“Love is Blind” may look like any other reality dating show, but — according to the producers — it’s really a highly scientific experiment. According to one participant, the show removes “the confounding variables of ethnicity, race, background, and physical appearance.”
But for all the would-be scientific jargon, the show doesn’t really seem to answer its own question: is love blind? Some couples broke up at the altar after seeing each other in the flesh, but others made it all the way through the ceremony. Then again, the show was filmed in 2018 so it’s a little early to judge the success of those marriages.
So if we can’t trust reality TV to tell us how love works, where do we turn? To psychologists, neurologists, relationship counsellors, poets, or even priests?
There are a lot of different views on love, but we started by asking Hannah-Ruth Engelbracht, a geneticist and PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and chief scientific adviser to the dating service Match.com. Since love is an art as well as a science, we also asked Adèle Barclay, poet and author of Renaissance Normcore, for her take on blind love and reality TV.
ON BLIND LOVE
People like to say “love is blind” but what does that mean? Is it true?
Adèle Barclay: Watching the show made me feel that ‘love is blind’ is a really strange phrase. Where does it come from? What does it mean? “Love makes you not make great decisions” or “love can transgress whatever societal rules have been set up.” I guess that’s what they were going for
That felt like one of the weird parts of the show, this sort of meaningless refrain. It didn’t really seem to describe anything that was happening.
Hannah-Ruth Engelbrecht: I think of it as more of a poetic term than a realistic one. I think “love is blind” implies that you’re willing to overlook certain things, given the emotions that someone creates in you.
But fundamentally love is not blind — you are aware of the other person, that’s why you love them. So you’re not completely blind, just blind to things that you don’t want to see.
Helen Fisher: I mean, you don’t have to see someone to suddenly find them sexy. They can just say something that’s hilarious or do something that’s just very sweet and kind and you suddenly want to snuggle with them … but there’s no question about it that looks count and they really count in the beginning of a relationship. This program is about that very first stage of falling for somebody, that intense feeling of romantic love. Is love blind? Indeed it is, for a while. But once you see that person, it’s either going to be an escalation point or a breaking point.
Are you surprised that several couples on the show got engaged before they’d seen each other?
Helen Fisher: No, that doesn’t surprise me. I study the brain. I put people in brain scanners. We’re the first in the world to map the brain circuitry of romantic love and feelings of deep attachment, and this is a basic brain system like the fear system. You can get angry in an instant, you can get scared in an instant, and you can fall in love in an instant. It’s a basic brain system that evolved millions of years ago to start the courtship process and it can be triggered at any time.
And the participants do get to know the other person to some extent too. My understanding is that they do spend a great deal of time actually talking to the person on the other side of the wall, and under those circumstances, you can begin to see whether somebody’s kind, whether they’re funny, whether they’re interesting, even whether they’re sexy. So they are learning a great deal about the human being without looking at them. So, as I say, it does not surprise me that you can fall in love with somebody without looking at them. But it’s unrealistic to think that looks don’t count, because down the road you are going to look at them and if they’re two feet tall and ten feet wide and are missing teeth … that could turn you off!
ON THE ART OF LOVE
Love poetry from centuries ago often expresses the same ideas as modern love poetry. Is love today the same as it was a thousand years ago?
Helen Fisher: When you look at poems from around the world, they all say the same things: that they’re craving the person, they’re obsessed with the person, they can’t stop thinking about the person, they can’t sleep, they can’t eat, everything about the person is special …
When you look at myths and legends and stories and poems, you see the same set of traits. You see them in the 11th century, you see them in poetry among the ancient Greeks. The Bible is full of stuff like this! So it comes down to basic traits linked with this basic brain system of romantic love.
Adèle Barclay: That’s an interesting quandary. I’m pulling away from the idea that certain feelings are universal or eternal because so much of our belief system does stem from our culture. But there are fundamental wants and needs that we’re wired for, like the desire to belong, but I think how they get expressed has changed.
I think there are elements that are consistent over time, the drive to connect and the desire to belong.
But also, historically love poems have often been more about technical prowess — they’re basically just guitar solos. For poets, a lot of love poetry is just proving that you’re good at poetry, not that you actually loved someone.
ON THE SCIENCE OF LOVE
Love can mean a lot of different things, but is there a scientific definition of love?
Helen Fisher: Human beings have evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction. One is the sex drive, which is a form of love, the second is feelings of intense romantic love and the third is feelings of deep attachment. These three brain systems often work together: when you have sex with somebody, any stimulation of the genitals will drive up the dopamine system and can push you over the threshold into falling in love. And with orgasm, there’s a real flood of oxytocin and vasopressin, which are chemicals linked with feelings of deep attachment.
Then there are three main characteristics of romantic love. The first is obsessive thinking. you can’t stop thinking about this person. The second is you’re highly motivated to win this person — what people will do when they are in love is just incredible. And last, you really crave emotional union with them. Sure you’d like to have sex with them, you’d like to sleep with them, but what you really want them to do is to call, to write, to ask you out and to say that they love you.
“Love is Blind” claims to be an experiment. Is it a well-designed experiment?
Hannah-Ruth Engelbrecht: No. No! You’ve put someone in a situation where they know they’re being observed which makes for a bad experiment when emotions are involved because participants know they’re going to be judged by the viewers and no one wants to look like the ***hole. It’s false from the get-go, it’s not a true experiment.
If we accept that it is an experiment in the loosest possible sense, they’ve also introduced a whole lot of other elements like competition between the sexes. You notice that as soon as one couple seemed to have claimed each other, it seemed like everyone else started trying to lay claim to the others. Because it is a competitive situation in a way, I think people might artificially feel the need to emotionally connect with someone very rapidly.
It’s only an experiment in the loosest sense of the term. They’re not truly testing their outcome. They’re not measuring anyone’s oxytocin levels, they’re measuring marriage, which has never been a good measure for love. Even then, they’re not really observing a marriage success rate over a long period of time.
Helen Fisher: I don’t see it as a scientific experiment at all, but it’s an interesting human experiment.
How would you design a proper scientific experiment to test whether love is blind?
Hannah-Ruth Engelbrecht: You’d have to let a couple get married without ever seeing each other and then measure their oxytocin levels. Well, they wouldn’t have to get married but you’d have to have a situation where they interacted over a period of time — however long that took, because I think 30 days is also a ridiculously short amount of time to measure love.
There’s a difference between the infatuation and true long-lasting resilient romantic love. So you’d have to put them in a house, let’s say a house divided down the middle so they could never see each other but they could talk and communicate.
Even then, I think touch is a huge component of human relationships so the fact that they wouldn’t be able to touch each other might have an effect, so it’s not necessarily a truly good experiment in that sense. Then you’d have to look at that couple and observe their oxytocin level and do FMRI imaging to see how they responded to stimuli about the other person over a period of months or years.
Would an experiment like that be ethical?
Hannah-Ruth Engelbrecht: No!!
ON THE SHOW
Do you think the show is ethical?
Hannah-Ruth Engelbrecht: On the one hand, you could argue it’s not unethical because the participants volunteered and were free to leave and everyone did seem to have an idea of what the show was about, so consent was provided. On the other hand, I think they misled people almost deliberately. Because you bond with people when you have to have intimate experiences with them.
I think no one really explains how artificial the environment is going to be — and I think there’s certainly misrepresentation in any kind of romantic show where you’re deliberately put into these situations where your emotions are heightened, which will induce feelings of infatuation and attachment very quickly. I don’t think anyone’s explaining to any participant in advance that those feelings are potentially quite temporary and could be symptoms of infatuation.
Adèle Barclay: I found it very disturbing. I think the show is unethical. I know people signed up for it for their own volition but … I don’t even think the producers put that much thought into it but they’re playing with people’s attachments and their innate sense of worth and belonging and then saying “Now you have to get married or else this will signal that you are a failure.” And it wasn’t actually fun to watch. It didn’t feel thoughtfully designed.
Do you think there’s any advantage to getting to know someone without seeing them?
Helen Fisher: Um … I think there can be advantages. I think you can end up knowing somebody without that element and fall so deeply in love with them that when you do see them you can overlook what you don’t like. In all of our brain scanning studies using FMRI we found there’s a brain region linked with what is called negativity bias.
We’re built to remember the negative. That evolved millions of years ago, because while it’s great to remember who your friends are, it’s really not great to forget who your enemies are. So the brain is built to remember the negatives. But when you’re madly in love with somebody, activity in that brain region linked with negativity bias goes down and so you can begin to overlook the negative.
So if you go to meet somebody in a bar and — I don’t know — they’ve got pimples on their face or they’re a little too short, you might overlook them. But if you get to know them first and you’re madly in love with them, activity in that brain region may reduce. Then, when you actually meet them it may be a bit of a shock, but you can overlook it because you’ve got a lot of other stuff to go on.
Hannah-Ruth Engelbrecht: My answer is, potentially yes. Sometimes we are biased against physical features because we all exist with our own smattering of prejudices. Sometimes those can be overcome when sight is removed. Does this mean it’s the key to falling in love? Clearly not.
We observe people as whole entities, not in parts. So if you’re only ever exposed to a certain part of a person, as in this experiment, you can develop feelings for them, but those feelings can change when you are exposed to the whole. You can form an emotional connection with someone, but then meet them and then find them physically repulsive. Then you’ll find that emotion might fizzle out and die.
So what’s the answer? Well, if you were planning on signing up to be on season two of “Love is Blind,” I’d hold off for now. As it turns out, falling in love isn’t all that hard. If you put people in a closed-off environment where they have nothing to do but share intimate confidences with strangers all day long, it’s pretty easy to induce romantic feelings.
The sophisticated brain scans only seem to confirm what the poets have always known: infatuation messes with your brain chemistry but short-term attraction isn’t a good predictor for long-term compatibility. So getting married to someone you’ve never seen before isn’t some kind of miracle love hack.
The sudden ubiquity of quarantine and self-isolating may lead to a boom in no-contact dating over the next few months and reality TV producers must be working on ways to capitalize on it. Keep an eye out for a new show (“Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” perhaps?) coming soon to a screen near you …