Insights on Love and Marriage From Social Scientists and Aziz Ansari

Highlights From the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association

Aziz Ansari signs copies of his book 'Modern Romance' at Barnes & Noble Union Square on June 16, 2015 in New York City. John Lamparski/Getty Images

The big news at 2015's annual meeting of the American Sociological Association was that actor and comedian, and now author, Aziz Ansari would be in attendance to participate in a panel discussion about his new book Modern Romance, co-authored with sociologist Eric Klinenberg.

On Saturday August 22, a huge crowd of sociologists awaited the insights on dating, mating, and marriage that would be shared not just by Ansari and Klinenberg, but also by Christian Rudder, the founder of OK Cupid; biological anthropologist Helen Fisher; and psychologist Eli Finkel. What followed was a fascinating hour and a half of presentations and discussion among the panelists and audience, including these thought-provoking and helpful insights and tips on modern romance.

Romantic Love is a Drive

Following analysis of brain scans of people in love, Fisher and her research team found that the part of the brain activated by romance is the same one that controls basic needs like thirst and hunger. Fisher concludes from this that romantic love is not only a basic human need, but also a drive that shapes how we act in the world. She explained that it is associated with "wanting, craving, focus, energy, and addiction," and that it is separate from but adjacent to both where our sex drive resides in the brain, and the part of our brain that is activated by attachment, which is something that grows out of romantic love over a period of time.

Love at First Sight is Totally Possible

Fisher explained, after an audience member asked a question about the possibility for success of arranged marriages, that love at first sight is something that our brains are hard wired for. "Brain circuitry for love is like a sleeping cat," she said, "and can be awakened in a second. You can fall in love with someone instantly." According to Fisher, this is why a lot of arranged marriages work.

People Dating Today Suffer a Paradox of Choice

Ansari and Klinenberg found through talking to people in interviews and focus groups that dating in today's world, enabled and organized by social media and dating sites, presents people with a paradox of choice--we are so overwhelmed by the amount of potential romantic partners available to us that we find it very difficult to select one to pursue. Ansari pointed out how digital technology has enabled this, citing the example of a guy he spoke with who admitted to checking Tinder on the way to a date arranged by Tinder, and then checking Tinder in the bathroom after having given the current date just a few minutes of his time. Ansari and Klinenberg observed in their study that many young singles are simply not giving each other enough of a chance, and suggest that we need to employ the "Flo Rida Theory of Acquired Likability Through Repetition" (LOL but really). Ansari explained,

Social science shows that the more time you spend with people, that's when you learn these deeper things and develop positive illusions, and the Flo Rida theory basically just states that ultimately, we're all like a Flo Rida song. When you first hear it, you're like, 'All right, Flo Rida, I've heard this shit before. This is very similar to what you put out last summer.' But then you keep hearing it over and over and you're like, 'All right, Flo Rida, you've done it again. Let's dance!'

Our Dates Are Too Boring

Related to the previous point, Ansari and Klinenberg learned through their research that people are quick to move on from a potential romantic interest after just one date because most of us arrange terribly boring dates. We go out for a meal or a drink and essentially exchange resumes and life histories, and very few of us have an especially good time. Instead, they suggest, we should organize dates around fun and exciting events that give us an opportunity to see what each person is like in a social setting, and to bond over a shared experience. Ansari referenced sociologist Robb Willer's "Monster Truck Rally Theory," which is based on the experience of Willer and his friends, who started taking dates to monster truck rallies, at which both parties had a great time, and many pairs blossomed into couples with great relationships.

We Put Far More Pressure on Marriage Today than We Did in the Past

By looking at the way what a marriage is and what we expect of one has evolved over time, psychologist Eli Finkel found that today people expect marriage to provide not only love and companionship, but also to facilitate personal growth and self-expression. According to Finkel, these expectations are far greater than those people have had for marriage in the past, and the problem is, married people today are spending less time together than in decades prior, so they are not putting enough time into their relationships for those expectations to be fully met. He suggests that this is related to a long-term decrease in marital happiness. So, Finkel offers that if people really want marriage to meet these needs, then they need to devote more time to their partners. However, he also observed that those who are doing it are doing it really well, as evidenced by how the proportion of people who are "blissed out" in their marriages has increased simultaneously while overall marital happiness has declined.

Here's hoping you can deploy these insights and tips as you date, mate, and marry.