Fairfield alumna Dr. Madeleine Fugère ’94 studies the mysterious ways we fall in love.

Fairfield alumna Dr. Madeleine Fugère ’94 studies the mysterious ways we fall in love.

You swipe right. You swipe left. Then, you thumb down past 56 weeks on the Instagram account of someone you met in passing (is he as handsome as you remember?).

Or, you’re being set up with your friend’s friend who just happens to live around the corner from you.

You swoon and imagine. Then, you find yourself at a bar, waiting for your date to arrive. There’s excitement and risk and magic. For we humans, meeting someone and falling in love is a moment we all wait and long for — it’s bold and daring and complicated.  It’s a moment that leads to a million other potential moments. Whatever happens when we fall in love, it is an impenetrable mystery, isn’t it?

Well, perhaps not so much. According to The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) there’s a body of important scientific research that has cracked that mystery, and connects how we fall in love to real brain science and evolutionary theory. Written primarily by Fairfield University alumna Dr. Madeleine A. Fugère ’94, professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University — two chapters were written by Eastern Connecticut colleagues Dr. Jennifer Leszczynski, professor of psychology, and Dr. Alita Cousins, associate professor of psychology — the book synthesizes research from around the world on various aspects of attraction and romantic relationships, and then offers suggestions for areas where additional research is warranted.

Ideal for students of social psychology as well as the casual reader, the book is a comprehensive introduction to an everyday subject that, on closer investigation, proves to be an intriguing, and sometimes surprising area.

The authors took the concepts that they discuss every semester in their social psychology courses and looked for the most interesting, exciting and cutting edge research on those topics.  Also, given the recent trends regarding online dating and social media, Dr. Fugère and her team looked particularly for research on those issues.

“What makes our book different from other books on similar topics,” Dr. Fugère began,  “is our strong focus on first impressions such as what happens when we first meet a potential partner, our focus on evolutionary theory — how can unconscious processes related to our evolutionary history influence our dating preferences, and our use of personal anecdotes as well as current media examples to explain the material.”

Dating and Attraction

Dr. Fugère’s work reveals what we all might already be sensing — dating in the United States is definitely changing.  More and more people in the U.S. meet online, using dating apps, or through social media. Younger Americans don’t “date” as much as their older counterparts, preferring to go out in groups rather than formally dating.

The book also includes a lot of cross-cultural research and it is important to realize that in some cultures, people don’t “date” per se, but they might still feel attracted to some potential partners and not to others.

However, despite cultural and generational changes and differences, certain fundamentals of attraction remain unchanged.  We tend to like others who are physically close to us (or those whom we see every day).  We tend to like others with appealing physical characteristics: physical attractiveness (or matching our own level of physical attractiveness), a healthy appearance, an appealing scent and a sexy voice. We tend to like others who are similar to us, especially when considering important attitudes and values.  And, perhaps most foreseeable, we tend to like others who like us.

“In our book we focused on what can spark that initial attraction as well as what factors can increase attraction among individuals,” Dr. Fugère said.

“We also tried to emphasize that despite the fact that you may get to know a lot about a person when meeting online, meeting in person is still an essential part of the dating process.”

Among the findings are a few surprises: “Many people think that an attractive physical appearance is more important to men than to women, but, using a variety of different research projects, we show that physical appearance is most likely equally important to men and women. Women just don’t tend to overtly express that preference as much as men do,” Dr. Fugère said.

“Another surprising finding in the book is that men hold more romantic beliefs than women, such as believing in true love or love at first sight.”
Other surprising studies highlighted in the attraction section debunk first-date worries and perceptions women have about themselves.

Particularly, compiled research that looked at men’s and women’s perceptions of the ideal female body weight from 26 countries, the authors discovered that women tend to believe their “ideal” body size should be thin, possibly underweight, especially in more economically developed countries.  While in fact, men preferred a figure with a heavier body weight. This may be related to implications about a woman’s overall health and potential fertility. So, perhaps the minefield of weight concerns women navigate is influenced by something other than preference?

In men, the waist-to-chest ratio is important to women, perhaps because it can be an indicator of physical prowess, and therefore suggests — in a Darwinian way — a greater capacity for providing protection.

Some other findings: Wear red. Research shows that both men and women are physiologically aroused by this color.

And as for that first date, if you can, do something exciting, Dr. Fugère suggests. The theory here is that the feeling of excitement from the activity — roller blading, sailing, skiing, or in Dr. Fugère’s case a first date at the Grand Canyon — helps form an association with that person and the reason why you are feeling happy or enthralled — they become associated with excitement.

On a side note, this text is far from a dating guide. “My co-authors and I are a bit uncomfortable giving dating advice,” Dr. Fugère said.
But she does encourage her friends who are looking for romantic partners to try online dating, because it is a forum that features others who are in the same situation, looking for potential partners. However, she also encourages her friends to engage in activities they enjoy (take a cooking or dancing class, join a biking club or a yoga studio), especially if they are uncomfortable with the idea of online dating. Chances are good that you’ll meet friends or romantic partners through those activities.

“Personally, I love the idea of meeting a potential partner through a mutual friend, because that is how I met my husband!”
Dr. Fugère shared.

Mating & Romantic Relationships

The field of social psychology is becoming increasingly complex, but you don’t have to have a scientific background to understand the research in The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships.  The scientific literature, personal anecdotes and popular media provide accessible answers to a lot of questions we all might be harboring about why things unfold the way they do in our romantic lives, but it isn’t always so cut and dry.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that our book answers all the questions about attraction and romantic relationships,” Dr. Fugère admitted. “Rather, we answer some questions and raise many more! That is the fun of research.” Dr. Fugère also said that if the book could explain everything about attraction, our world would become very boring.

“Feeding your characteristics into a computer that could match you with an “ideal” partner would be a lot less fun than meeting people in real life and experiencing the excitement of finding someone you like, wondering whether that person likes you too, and going through the ‘dating and mating’ process together.”

Of the dating and mating process, the book recounts that personality traits, such as emotional stability, education and intelligence and pleasing disposition are rated more important than good looks when people are looking for long-term love. In the end, we want to meet someone who is reliable, kind and stable. The science shows that Mom was right after all.

Assuming that a long-term partnership has been formed, Dr. Fugère’s book also looks at behaviors that seem to sustain those relationships. Married herself for 15 years, she cites three key ways in which people can keep the spark alive, according to current research:

Make time for each other. “It’s so easy to get caught up in day-to-day activities,” she said. “You have to make time for each other. People who spend more time with each other have more satisfying relationships.”

Touch each other. “You have to physically touch each other. Get in close physical proximity. You have to do some snuggling,” she said. “It releases oxytocin and promotes bonding.”

And switch things up a bit. “Do something different. We get stuck in a rut, we go to the same place for dinner,” she noted, and a routine starts to set in. “Do something exciting. Things that raise your heart rate also promote attraction.”

And finally, laughter really is the best medicine. In what Dr. Fugère describes as the “least surprising” result in this book, both men and women rate people with a good sense of humor as more attractive than those who can’t take or make a joke.