Archive for November, 2006


November 26, 2006

Just over one month ago (although it seems much longer), my family had a bit of a shock. My son, nearly 18 years old, went to the doctor to check on a sore throat that wouldn’t go away…and left the hospital two days later with a diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes. He had lost over 15 pounds (which he did not have to spare), and checked in at just over 100 pounds; yes, he had lost 13% of his body weight, mostly due to dehydration. Normal Blood Glucose (BG) levels are in the neighborhood of 70-100 mg/dl; my son maxed out the doctor’s BG monitor at 600. He was checked in for an overnight stay at the hospital, got lots of saline solution in an intravenous drip, learned how to test his own BG levels and inject himself with insulin. It was only the beginning of a routine he will have to follow for the rest of his life, barring technological advances.

Actually, technological advances are progressing at a fast and furious pace. The insulin he is injecting (two types, a slow, long-lasting one and a quick-working, briefer sort) were invented less than a decade ago, and are a tremendous improvement over what was available when my son was born. An insulin inhaler has recently been approved (although it would not replace all of his injections), and there are insulin pumps that can deliver insulin more-or-less constantly for a period of days. The plus side is, he would not have to inject himself nearly as often; the down side is that he would be wearing a device constantly. Of course, these days we all wear cell phones attached to our hips anyway…

I am not complaining, and to his credit, neither is my son. I can think of a thousand worse things to have happened—including the same diagnosis a century ago. Indeed, there is actually quite a lot to be grateful for in this diagnosis. It may actually increase my lifespan.

Let me explain. As I write this, I am sitting on a couch, arranged in a comfortable viewing distance from a television. It would be so simple, as it often is in our modern society, for me to spend a great deal of time on this couch, watching that television. It would certainly be simpler than heading outside for a walk…or even… a run. It is much easier, much more reinforcing (in the short run), to eat pie, than to go on a bike ride. Exercise is self-punishing. Eating is (often) self-reinforcing. I know I would probably live longer if I got in the habit of walking, biking, or otherwise exercising instead of sitting on the couch…but dammit, it is just not something that is easily shaped by the immediate contingencies.

But…my son’s diabetes changes the timeline. The things that are in my long-term best interest are in his short-term best interest. Put more scarily, the foods that could kill me sooner in the long run could kill him sooner in the short run. Exercise, self-monitoring of health, and a “Mediterranean diet”, are all things that would help me to live a longer, healthier life; they are also things that help my son simply live. Our whole family is cutting down on fats, watching carbs, losing weight, and increasing exercise. (In truth, we ate a healthier-than-average diet before this, but there is always room for improvement.)

Advances in medicine will, I hope, mean that my son’s diagnosis has absolutely no effect on his lifespan. Understanding diabetes will, though, probably mean an additional few years for me.

The science behind it…

It may seem strange to hear that Behaviorism, that stronghold of determinism, has a line of research on choice, and a more specific line of research on self-control. We define these terms a bit differently than others might, though… A choice is any situation in which more than one response is possible. Yeah, that’s pretty much all of them. Note, we do not look at “choice” as something that you do, but rather something in your environment that you respond to. What is important is the effect of various conditions in the environment that dictate your response—will you do A or B? What are the characteristics of A and B that determine your behavior?

In a self-control paradigm, the person (or rat, or pigeon, or whatever) is presented with a choice between two alternatives, a smaller, sooner reward (SSR) and a larger, later reward (LLR). Choosing the SSR is termed “impulsive”; choosing the LLR is “self-controlled”. This experiment can be run with pigeons, using access to grain (2 seconds access now, or 4 seconds access three seconds later), or on people, using money (ten dollars now, or twenty next week). In each case, many variations on the theme are easily set up; we can vary the size of each reward, the length of delay before the larger reward, the difference in size of the two rewards, the time between when the decision is made and when the reward will be available.

It turns out that this last one is a very important variable. While it might be tempting to choose ten dollars now instead of twenty next month if the ten-dollar bill is sitting right in front of you, it is much easier to choose the larger reward if the choice is between ten dollars in three months or twenty in four months. A little perspective makes all the difference. Interestingly, pigeons make the same choice: while they will choose the SSR if there is no delay between their choice and the presentation of the reward, if there is an 18 second delay between their choice and the sooner of the two rewards, they will choose the LLR (in both choices, the mechanism re-sets after 30 seconds, so choosing the SSR does not allow more runs through the process). Self-control is not so much a human characteristic as it is a function of the schedule of reinforcement…

What is more, if we give pigeons the ability to make a choice now (called a controlling choice) about which choice they will get to make later—that is, they can peck a button now to determine whether they will get the 18-second delay choice or the immediate choice—they learn to choose the delayed choice, and to maximize their reward. It is the pigeon equivalent of parking your car a mile from your office in the morning, when you have energy, so that after work when you are tired enough that a walk (which is in your long-term best interest) is not as appealing as just crawling into your car (very appealing in the short term), you have no choice—the car is a mile away. (One of my students—a retired engineer—did this last summer; he significantly increased his exercise, and lost 11 pounds over the course of the summer!)

Another key variable is the length of time between the sooner and later outcomes. The more distant the later outcome, the less influence it will have over our behavior. This should come as no surprise—we know that both reinforcement and punishment work better the more immediate they are. Reinforcement works via meliorization, not optimization—that is, it is driven by what is better in the short term, not what is ideal in the long run. (So is evolution, for that matter, which is why we suffer with bad backs and impacted wisdom teeth.) There is no guarantee that what is in one’s best long-term interest will be reflected in the short-term contingencies. A big part of “self-control” is making the controlling choices to make the long-term contingencies much more apparent in the controlled choices.

And of course, this is what is happening to our family, thanks to my son’s diabetes diagnosis. The long-term punishing consequences are no longer long-term. The same things that could take time off my life some decades into the future could put my son into the hospital (or worse) in very little time. The contingencies are not delayed, but are immediate. The controlling choice has been made for us. What remains is fairly simple. We pretty much have to take the path that leads to a longer, healthier life.

Like I said, we are not complaining.


labels (love, part 3)

November 21, 2006

So…where does that leave us? What are the differences between saying that love is a label we put on a fuzzy category of public and private behavior, and saying that it is an internal state that causes these public and private behaviors?

Well, part of the difference (improvement, I would say) is not so much that it answers some of the age-old questions about love, but rather that it suggests that the age-old questions might be wrong. Copernicus did not answer the question “how does the sun climb through the sky?”, but rather showed that the question itself was faulty. A change of perspective allowed him to answer the question “why does the sun appear to climb through the sky?”, which not only appeased the earlier curiosity, but also added tremendously to our understanding of the universe.

How can I tell the difference between True Love and simple Infatuation?” (One love researcher, when asked this question, answered simply “hindsight.”) The question presupposes that the two terms are definable (say, by a standard list of characteristics for each) and that these definitions can be compared with one another for similarities and differences. In truth, there is no reason that both definitions, fuzzy and individual, cannot overlap broadly. Indeed, if the researcher mentioned parenthetically above is right, then the definitions are identical while one is in the midst of it, and only after sufficient time has passed can one see, in hindsight, the key difference.

What is the chemical responsible for love?” Um…this presupposes that there is one thing called love, with one chemical signature. This may sound reasonable at first…so let me use a different example. Or two or three. Picture someone with OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). I ask students this one, and I get a classroom full of disparate descriptions; this one checks stoves, this one touches things in multiples of three, this one has a ritual about light switches. There may or may not be one single cause of these very different behavioral patterns. We have labeled a spectrum of behaviors “OCD” because we see similarities, but we can only infer that the similarities are because of an underlying cause. There may (or may not) be different causes for each of the different patterns, which we have grouped together under one label. Our labeling of something does not magically make it the same as other things with that label; it is what it is, regardless of how we label it.

Another example, from an argument I had recently about Near-Death Experiences (NDE’s). The published anecdotal accounts of NDE’s list many different sorts of phenomena—from “seeing a bright light” to “feeling a sense of euphoria” to “having one’s life flash before one’s eyes”, and more. The first two (light and euphoria) are most commonly explained by skeptics as the result of hypoxia—the supply of oxygen to the brain is reduced, and this causes (in experimental manipulations) a bright tunnel-vision perception and a giddy euphoria. Hypoxia seems a perfectly good explanation for these common NDE phenomena. But those who think NDE’s are evidence of something beyond death point out that hypoxia does not explain the phenomenon of having one’s life flash before one’s eyes. Nor does it explain numerous other experiences claimed by others who have been through an NDE. Hmmm… If we look more closely, we see the source of the problem. There is a wide range of experiences that have been swept into the catch-all category “Near-Death Experience”. One individual may have had her heart stop on the operating table and have been at the point where she had no detectable brain activity before being revived. Another individual may have been in an automobile accident which should have killed him, but which he was, miraculously, able to walk away from. Another lost consciousness, fainting, with no doctors around to check pulse or brain activity; if her friends say “I thought you were dead!”, she may describe her experience as an NDE. Each of these types of experience, and many more, have been cited in the NDE literature; there is absolutely no reason to suspect that each of them involves the same underlying physiological processes. Hypoxia still explains the bright light and euphoria of the individuals who have been close to brain-death. The “life flashing before one’s eyes” does not happen to this group, but to others with vastly different NDE’s.

But I was talking about love. The same word serves to express our attitude toward a lover, a child, a friend, a parent…even ice cream. Is it really reasonable to expect one chemical (or even one complex combination of chemicals) to explain each of these? Taking it further, if (as Hikmet says) “you can’t wash in the same river even once”, is it reasonable to think that my love for the same person is reducible to the same chemical each time I love her?

Do you mean the same thing when you say ‘I love you’ as I do when I say it?” Um… the only possible answer to this is “yes and no”. It is impossible that two people will have exactly the same learning history with the word, so no. But… you understood, didn’t you? You didn’t sit there, sounding out that middle word, trying to figure out if you should be insulted, or should be passing the salt or something. There is enough overlap in our learning that you can be fairly confident that the words mean the same. Of course, the more different your cultures (including the micro-culture of your family), the more different your meanings; some people are more expressive, others reserve “I love you” for the most special occasions. Perhaps the best answer is to be a good behaviorist again—if love is a set of behaviors, answer your question by watching. Is the “I love you” accompanied by other evidence? As someone I love once said, “I am listening to your words—but I am watching your feet.” Or, to paraphrase Forrest Gump… Love is as Love does.

I have the urge to post a poem I love. I mentioned Hikmet above; the line I quoted is from the poem “Things I didn’t know I loved” (appropriately enough). It makes me wish I could read Turkish…

Things I Didn’t Know I Loved

it’s 1962 March 28th
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I don’t like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird

I didn’t know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it
I’ve never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love

and here I’ve loved rivers all this time
whether motionless like this they curl skirting the hills
European hills crowned with chateaus
or whether stretched out flat as far as the eye can see
I know you can’t wash in the same river even once
I know the river will bring new lights you’ll never see
I know we live slightly longer than a horse but not nearly as long as a crow
I know this has troubled people before
and will trouble those after me
I know all this has been said a thousand times before
and will be said after me

I didn’t know I loved the sky
cloudy or clear
the blue vault Andrei studied on his back at Borodino
in prison I translated both volumes of War and Peace into Turkish
I hear voices
not from the blue vault but from the yard
the guards are beating someone again
I didn’t know I loved trees
bare beeches near Moscow in Peredelkino
they come upon me in winter noble and modest
beeches are Russian the way poplars are Turkish
“the poplars of Izmir
losing their leaves. . .
they call me The Knife. . .
lover like a young tree. . .
I blow stately mansions sky-high”
in the Ilgaz woods in 1920 I tied an embroidered linen handkerchief
to a pine bough for luck

I never knew I loved roads
even the asphalt kind
Vera’s behind the wheel we’re driving from Moscow to the Crimea
formerly “Goktepé ili” in Turkish
the two of us inside a closed box
the world flows past on both sides distant and mute
I was never so close to anyone in my life
bandits stopped me on the red road between Bolu and Geredé
when I was eighteen
apart from my life I didn’t have anything in the wagon they could take
and at eighteen our lives are what we value least
I’ve written this somewhere before
wading through a dark muddy street I’m going to the shadow play
Ramazan night
a paper lantern leading the way
maybe nothing like this ever happened
maybe I read it somewhere an eight-year-old boy
going to the shadow play
Ramazan night in Istanbul holding his grandfather’s hand
his grandfather has on a fez and is wearing the fur coat
with a sable collar over his robe
and there’s a lantern in the servant’s hand
and I can’t contain myself for joy
flowers come to mind for some reason
poppies cactuses jonquils
in the jonquil garden in Kadikoy Istanbul I kissed Marika
fresh almonds on her breath
I was seventeen
my heart on a swing touched the sky
I didn’t know I loved flowers
friends sent me three red carnations in prison

I just remembered the stars
I love them too
whether I’m floored watching them from below
or whether I’m flying at their side

I have some questions for the cosmonauts
were the stars much bigger
did they look like huge jewels on black velvet
or apricots on orange
did you feel proud to get closer to the stars
I saw color photos of the cosmos in Ogonek magazine now don’t
be upset comrades but nonfigurative shall we say or abstract
well some of them looked just like such paintings which is to
say they were terribly figurative and concrete
my heart was in my mouth looking at them
they are our endless desire to grasp things
seeing them I could even think of death and not feel at all sad
I never knew I loved the cosmos

snow flashes in front of my eyes
both heavy wet steady snow and the dry whirling kind
I didn’t know I liked snow

I never knew I loved the sun
even when setting cherry-red as now
in Istanbul too it sometimes sets in postcard colors
but you aren’t about to paint it that way
I didn’t know I loved the sea
except the Sea of Azov
or how much

I didn’t know I loved clouds
whether I’m under or up above them
whether they look like giants or shaggy white beasts

moonlight the falsest the most languid the most petit-bourgeois
strikes me
I like it

I didn’t know I liked rain
whether it falls like a fine net or splatters against the glass my
heart leaves me tangled up in a net or trapped inside a drop
and takes off for uncharted countries I didn’t know I loved
rain but why did I suddenly discover all these passions sitting
by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
is it because I lit my sixth cigarette
one alone could kill me
is it because I’m half dead from thinking about someone back in Moscow
her hair straw-blond eyelashes blue

the train plunges on through the pitch-black night
I never knew I liked the night pitch-black
sparks fly from the engine
I didn’t know I loved sparks
I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty
to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return

19 April 1962

Emergent Properties (Love, part two)

November 14, 2006

Ok, I promised this…a different way of looking at love. (I know, previous posts have described some incident in my life, then showed the science behind them. You will simply have to imagine the life incident for this one; although I could name names, I will not.)

Where were we? Ah, yes, love. The thing that makes us write poetry, sing songs, climb balconies in the middle of the night, write notes in the damp sand of the shore for the tides to carry away to her. The thing that makes catches our breath, quickens our heart, steals every second thought and nearly every memory. We once spoke of love as a gift (or curse) from the gods—Aphrodite’s blind bow-boy, Eros, shooting his arrows capriciously, striking any and all, leaving us love-struck. The motivation for this form of divine madness was ultimately out of our control. Although it sometimes still feels out of our control, we have relocated love; we no longer attribute our behavior to the influence of Eros, but to this thing called love, held deep in our hearts.

We have, though, simply substituted one fiction for another. Oh, I will not (never!) deny the powerful feelings of love, or that a person in love may act like a person possessed! But just as the appearance of a sunrise is also evidence of a spinning earth (instead of a rising sun), this beautiful thing called love may still yield to examination…

Let us begin at the beginning. How is it that you learn the word “love”? The people who were teaching you language (parents, siblings, friends, teachers, complete strangers) did not have any access to your thoughts, your feelings, your sensations, your memories. (I must write about “private behavior” some day soon.) It is quite impossible for any of them to have seen an emotion in you, pointed it out to you, and labeled it “love”. Nor is it possible that you were able to somehow peek inside their own private sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or feelings. All that you both have access to—all that can be pointed to and labeled—is what is publicly available.

A digression… How is it that you learn any word? Let’s start with something simple, and work our way up to love. How is it that we learn, say, the word “red”? As with love, there is no way any person can look into your thoughts to see your personal experience of red, nor can you look into their thoughts and see their experience of red. My students laugh in recognition when I suggest that this situation gives rise to countless late-night conversations on the theme “how do you know that you see the color I do? Maybe the color you call red looks to you like what I would call blue…maybe all of our colors look different to each of us…” Indeed, it is quite impossible for us to know. We simply do not have access to the private thinking of other people.

What we do have access to, though, is the real world. Our teacher can point to a red ball, a red block, a red sign, a red sweater, and eventually we generalize the concept of “red”. Anyone who has taught a child his or her colors has seen this process at work. The process may be explicit (“Point to the red ball. No, that’s the green ball; point to the red one!”) or subtle. Even a color-blind individual knows that the answer to “what color is a stop sign?” is “red”, even if he (The vast majority of color-blind individuals are male) lacks the biological equipment needed to sense the characteristic needed to generalize “red”.

In a very real sense (more real, I argue, than our current view), “red” is simply what our language community has agreed that it is. It is the set of thing in our environment that we have collectively labeled “red”. Red is fairly simple for a child, but as we learn to discriminate, we learn scarlet, crimson, rose, carmine, cherry, ruby, etc. The same sweater that is red to a child may be maroon to an adult.

“Red” is defined by the agreement of a language community. So is every other word, whether noun, verb, adjective or adverb. Anyone who has spent time with kids who are learning the language will recognize the effect that the language community has on language development, as we progress (as we did with “red”) from general examples to more specific uses of words:

Noun—“Could you hand me the mug? No, that’s a cup; I want the mug.”
Verb—“I said hand it to me, not throw it to me!”
Adjective—“The big one—the really big one. The huge one!”
Adverb—“Quickly, please—as fast as you can!”

Each of the examples above, though, requires a physical referent, something in the observable world which is a mug, not a cup, which is handing, not tossing, which is bigger or smaller, which is faster or slower. It requires something observable not only to one person, but to both (or to as many as necessary). But love is supposed to be this internal feeling, which no one else has access to—is it possible that a word like love is learned the same way that “red” is?

I cannot conceive of any other way it is possible. Until the day when telepathy—direct transver of one person’s thoughts to another—is actually demonstrated (it has been often claimed, but as yet cannot be demonstrated under controlled conditions—I strongly doubt that it ever will be), we are stuck with the reality of private thinking. I cannot read your mind, and you cannot read mine.

But what is the observed reality of the feeling of love? How is it that we come to know this word? Fortunately, there is an answer to this—and one which I believe will shed light on many other mysteries of the human experience.

Picture two people in love. What are they doing? Are they holding hands? Gazing deeply into one another’s eyes? Kissing? These (very observable) behaviors come to mind (among many others) because they are the public behaviors which were labeled as “love” when we were first learning the word! As we grew and learned, we added more behaviors to the list of things associated with “love”. Eventually, we generalized the concept “love” just as we did the concept “red” in our earlier example.

The trick is, with “red”, the public referent is fairly narrowly defined by our language community. “Love”, however, is a different animal altogether. That couple, engaged in earnest conversation—are they in love? Or is it a debate? The delivery of flowers: love, or obligation? Is that look love, or lust? Love, or respectful admiration? Is love independent from lust, or inseparable? Can there be love at first sight? Is it possible to love more than one person? (Is it possible not to?)

The truth is, there is no single right answer, or set of right answers. We each will have a unique set of experiences that teach us the meaning of the word “love”. Some experiences are ours alone; some we share with a few others; some we share with millions. Everyone who has heard the Beatles sing “All you need is Love” has a slightly different understanding of love than the people without this experience. Everyone who has seen Romeo and Juliet has a different view of love than those who have not. Everyone who has read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”) defines love differently from those who have not. Everyone who has had reason to learn to say “I love you” in a different language has a different view of love than those who have never needed any but their native tongue.

And we have some paradoxical learning going on as well. A child about to be spanked may hear “I am only doing this because I love you.” A battered woman explains that she stays “because I love him, and I know he loves me.” A manipulative lover (that word!) says “if you really love me, you’ll do it…” We learn the negative connotations of the word “love” the same way we learn the magical positive ones, and as a result our definition becomes fuzzy, broad, and at times self-contradictory. If there were one Platonic Ideal of Love that we had access to, we might be able to say that some of these uses of the word were legitimate, while others were false. But no such Ideal is available to us; what is available is this rich exposure to varied public uses of the word. Like with “red”, we cannot know what is in another person’s heart; we can only see how that person uses the word, and what public referents they associate with “love”.

Your unique learning history is what makes you unique. Your unique history with the word “love” has defined it for you.

Note, this does not mean we cannot define it, or recognize it, or that it does not exist! It means that love—real love—is what you do, not why you do it. When we see a couple kiss, and say “that is love”, we cannot see the motivation, only the behavior. We may be wrong about the motivation; we cannot know. But we learn the word, just as we learned “red”, from these examples. Love is not why you write sonnets, climb balconies, send flowers, take moonlit strolls on deserted sandy beaches, think obsessively about her eyes, or let someone warm their cold feet on your back…love is writing sonnets, climbing balconies, sending flowers, taking moonlit strolls, thinking obsessively, and allowing cold feet on your back. Love is not the motivation; it is the actual behavior. We can study the motivation separately (and have), but if we are looking for a thing called love which causes this public and private behavior, we will not find it. There will be no one single chemical in the brain responsible for love; even though our behavior can be reduced to biology, love is an emergent property of a fuzzy category of behaviors. Having been learned from a multitude of examples, it is not a single thing. You might as well ask what it is about the metal sodium and the gas chlorine that makes salt taste the way it does!

(As for motivation, social psychologists have explored many variables—proximity, physical attractiveness, similarity or complementing attitudes, sexual cues, situational arousal, and more. Both operant and classical conditioning also clearly play roles in the learning of the public and private behaviors we call love. It may be a lot of work to try to understand so vast and complicated a subject, but there is no reason to think that love cannot be explored by scientists as well as by poets.)

From a behaviorist viewpoint, love is not something you hold deep within your heart, but something (or rather, a great many things) that you do. It is a fuzzy category of public and private behaviors; it is all those things that we used to say were caused by love.

So, does love exist? Yes, of course—but not in the way we naively supposed that it does. It is still wonderful, and it still turns your whole world upside down. Sunsets did not cease when we discovered that, rather than the sun rising, what we saw was the result of the earth spinning. Sunsets are every bit as romantic now as they ever were; ignorance does not add beauty, nor does knowledge take it away.

Perhaps you will, some day, be fortunate enough to watch a sunset with a special someone, and fall in love with one another. If you are really lucky, perhaps you’ll watch the sun rise together as well. And you will realize that neither the sunrise, nor the love, nor even the luck, are really what we originally thought they were. And it won’t matter a bit, because you’ll be with her (or him), watching a sunset while in love, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Operational definitions (Love, part one)

November 9, 2006

“I only fall in love with those who fall in love.” I read this recently, and it started me thinking. Not just about the statement itself, but with how much we say, how much we claim to know, how much we claim it is impossible to know, about love. We know that “all you need is love”, that “love never dies”, that “love is blind”, that “love is patient, love is kind…love never fails”. Or, conversely, that “love stinks”, or that (in the translated words of Sophocles) “Love is not love alone, but in her name lie many names concealed; for she is Death, imperishable Force, Desire unmixed, wild Frenzy, Lamentation.”

We have centuries–millenia–of poetry and prose about love. And yet it is difficult to answer the question “when you say you love me…what exactly do you mean by that?” Some people will have a terrible argument over the phone, but end their conversation by practically hurling the words “I love you” like a stone; others may, like Cordelia in King Lear, “love, and be silent.” Some believe you can choose whom you love, while others will swear that love chooses them. Romeo and Juliet fell in love in the space of a sonnet, Tevye and Golde took twenty-five years to call it love.

So… as the question goes, “What is this thing called Love?” I ask my students each semester, as a part of a unit on the scientific method, to “define Love.” Each time, I can expect a strong majority of my students’ definitions to include some version of the phrase “no one can really define Love”, or its variation “Love is different for each person.” This is the starting point for two very different discussions on the relationship between science and love. Usually, it is a vehicle for exploring the workings of science, but it is also a lens we can use to look at love itself, and better understand a very important part of our lives. (Some will argue not that we cannot study love, but that we should not. I disagree, but any more than this will have to wait for another time.)

I am a huge fan of love. I have to smile when I hear (and I do) someone say that behaviorism denies the reality of love; no one who knows me would dare make that statement. In examining love, what we are doing is rubbing the tarnish off of a gleaming piece of silver; by removing the tarnish, we are allowing the true nature of love to shine. If love were only an illusion, it would be all tarnish, and when we were through with our cleaning, we would have nothing left. But if that were the case, we would have demonstrated that there was nothing there to begin with. Fortunately, love is strong enough to handle the most thorough scrubbing, so let us polish up this silver a bit and take a look at it. You might want sunglasses…

(One could argue that behaviorists have a history of being big fans of love. Even the founder of behaviorism, John B. Watson—whose methodological behaviorism left little or no room for discussion of “feelings”—was an early researcher in love and sex, and not just because he was, as one writer puts it, “obsessed with sex”. The biggest events in Watson’s life revolved around love. Indeed, his letters became evidence in a scandalous divorce trial, so we have samples of what a behaviorist in love writes: “I’ve made enough love in one day to a girl so young — you might grow weary in reading so much. I am so mad whenever I get to the end of one of your letters — are you that way? Could you kiss me for two hours right now without ever growing weary. I want you all 24 of the hours and then I’d quarrel with the universe because the days are not longer. Let’s go to the north pole where the days and nights are 6 mo. each. Your John.” “I know every cell I have is yours individually and collectively. My total reactions are positive and towards you. So, likewise, each and every heart reaction.” If that is not evidence that he is a passionate scientist, I don’t know what is.)

There are two very different ways in which Behaviorism can and does look at love. One method is shared by other areas of psychological research—Social Psychology has studied love for decades and has done so in large part because of the success, in practical terms, of this approach. I am speaking of the use of operational definitions—that is, simplified definitions that allow objective measurement. Operational definitions simply specify the units of measurement which we use in examining a concept. If we want to know how big somebody is, we may measure height in inches or centimeters (or hands, or smoots, or pez, or miles…), or weight in pounds or kilograms (or stones, or carats, or tons…) or mass, or volume, or shoe or hat size! If we want to know how fast somebody is, we may specify mph, kph, top speed, 40-yard dash, 100 meters, one mile, or 26.2 miles! The units we choose will depend on the use to which we will put this information. What sort of “size” is important differs: a basketball coach and a football coach have different ideas about which units will be more important. A “fast” sprinter may not finish a marathon, and a marathon specialist will not be the fastest sprinter. There is no one “perfect” operational definition of any concept, and no operational definition is a complete definition of a complex topic. The task of an operational definition is to simplify, to allow us to get a handle on something that may not always translate easily to numbers.

So how do we operationally define love? How do we take something that “no one can define” and reduce it to numbers? Well… in many different ways, actually, from percentage of time spent in mutual gaze (staring into one another’s eyes), to angle of lean (toward or away from one another, in degrees, while sitting on a couch), to phone bills. (Watson’s operational definitions, consistent with his view of conditioning, tended to be explicitly physical or sexual in nature.) Zick Rubin used some of these measures to examine the validity of his “loving” and “liking” scales, the first paper and pencil standardized measures of love.

If I could never be with _______, I would be miserable.
I feel very possessive toward _______.
I would do almost anything for _______.
I feel I can confide in _______ about virtually everything.

(items from Rubin’s [1970] love scale)

Since Rubin, there have been other attempts, organized around different models of love, asking different sorts of questions. Depending on one’s theoretical view of love (there are a few at least, within Social Psychology; Behaviorism has not tended to be terribly theoretical on the issue), the concept may be broken down into different aspects. One popular view is Sternberg’s Triangular Theory, in which love is dissected into Passion, Intimacy, and Commitment. Research in this area typically operationally defines love through a series of paper-and-pencil tests:

Sometimes I feel I can’t control my thoughts; they are obsessively on _______.
I sense my body responding when _______ touches me.
I want _______ to know me—my thoughts, my fears, and my hopes.

(items from Hatfield & Rapson’s [1987] passionate love scale)

I have a warm and comfortable relationship with _______.
I experience intimate communication with _______.
I receive considerable emotional support from _______.

(items from Sternberg’s [1986] intimacy scale)

I expect my love for _______ to last for the rest of my life.
I am certain of my love for _______.
I have confidence in the stability of my relationship with _______.
(items from Sternberg’s [1986] commitment scale)

Other studies, at other levels of analysis, will use different definitions, perhaps as simple as asking “are you in love?” or as complicated as reduction to neurotransmitter action: “Human affection and love involve changes in the neurotransmitters of the brain. The neurotransmitter dopamine and the opioid peptides are involved in this respect. Falling in love has an obsessive component and serotonin depletion is involved in obsessive neurosis. The neurotransmitter serotonin is responsible for transient love while endorphins are involved in compassionate love. When one is in love head-over-heels, endorphins are released to the maximum. An alkaloidal neurotransmitter, anandamide, causes love in the brain when activated. The initial surge of excitement on seeing the person who is the focus of affection is mediated by the neurotransmitters, noradrenaline and dopamine, both of which cause arousal. These are activated in the hypothalamus by visual cues when some one meets a person to whom one is attracted.” (Kurup & Kurup, 2003)

Ah, but what is this “love” that these various measures are attempting to reduce to numbers? Certainly, when your true love looks deeply into your eyes and whispers “I love you”, he or she is not saying “I look into your eyes a lot”, or “I lean toward you, not away”, or “I have confidence in the stability of my relationship with you”, or even “you really cause the release of endorphins!” These things are nice, of course—indeed, they are wonderful—but are they love? Of course not. They are not supposed to be—they are operational definitions, which are necessarily incomplete and oversimplified. Operational definitions are tremendously useful when examining a subject, but they are not terribly satisfying when we wish to look at the big picture. Even the mosaic of perspectives the scientific community gives us altogether does not satisfy. We see, when we look at the entirety of scientific research on love, a much bigger and more detailed picture, but it can be a bit like a cubist painting—lots of perspectives of reality giving rise to something that looks very unlike the real world.

Operational definitions are merely a tool to allow us to grasp something that is not easy to grasp. There will never be the One Perfect Operational Definition of Love. There cannot be. The best chance we have of understanding how love works is to have a variety of operational definitions, and to see our understanding converge as we near our target from many different directions and perspectives.

And of course, operational definitions are not satisfying. We want to know what love is, not what some scientist measures as a way of answering the minutest fragment of the question. Helpful or not, I cannot accept an analysis of brain chemistry as “what love really is”. It is not; it is merely an operational definition. We need to look at the second way behaviorism can contribute to what we know about love. This second way is a real change in perspective. I hope to change the way you look at love, in much the same way that Copernicus changed the way we look at a sunset, or that Newton changed the way we look at a rainbow. Love will still be beautiful, as are sunsets and rainbows, but we may have a better chance at understanding some of the apparent mysteries of love, and of other of our cherished and important human attributes.

But that will be the topic for my next posting.