Operational definitions (Love, part one)

“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.

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18 Responses to “Operational definitions (Love, part one)”

  1. lostthingutopia Says:

    “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.”

    Right then. What have you to say then? *folds arms patiently – wonders if there’ll be a literary work that’ll support or challenge this forthcoming definition*

  2. Christian Jay Says:

    Thanks for this article, I really need it… And hey, I didn’t plagiarized it just so you know… Thanks again… It helped, really… ^^

  3. Helen Says:

    Yeap, i think love is a mystery like universe, endless, unspoken and lives inside our hearts! 🙂

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