Dating new people is fun and exciting. It’s also likely to cause even the most rational, level-headed people to make really dumb decisions. Don’t worry. Your brain is supposed to do that. Sort of.
Photos by Ed Yourdon.
What is “Attraction” Really?
Scientifically speaking, human attraction is still a pretty big mystery. There are a ton of different variables that affect how much we’re attracted to someone including personality preferences, cultural trends, societal pressures and available potential partners. Biologically speaking, however, there are a host of different chemicals that contribute to an altered state of mind when someone catches our eye.
In a very real way, being attracted to a person is a lot like being on drugs. The release of chemicals into our brain and body creates an altered mental state in which we both perceive and behave differently than we normally would. While no individual substance can single-handedly control your brain, here are just a few of the different chemicals swimming through your brain when you see a pretty person, and how they affect you:
Adrenaline: When you see someone you’re attracted to, your body releases adrenaline into your system. Adrenaline is what’s responsible for causing your heart to race or your hands to sweat. Adrenaline puts your body on high alert, sending oxygen-enriched blood throughout your body and prepares you for immediate action, as well as raising tension and stress levels. It also releases dopamine and endorphins.
Dopamine: When you feel elated, giddy or pleasure, dopamine is the culprit. This is a double-edged sword though. Dopamine is responsible for rewarding stimuli, which nurtures habit-forming behaviours. This is beneficial in (hopefully) positive romantic relationships, but it also affects negative behaviours like cravings and drug abuse. In other words, when you’re infatuated with someone, your body is rewarding you with feel-good chemicals, whether or not it may be a good decision.
Serotonin: When you can’t seem to get someone out of your head, serotonin is usually to blame. Or, more accurately, a lack of serotonin. This same drop in serotonin creation is present in people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In other words, being infatuated with someone causes a similar chemical state to a condition that would otherwise be treated in a professional setting, surprising no one who’s ever watched a romantic comedy.
Testosterone: The levels of testosterone (which fluctuate regularly) affect attraction in both genders. Higher levels of testosterone in men was found to cause them to be more attracted to women with more “feminine” faces. On the other side, a study showed that women found men with high levels of testosterone to be more attractive and masculine, although this primarily affected short-term mate judgments.
Estrogen: A multitude of studies have shown that female attraction is affected in a variety of ways by the estrogen and the ovulation cycle. For example, one study demonstrated that men who merely smelled the shirt of a woman who was ovulating would see a noticeable increase in testosterone production.
Of course, no one of these chemicals or reactions solely determines who you are or how you behave. For example, in the last section, there are a great number of other things that can also cause a testosterone spike or ebb, so it’s not like you can draw a direct line between any on1e substance and a specific effect. Your personality is more than just the sum total of the chemicals released into your brain.
However, broadly speaking, the lesson is still valid. If you’re wondering why you suddenly feel like your head is swimming when you’re around someone you’re attracted to, it’s because your brain is being turned into a chemical jambalaya of pleasure, stress, and conflicting priorities.
How Does Attraction Affect Your Behaviour?
OK, so we’ve established that all of the chemicals in your brain are working together to turn you into a stammering, embarrassing pot of goofiness when you see that winning smile. How all those chemicals manifest themselves, however, can have some wild and surprising effects on our behaviour. For example:
- Men get dumber when they think women are watching: Unfortunately for men, this is a case of negative stereotypes containing a grain of truth. A pair of studies showed that when men were simply told that a female observer would be watching them perform a cognitive test, they performed less well, while women showed no difference regardless of the gender of their observer. Whether this is due to societal pressure for men to impress women, or a biological condition was not established.
- We think we’re more similar to people we’re attracted to than we really are: “Oh man, we both like the Avengers. We’re basically the same person!” may sound like a line from an over-the-top romantic movie, but it’s how our brains actually work. According to research done at the University of Iowa, not only do people who are attracted to someone believe they have more in common with that person than they really do, but we also have a tendency to rate our partners more positively when we’re infatuated.
- We pick up small bad habits from people we’re attracted to: A pair of studies found in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that when we’re dating someone new, we have a tendency to pick up bad habits like being messy or watching too much TV if our partners do too. Fortunately, this effect can also apply to positive behaviours. More importantly, it does not seem to extend as strongly to catastrophically bad habits if we weren’t already likely to indulge them.
- Both genders lower standards to avoid loneliness: This one may not take a PhD to figure out, but research from the University of Toronto shows that the stronger the fears of being lonely a person has, the more likely they are to compromise their standards to find a partner.
- We may choose to stay with a bad partner because we fear losing them: Any economist could tell you that a product in high demand and short supply goes up in value. Behavioural economist Dan Ariely explains that this happens to our relationships as well. If a person is exploring options in the dating pool, they may be more likely to pursue someone they may about to lose, regardless of the quality of the person.
These are just examples though. There is virtually no limit to the number of ways humans can let emotions cloud their judgments (and only so many that have been thoroughly explored in a scientific setting). However, the point is clear: take two people, throw in some hormones, add a dash of dopamine and adrenaline for flavour and you’ve got a recipe for ridiculous.
So How Do I Avoid Making Bad Decisions?
There’s good news and bad news here. The good news: you can make better decisions, even if you’re clouded by emotion. For starters, try to keep in mind that your anxiety, nervousness, or fear is a condition of your own psyche and not necessarily your reality. As we’ve discussed before, focusing on your own emotions can lead you to exacerbating the problem:
As it turns out, much of the negative experience of emotions is the cover-up. It’s when you resist, hide, or try to change those emotions that you experience them as painful.
When you do that, you’re playing with mental superglue again. You’re putting so much pressure and focus on those emotions that they are held in place. Remember, when you don’t hold on to thought and emotion, new thought and emotion rushes in.
The ability to identify and manage emotions and make better decisions is referred to as emotional intelligence. As another study has shown, high emotional intelligence can lead to making better decisions in spite of in-the-moment stressors that trigger emotional flare ups. Research out of Yale University found that the effect of emotional intelligence on decision making is profound:
Participants were made to feel anxious by being asked to prepare an impromptu speech. Then they were asked whether they wanted to sign up to a flu clinic.
The results showed that people with higher emotional intelligence were more aware that the experimentally-induced anxiety they felt was not related to the decision about the flu clinic.
While only 7 per cent of those of low emotional intelligence signed up for the flu clinic, fully 66 per cent of those with higher emotional intelligence did so.
Developing emotional intelligence is a discipline in itself, and like regular intelligence, it can grow over time. You can learn to develop emotional intelligence by writing down your feelings or just talking through them with others. As HelpGuide.org explains, building up your emotional intelligence is based on practicing several basic skills:
- Identifying and reducing stress in the moment: As we’ve discussed before, identifying stressors and developing breathing habits, postponing rash action and muscle relaxation can help cool your head.
- Recognise overwhelming emotions and keep them at bay: Emotional self-control isn’t just effective in rage management. While anger and romance may be very different, the same strategies apply: be aware of your own emotions and calm down.
- Learn the basics of nonverbal communication: Everyone around you is constantly communicating, even if they’re saying nothing at all. Learn to read these cues to assess your situation better.
- Utilise humour to make connections and solve problems: You don’t necessarily need to be Louie CK levels of funny (and in fact that might not help all relationships), but knowing when to use humour to resolve conflicts can be very beneficial.
- Resolve conflicts positively: There’s a huge difference between fighting and actually solving problems and we could fill a whole article explaining how to avoid doing the former and do the latter instead. So we did.
About that bad news: While developing emotional intelligence and practising good decision-making is helpful, ultimately, there is no “cure” to being blinded by love (or lust). Knowing how the process works can help it make a bit more sense, but at the end of the day, it’s you against millions of years of human evolution. Good luck!