What's the secret to finding your soulmate?

Chances are, it might not be too far away...
31 March 2023

Interview with 

Viren Swami, Anglia Ruskin University


The hands of an elderly couple.


We know it takes chemistry for a relationship to flourish (literally - a healthy dose of oxytocin is essential) but how important is locality when it comes to settling down with that special someone? Viren Swami is a Professor of social psychology at ARU giving a talk as part of the Cambridge festival this week: ‘The Geography of Romance: How space determines whom you fall in love with.’

Viren - That's a huge question in its own right. So if you were a neuroscientist, you might say that love is basically oxytocin. Probably dopamine and serotonin. If you're a cognitive psychologist, you might talk about love being a compendium of intimacy and commitment, and sometimes even passion. But if you're a social psychologist like myself, it's probably better to think of love as something that we do rather than something that we feel. So it's how we treat other people. It's the kindness, the care, the knowledge and respect that we show for other people.

Chris - Do we have it because it is the glue that binds society together. Is that why we have evolved to love? And are we alone? Do other animals love or is it uniquely human?

Viren - Well, this is an important debate within psychology about whether love is unique to humans, and most psychologists will say that we experience love in ways that are different to how other animals experience it. So the experience of love in human beings is much more intimate. It's much more based on feelings of commitment and intimacy which don't really occur in other animals.

Chris - Even those animals that appear to mate for life swans, for example, rooks apparently have pair bonding that lasts a lifetime?

Viren - Absolutely. So they would certainly have pair bonding, but it's not necessarily the same thing as love. And love I think is, for example, an artist or a philosopher might say it's something even beyond the realm of science, scientific understanding. So really what we're talking about here is a human feeling that goes beyond what most other animals would experience.

Chris - And what factors to your mind are the most crucial when we are falling in love. What really determines the person we go for?

Viren - So this is a really interesting question. When you think about what is your ideal partner, most people would think of things like kindness, physical appearance, whether they have a good sense of humour - and they are really important - things like similarity of values, similarity of personality types. And there's also something called reciprocity, which is basically when we exchange intimacy with each other, we exchange things like information and how intimate we are with each other. But the thing that most psychologists and most people don't really think about is geography. And it turns out that geography and more precisely how close we are in space to one another is a really important predictor of attraction.

Chris - So not just your mother-in-law saying you're not going out with him or her because they come from the wrong side of the tracks. It's more how likely the relationship is to flourish because you get to physically see each other?

Viren - Well, that's one thing. So a psychologist would say, for example, that the more likely you are in close proximity, the more likely you are to form what we call a social unit. And we like people who are in our social units and we dislike people who are outside our social units. Also, people who we see more frequently tend to be more familiar and our brains process familiar things more positively in a language that is known as cognitive fluency. So when something's perceived as more familiar, because we see that thing more frequently, we come to perceive it as likable and nice.

Chris - So is it, with repeated exposure, you learn to fall in love with someone? I'm just minded of when Covid happened. I'm sorry to bring that horrible memory back, but I remember our Deputy Chief Medical Officer, as she was at the time, Jenny Harries being asked by somebody when they had to go into a lockdown. They're saying, what if I don't live with my partner? And she said, well, now's the time to test the strength of your relationship. You either move in and test the strength that way, or you move out and test the strength that way. Either way you're going to test the strength of your relationship.

Viren - That was probably very bad advice. But anyway, leaving the pandemic behind, there is something called mere exposure. And mere exposure is simply this idea that the more times you see a novel stimulus, the more you come to like it. It was discovered by an American-Polish psychologist, Robert Zajonc in the 1960s. There's a lot of evidence to support mere exposure, but one of the weird things about mere exposure is that if the first time you see something, you come to dislike it, mere exposure isn't going to overturn that, you'll end up disliking it anyway.

Chris - What about the reverse though, Viren? Is there love at first sight? Because if you really think, well, I really like that person, does that stick or do you then quite rapidly reevaluate your relationship with that person if you change your mind?

Viren - So this goes back to this idea of what is love. I mean, if you agree with me that love is something that we do and something that we show to other people, then I would problematise this idea that love at first sight is even possible. We can be infatuated at first sight, but to love someone requires knowledge of that person and respect and care for that person, which is very difficult to show and to engender at a first sight.

Chris - We are told that there's someone special for all of us out there, aren't we? Is that true, are there any things we can do - if we haven't found the special person or the one, or we're wondering if the one we've got is the one - that we can do to optimise our chances and maximise our positive decision making?

Viren - So I don't really like this idea that there is the one out there waiting for you because that makes it really difficult to find that one person. I think there are lots of people out there who we might be compatible with and who we could form meaningful and happy and positive relationships with. Now, if you want some advice, the general advice from a psychologist is to be nice and to be kind and to do nice things and treat other people with kindness. But in terms of geography specifically, one of the nice things we know is that people who are single are often moving closer and closer together across their lifetimes before that first time that they meet. So, in theory, if you are single right now and you're looking for a relationship, the person that you will end up in a relationship with is probably moving closer and closer in space, up to the point at which you meet.


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