Love, summed up
UT prof: In matters of heart, math matters.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Good looks plus steady career plus good personality equals love — or at least it does according to research done by a psychology professor at the University of Texas.
A study conducted by Norm Li found that love boils down to simple economics and good budgeting. When dates are scarce, people will subconsciously weigh the good and bad of potential partners to make a selection, Li said.
Li's findings may dull the romantic sparkle of Valentine's Day by boiling down the magic of love to a math equation, but he maintains that love is a lot like capitalism.
Li applies economic theories and tools used in investment banking, such as supply and demand and cost-benefit analyses, to explain how people choose partners:
Each person has an available "budget" of characteristics — such as attractiveness, financial resources and personality — and tries to maximize that budget when looking for a partner. Li says people try to find the best deal they can, getting as good a partner as they can with what they have to offer.
When two people feel they have found a good deal, it's love, Li said.
But Rebecca Rendon-Lott, a clinical psychologist at Austin Counseling and Wellness, said finding a perfect formula for love and a good relationship is hard because each person has a unique experience.
"Everybody is different," she said. "You can never put couples in just one box."
Li said the brain operates on its own, making the proper calculations about who is acceptable without consciously making an effort.
"We calculate things economically, but it doesn't have to feel that way," he said.
Just as people on a budget secure the necessary things for survival first, a person looking for a mate seeks out the basics, Li said. In a long-term relationship, the basics for men are always good looks, he said. For women, it's social status and reliability.
"Personality, sense of humor, creativity are all luxuries," Li said, adding that with a plentiful supply of potential partners, people are allowed to be more picky, and the luxury features of a person become a more integral part in the choosing process.
Li, who holds a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in finance, said the results of his studies were consistent with evolutionary logic.
Men who found women in their mid-20s attractive would have a better chance of having their genes passed along than men who were attracted to women past their prime fertility age.
For women looking for a long-term relationship, having a partner who is financially stable and could provide stability for the family would be more important than good looks.
For a short-term relationship, Li said, women would prefer a man with good genes — i.e. healthy and good-looking — since they would not be around to help provide for the offspring.
Li, by the way, said he is in a long-term committed relationship.
Li's research is not the first to boil love and successful relationships down to numbers. John Gottman, a Seattle psychologist, has published several books on how to accurately predict whether a newlywed couple will have a successful marriage.
Ann McIntosh, a licensed clinical social worker in Austin, said that in practice, relationships and love were more likely to be successful when both parties equally brought something to the table and shared similar interests.
When people have a physical attraction to each another but not an emotional connection, McIntosh said, the relationship will probably fail.
"It's called drama, and it happens quite a bit," McIntosh said.