I; 2015; The Heart Wants What it Wants; This American Life; First broadcast October 30, 2015. Transcript retrieved from: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/571/transcript

Rosen, J; 2015; Our Woody Allen Problem; Psychology Today, October, 2015; pg.29

Sewall, R.B; 1998; The Life of Emily Dickinson / Edition 1; Harvard; pg. 492.

Thagard, P; 2015; Does the Heart Want What it Wants?; Psychology Today Online; retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hot-thought/201505/does-the-heart-w...

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