No discussion of sex and its effects on the human brain and functioning is complete without a discussion of love, and the social structures that bind people together – relationships.
Fair warning: parts of what we’ve written below will make some people uncomfortable. If you’ve read our other series and articles on Asian Efficiency, you have probably worked out that we like to tell it as it is, without the sugar coating, and often without the political correctness you’ll find elsewhere. We care more about presenting straightforward and actionable information rather than trying to spin it to please everyone.
Let’s get to it.
Update: click here for part 6.
One more thing I’d like to add before we get started. When you have some time, check out these two TED talks done by Dr Helen Fisher about love, cheating and the brain. They’re both fascinating, if a little on the quirky side.
- Love can be broken down into 3 component parts: sexual desire, love as a drive/motivation, and pair bonding (attachment and security).
- Human beings tend to be socially monogamous while sexually promiscuous.
- There are many different types of relationships out there.
- For long term relationships, picking the right partner is what determines if your relationship will help or hamper your productivity (and life).
- Relationships effect your motivation and productivity in many different ways, depending on your partner and on your own life circumstances.
Breaking Down Love
As geeky as it is to break down love into component pieces, as productivity nerds, that’s what we’ve done.
There are hundreds if not thousands of philosophical interpretations of love, which makes it unusually difficult to pin down, quantify or analyze. For the purpose of productivity, it’s better to take a practical look at it by examining the neuroscience behind what happens to the brain when someone is in love. In this sense, we’re interpreting “love” as a chemical reaction within the brain, or a motivational drive for future rewards (incidentally, also a chemical reaction).
If you watched the Helen Fisher videos on TED, you’ll note that she breaks down love into:
- Sexual desire.
- Romantic love.
- Attachment and security.
Our interpretations of these are:
- Sexual desire.
- Love as a drive or motivation.
- Pair bonding.
The two chemicals in play when love is involved are dopamine and oxytocin. If you know a bit about basic/popular neuroscience, you’ll recognize these as the same chemicals involved with food, drugs and addiction – which is why food, drugs and other addictive substances are often substituted in an absence of love.
The Sexual Desire component of love is essentially about strong dopamine release. As you “fall in love” with someone on a physical level, your brain rewards you by bumping up your dopamine levels. We’ll go into detail about this in the next article on pornography, but the quick version is this: your brain is wired to seek out new and multiple partners. This is also known as the Coolidge Effect.
The Drive/Motivation component of love comes from an initial dopamine release in the body when you are in love. It is a rush that has addictive qualities, and is the explanation for why people who are in love are often obsessive, or addicted to the object of their affection. There are a couple of interesting ramifications leading from this. The first is that as with all addictions, you can build up tolerance to the dopamine release (making you want more of that person), and you can suffer withdrawal symptoms and relapse symptoms too. The second is that because drive/motivational love is dopamine based, you can do it again and again with different people.
The Pair Bonding aspect of love is about attachment and security. Pair Bonding essentially describes the tendency of certain animals to form paired relationships and remain in them for a duration of time. It is caused by the release of the hormone oxytocin into our systems, which is caused by behaviors like cuddling, touching or kissing. Essentially, it is that feeling you have when you want someone to cuddle and “hang out” with. Pair bonding is more of an emotional attachment than a sexual one, because of its basis in oxytocin, not dopamine.
Knowing all this is nice in theory, but there is a practical side to it too. By understanding that love can be broken down into component pieces, we can better understand our choices and responses towards our partners (or potential partners). Hopefully, this leads to more rational decisions and more effective choices that help us rather than hamper us in our pursuit of goals.
Social Monogamy and Sexual Promiscuity
One of the derivations from understanding that love consists of three things (sexual desire, drive/motivation and pair bonding) is that these components can often be conflicting and can pull us in opposite directions.
The one that affects our productivity the most is the interaction between our sexual desires, and our need to pair bond. I like to think of it as Pair Bonding vs the Coolidge Effect.
The Coolidge Effect is an observed behavior in mammals (including humans) where mammals will exhibit renewed sexual interest in new sexual partners, after refusing sex with prior but available sexual partners. In plain English, this means that mammals tend to seek out NEW partners, even if their current ones are available. The real-world impact of this is interesting – the Coolidge Effect can actually cause you to see cracks or problems in your existing relationship where they don’t really exist – especially in the presence of potential new sexual partners.
Why Calvin Coolidge? According to Frank A. Beach:
… an old joke about Calvin Coolidge when he was President … The President and Mrs. Coolidge were being shown [separately] around an experimental government farm. When [Mrs. Coolidge] came to the chicken yard she noticed that a rooster was mating very frequently. She asked the attendant how often that happened and was told, “Dozens of times each day.” Mrs. Coolidge said, “Tell that to the President when he comes by.” Upon being told, President asked, “Same hen every time?” The reply was, “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” President: “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”
Pair Bonding is the observed behavior that makes us focus in on one partner and essentially become attached to them. The best scientific guess for why this behavior exists is because pair bonding is beneficial for raising offspring.
Now most people like to think that human beings are rational creatures, and a certain measure of intelligence above other animals. But consider this: society has developed in such a way that it encourages us to be socially monogamous, while allowing us to be sexually promiscuous.
Social monogamy is incredibly advantageous to society and the human race as a whole, and without a doubt the accepted norm. It is also the norm because of the benefits that it brings to society: reduced competition among men for sexual partners, and an overall increase in savings, child investment and economic productivity at a national level. Why does it work? Because it locks down the male sex drive into paternal investment (good for society) rather than letting it run wild seeking new partners. It’s interesting to note that historically, most of the world abandoned polygamy and adopted monogamy as a norm during the height of Western power and influence – basically, they saw the stability benefits of having a monogamy-based society and followed suit.
Society has also evolved in a such a way that there are few-to-no consequences towards sexual promiscuity. In most developed nations it’s certainly not illegal, and for the most part it is practiced with varying levels of discretion among all social classes.
Our theory? These opposing behaviors are rooted in biology, and modern society has simply adapted to accommodate both of them.
Once we understand that there’s a biological cause why men also stare at a woman’s cleavage, or why women are more likely to cheat while in a stable relationship, a couple of things happen:
- We stop feeling guilt/shame/bad about it, because it’s something that’s happening at a biological level.
- We can learn how to set boundaries and expectations within our relationships to reduce the drama and emotional swings.
Put together, these two things lead to increased productivity.
Types of Relationships
I originally wrote a lengthy section about the different types of relationships that exist and their pros and cons, but upon proofreading, decided that the essence could be pared down to:
- There are many, many different types of relationship out there, and all can help or hamper your productivity in different ways, so be aware of that.
- None is inherently better than another, and it’s up to you (and your goals in life) to decide which is best for you.
- No relationship of any kind “completes you” as a person, or brings about a dramatic change in life circumstance that fixes everything. A lot of people look at a relationship as a “magic pill” that will help them achieve their goals overnights (especially people getting married). This is simply not true. The only way to get to your goals faster is by setting them properly, and then taking measurable action towards them.
Picking the Right Partner
If there is one thing you should take away from this article, it is the importance of picking the right partner FOR YOU, and understanding how the right/wrong person, can make or break your life your productivity.
Most people get into relationships too quickly. This is because of a number of reasons:
- There’s social pressure from a peer group, family or society. For example, where I live, most young people end up in relationships with someone before they even know anything about them. Ever wake up the morning after with someone asking “can I be your girlfriend?” True story.
- Lots of people are more enamored with the idea of being in a relationship rather than the actual relationship itself. Also known as “serial monogamy“.
- Biology. Our brains are wired to seek out new partners, and to bond with potential partners. The socially-acceptable way to do that, is to start a relationship with them.
Why is picking the right partner so important? To quote Napoleon Hill:
WRONG SELECTION OF A MATE IN MARRIAGE. This is a most common cause of failure. The relationship of marriage brings people intimately into contact. Unless this relationship is harmonious, failure is likely to follow. Moreover, it will be a form of failure that is marked by misery and unhappiness, destroying all signs of AMBITION.
Basically, not picking the right partner is a huge waste of time and resources down the line – both in terms of productivity and in terms of a potentially messy breakup (let’s not even start on divorce).
The simple solution to this is to pick the right partner – which is easier said than done of course. The only fool-proof way (no matter what online dating sites tell you) is to test drive before buying.
To borrow an analogy from buying a car: in order to find the perfect car, you need to test drive many cars beforehand.
The unfortunate reality is, most people never get around to seeing what they really want and value in a partner, because they don’t have enough experience with a variety of men/women.
It is crucially important to have “relationships” (and I use the term loosely) with many different people in order to understand who your emotional matches and sexual matches are. Every time you go through a relationship, you get one step closer to working out what it is you want in a potential partner. It’s probably not what most people want to hear, but you need to experience both good and bad relationships to know the difference between them.
There are two other factors at play in this process of “test driving” potential partners: the timeframe (no one wants to spend 50 years looking for “the one”), and standards.
Realistically, you don’t have the time to meet everyone on the planet and find the perfect match for yourself.
How long it takes before you really know someone depends on a number of factors including proximity, frequency of contact, shared social group etc… but a good shorthand would be:
- In today’s world, 3-4 months. Especially if under social pressure or constraints.
- In an ideal world, 2-3 years. People change over time.
And because a reader asked and it isn’t obvious to some, in the Western world, the norms are:
- Most couples have sex with each other for the first time around the 3-5 date mark.
- 3 weeks of seeing each other and having had sex about 5 times = you’re in a relationship.
The one hitch in the process of test driving and picking the right partner, is standards. The reason why standards are problematic is biological: everyone wants the best partner that they can get.
The biology is fairly controversial. It goes a little like this:
- Women are subject to what is known as hypergamy, which is the tendency to want to seek out partners of higher and higher status. If you don’t agree with this, just look to the animal kingdom, or take a look at non-US societies where women tend to marry up.
- Men in turn, adapt to whatever market conditions that women set and strive to become the “type of man” that women are looking for.
- As more and more men meet the market conditions that women have set, women up their standards and conditions, and men race to meet them, ad infinitum.
The real-world application of this is simple: be realistic with your standards. Murakami aside, you’re not going to find the “100% perfect” person for you – unless you’re extremely, extremely lucky. And we’ve already established that it is physically impossible for you to meet every single person on the planet.
A better strategy is this: aim for 80% compatibility, and grow together from there.
For Men: Don’t fall into Playboy Model Syndrome
Truth time: most men select women based largely on looks. We’ve discussed the biological roots of this before, and this is only reinforced by the availability of media and pornography. The women who appear in pornography and in advertising are essentially the top 10% of the female population in terms of physical attractiveness. In turn, more and more men today find “average” or “plain jane”-looking women unattractive.
The female response to this is a larger number of women dressing “sluttier” and more in-line with the expectations set by pornography and advertisements.
The solution for men is this:
- Remember that most women are not: 1) domestic goddesses in the kitchen, 2) savvy socialites at corporate events for the PR firm they own, and 3) pornstar extraordinaires in the bedroom, all at the same time. They may become all these things over the course of a relationship, but don’t expect them up front – 80% is good enough.
- Remember that makeup, lighting and art direction has a HUGE effect on how a woman looks and appears – keep this in mind the next time you’re watching television or pornography.
For Women: Don’t fall into the Matthew McConaughey Effect
A lot of modern women have a 125-something point checklist when they’re searching for “the one”. It’s important to understand where this checklist comes from.
Without a doubt, that is one good-looking man. In films, he happens to play characters who are also:
- Just the right amount of self-deprecating.
- Sensitive… and the list goes on.
Much in the same way that pornography has created an unrealistic measure of women’s appearances for men, Matthew McConaughey (and other similar imagery) have created an unrealistic measure of men’s attributes for women.
Remember how we mentioned earlier that men tend to adapt to whatever women are looking for in the sexual marketplace? Well, the male response to this is to do one of two things.
- Focus in on that niche of women who respond favorably to whatever attribute they happen to have (height, hair color, ethnicity, career status etc). You only have to spend one night at an expat bar in Bangkok to see this response in full force.
- Focus on developing traits that women find universally attractive in men – social dominance and social skills.
The solution for women is this:
- Remember that 80% is good enough.
- Don’t make your checklist too long.
It’s worth repeating at this point what we mentioned above in the section on relationships: finding a compatible partner, no matter how wonderful, will not “complete” or dramatically change your life.
Having a partner however, WILL have carry-on effects in your life, not least with your levels of productivity and motivation.
Here are some different things that tend to happen:
- If you find someone you’re truly happy with – you tend to become less motivated and less productive. Why? Because you’ve fulfilled a biological imperative, and your brain is essentially saying “you’re done”. Sad, but true.
- If you feel like you’ve “settled” for what you can get. You won’t be happy, and you may even find yourself more motivated to improve the rest of your life to find a better partner.
- As a counter to the points above, one reviewer we talked to suggested that finding the right partner gives us time to focus energy and attention on the other parts of their lives. We’re more inclined to believe that this is more of a variation of “settling”, or a consequence of…
- If you have a strong mission in life outside of your partner (regardless of if you’re happy or if you’ve settled), you’ll stay motivated and productive. Mission in life > any effects a partner has on you.
- Love as a concept has a biological basis in dopamine and oxytocin release levels. These can be roughly interpreted as: sexual desire, love as a drive/motivation, and pair bonding.
- Our society allows us to be socially monogamous and sexually promiscuous. This is in line with the biology.
- The type of relationship you have will always have upsides and downsides, that affect the rest of your life.
- Picking the right partner is one of the most important things you can do.
Update: click here for part 6.
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