I was recently traveling in the Highlands of New Guinea, and I was talking with a man who had three wives. I asked him, "How many wives would you like to have?" And there was this long pause, and I thought to myself, "Is he going to say five? Is he going to say 10? Is he going to say 25?" And he leaned towards me and he whispered, "None."
Eighty-six percent of human societies permit a man to have several wives: polygyny. But in the vast majority of these cultures, only about five or ten percent of men actually do have several wives. Having several partners can be a toothache. In fact, co-wives can fight with each other, sometimes they can even poison each other's children. And you've got to have a lot of cows, a lot of goats, a lot of money, a lot of land, in order to build a harem.
We are a pair-bonding species. Ninety-seven percent of mammals do not pair up to rear their young; human beings do. I'm not suggesting that we're not — that we're necessarily sexually faithful to our partners. I've looked at adultery in 42 cultures, I understand, actually, some of the genetics of it, and some of the brain circuitry of it. It's very common around the world, but we are built to love.
How is technology changing love? I'm going to say almost not at all. I study the brain. I and my colleagues have put over 100 people into a brain scanner — people who had just fallen happily in love, people who had just been rejected in love and people who are in love long-term. And it is possible to remain "in love" long-term. And I've long ago maintained that we've evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction: sex drive, feelings of intense romantic love and feelings of deep cosmic attachment to a long-term partner. And together, these three brain systems — with many other parts of the brain — orchestrate our sexual, our romantic and our family lives.
But they lie way below the cortex, way below the limbic system where we feel our emotions, generate our emotions. They lie in the most primitive parts of the brain, linked with energy, focus, craving, motivation, wanting and drive. In this case, the drive to win life's greatest prize: a mating partner. They evolved over 4.4 million years ago among our first ancestors, and they're not going to change if you swipe left or right on Tinder.
There's no question that technology is changing the way we court: emailing, texting, emojis to express your emotions, sexting, "liking" a photograph, selfies ... We're seeing new rules and taboos for how to court. But, you know — is this actually dramatically changing love? What about the late 1940s, when the automobile became very popular and we suddenly had rolling bedrooms?
How about the introduction of the birth control pill? Unchained from the great threat of pregnancy and social ruin, women could finally express their primitive and primal sexuality.
Even dating sites are not changing love. I'm Chief Scientific Advisor to Match.com, I've been it for 11 years. I keep telling them and they agree with me, that these are not dating sites, they are introducing sites. When you sit down in a bar, in a coffee house, on a park bench, your ancient brain snaps into action like a sleeping cat awakened, and you smile and laugh and listen and parade the way our ancestors did 100,000 years ago. We can give you various people — all the dating sites can — but the only real algorithm is your own human brain. Technology is not going to change that.
Technology is also not going to change who you choose to love. I study the biology of personality, and I've come to believe that we've evolved four very broad styles of thinking and behaving, linked with the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen systems. So I created a questionnaire directly from brain science to measure the degree to which you express the traits — the constellation of traits — linked with each of these four brain systems. I then put that questionnaire on various dating sites in 40 countries. Fourteen million or more people have now taken the questionnaire, and I've been able to watch who's naturally drawn to whom.
And as it turns out, those who were very expressive of the dopamine system tend to be curious, creative, spontaneous, energetic — I would imagine there's an awful lot of people like that in this room — they're drawn to people like themselves. Curious, creative people need people like themselves. People who are very expressive of the serotonin system tend to be traditional, conventional, they follow the rules, they respect authority, they tend to be religious — religiosity is in the serotonin system — and traditional people go for traditional people. In that way, similarity attracts. In the other two cases, opposites attract. People very expressive of the testosterone system tend to be analytical, logical, direct, decisive, and they go for their opposite: they go for somebody who's high estrogen, somebody who's got very good verbal skills and people skills, who's very intuitive and who's very nurturing and emotionally expressive. We have natural patterns of mate choice. Modern technology is not going to change who we choose to love.
But technology is producing one modern trend that I find particularly important. It's associated with the concept of paradox of choice. For millions of years, we lived in little hunting and gathering groups. You didn't have the opportunity to choose between 1,000 people on a dating site. In fact, I've been studying this recently, and I actually think there's some sort of sweet spot in the brain; I don't know what it is, but apparently, from reading a lot of the data, we can embrace about five to nine alternatives, and after that, you get into what academics call "cognitive overload," and you don't choose any.
So I've come to think that due to this cognitive overload, we're ushering in a new form of courtship that I call "slow love." I arrived at this during my work with Match.com. Every year for the last six years, we've done a study called "Singles in America." We don't poll the Match population, we poll the American population. We use 5,000-plus people, a representative sample of Americans based on the US census.
We've got data now on over 30,000 people, and every single year, I see some of the same patterns. Every single year when I ask the question, over 50 percent of people have had a one-night stand — not necessarily last year, but in their lives — 50 percent have had a friends with benefits during the course of their lives, and over 50 percent have lived with a person long-term before marrying. Americans think that this is reckless. I have doubted that for a long time; the patterns are too strong. There's got to be some Darwinian explanation — Not that many people are crazy.
And I stumbled, then, on a statistic that really came home to me. It was a very interesting academic article in which I found that 67 percent of singles in America today who are living long-term with somebody, have not yet married because they are terrified of divorce. They're terrified of the social, legal, emotional, economic consequences of divorce. So I came to realize that I don't think this is recklessness; I think it's caution. Today's singles want to know every single thing about a partner before they wed. You learn a lot between the sheets, not only about how somebody makes love, but whether they're kind, whether they can listen and at my age, whether they've got a sense of humor.
And in an age where we have too many choices, we have very little fear of pregnancy and disease and we've got no feeling of shame for sex before marriage, I think people are taking their time to love.
And actually, what's happening is, what we're seeing is a real expansion of the precommitment stage before you tie the knot. Where marriage used to be the beginning of a relationship, now it's the finale. But the human brain —
The human brain always triumphs, and indeed, in the United States today, 86 percent of Americans will marry by age 49. And even in cultures around the world where they're not marrying as often, they are settling down eventually with a long-term partner.
So it began to occur to me: during this long extension of the precommitment stage, if you can get rid of bad relationships before you marry, maybe we're going to see more happy marriages. So I did a study of 1,100 married people in America — not on Match.com, of course — and I asked them a lot of questions. But one of the questions was, "Would you re-marry the person you're currently married to?" And 81 percent said, "Yes."
In fact, the greatest change in modern romance and family life is not technology. It's not even slow love. It's actually women piling into the job market in cultures around the world. For millions of years, our ancestors lived in little hunting and gathering groups. Women commuted to work to gather their fruits and vegetables. They came home with 60 to 80 percent of the evening meal. The double-income family was the rule. And women were regarded as just as economically, socially and sexually powerful as men.
Then the environment changed some 10,000 years ago, we began to settle down on the farm and both men and women became obliged, really, to marry the right person, from the right background, from the right religion and from the right kin and social and political connections. Men's jobs became more important: they had to move the rocks, fell the trees, plow the land. They brought the produce to local markets, and came home with the equivalent of money.
Along with this, we see a rise of a host of beliefs: the belief of virginity at marriage, arranged marriages — strictly arranged marriages — the belief that the man is the head of the household, that the wife's place is in the home and most important, honor thy husband, and 'til death do us part. These are gone. They are going, and in many places, they are gone.
We are right now in a marriage revolution. We are shedding 10,000 years of our farming tradition and moving forward towards egalitarian relationships between the sexes — something I regard as highly compatible with the ancient human spirit.
I'm not a Pollyanna; there's a great deal to cry about. I've studied divorce in 80 cultures, I've studied, as I say, adultery in many — there's a whole pile of problems. As William Butler Yeats, the poet, once said, "Love is the crooked thing." I would add, "Nobody gets out alive."
We all have problems. But in fact, I think the poet Randall Jarrell really sums it up best. He said, "The dark, uneasy world of family life — where the greatest can fail, and the humblest succeed."
But I will leave you with this: love and attachment will prevail, technology cannot change it. And I will conclude by saying any understanding of human relationships must take into account one the most powerful determinants of human behavior: the unquenchable, adaptable and primordial human drive to love.
Kelly Stoetzel: Thank you so much for that, Helen. As you know, there's another speaker here with us that works in your same field. She comes at it from a different perspective. Esther Perel is a psychotherapist who works with couples. You study data, Esther studies the stories the couples tell her when they come to her for help. Let's have her join us on the stage. Esther?
So Esther, when you were watching Helen's talk, was there any part of it that resonated with you through the lens of your own work that you'd like to comment on?
Esther Perel: It's interesting, because on the one hand, the need for love is ubiquitous and universal. But the way we love — the meaning we make out of it — the rules that govern our relationships, I think, are changing fundamentally.
We come from a model that, until now, was primarily regulated around duty and obligation, the needs of the collective and loyalty. And we have shifted it to a model of free choice and individual rights, and self-fulfillment and happiness. And so, that was the first thing I thought, that the need doesn't change, but the context and the way we regulate these relationships changes a lot.
On the paradox of choice — you know, on the one hand we relish the novelty and the playfulness, I think, to be able to have so many options. And at the same time, as you talk about this cognitive overload, I see many, many people who ... who dread the uncertainty and self-doubt that comes with this massa of choice, creating a case of "FOMO" and then leading us — FOMO, fear of missed opportunity, or fear of missing out — it's like, "How do I know I have found 'the one' — the right one?"
So we've created what I call this thing of "stable ambiguity." Stable ambiguity is when you are too afraid to be alone but also not really willing to engage in intimacy-building. It's a set of tactics that kind of prolong the uncertainty of a relationship but also the uncertainty of the breakup. So, here on the internet you have three major ones. One is icing and simmering, which are great stalling tactics that offer a kind of holding pattern that emphasizes the undefined nature of a relationship but at the same time gives you enough of a comforting consistency and enough freedom of the undefined boundaries.
And then comes ghosting. And ghosting is, basically, you disappear from this massa of texts on the spot, and you don't have to deal with the pain that you inflict on another, because you're making it invisible even to yourself.
So I was thinking — these words came up for me as I was listening to you, like how a vocabulary also creates a reality, and at the same time, that's my question to you: Do you think when the context changes, it still means that the nature of love remains the same?
You study the brain and I study people's relationships and stories, so I think it's everything you say, plus. But I don't always know the degree to which a changing context ... Does it at some point begin to change — If the meaning changes, does it change the need, or is the need clear of the entire context?
HF: Wow! Well —
Well, I've got three points here, right? First of all, to your first one: there's no question that we've changed, that we now want a person to love, and for thousands of years, we had to marry the right person from the right background and right kin connection. And in fact, in my studies of 5,000 people every year, I ask them, "What are you looking for?" And every single year, over 97 percent say —
EP: The list grows —
HF: Well, no. The basic thing is over 97 percent of people want somebody that respects them, somebody they can trust and confide in, somebody who makes them laugh, somebody who makes enough time for them and somebody who they find physically attractive. That never changes. And there's certainly — you know, there's two parts —
EP: But you know how I call that? That's not what people used to say —
HF: That's exactly right.
EP: They said they wanted somebody with whom they have companionship, economic support, children. We went from a production economy to a service economy.
We did it in the larger culture, and we're doing it in marriage.
HF: Right, no question about it. But it's interesting, the millennials actually want to be very good parents, whereas the generation above them wants to have a very fine marriage but is not as focused on being a good parent. You see all of these nuances.
There's two basic parts of personality: there's your culture — everything you grew up to do and believe and say — and there's your temperament. Basically, what I've been talking about is your temperament. And that temperament is certainly going to change with changing times and changing beliefs.
And in terms of the paradox of choice, there's no question about it that this is a pickle. There were millions of years where you found that sweet boy at the other side of the water hole, and you went for it.
EP: Yes, but you —
HF: I do want to say one more thing. The bottom line is, in hunting and gathering societies, they tended to have two or three partners during the course of their lives. They weren't square! And I'm not suggesting that we do, but the bottom line is, we've always had alternatives. Mankind is always — in fact, the brain is well-built to what we call "equilibrate," to try and decide: Do I come, do I stay? Do I go, do I stay? What are the opportunities here? How do I handle this there? And so I think we're seeing another play-out of that now.
KS: Well, thank you both so much. I think you're going to have a million dinner partners for tonight!
Thank you, thank you.
In our tech-driven, interconnected world, we've developed new ways and rules to court each other, but the fundamental principles of love have stayed the same, says anthropologist Helen Fisher. Our faster connections, she suggests, are actually leading to slower, more intimate relationships. At 12:20, couples therapist and relationship expert Esther Perel steps in to make an important point — that while love itself stays the same, technology has affected the way we form and end relationships.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher studies gender differences and the evolution of human emotions. She’s best known as an expert on romantic love.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher studies gender differences and the evolution of human emotions. She’s best known as an expert on romantic love.