Why you should care
Because love conquers all, but man may be able to conquer love right back. Take that, you little jerk.
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Beyoncé was crazy in it; Def Leppard accused it of both biting and bleeding; Foreigner just wanted to know what the damn thing is. Love is the fickle ruler of our lives, driving us mad when we are in it, and even madder when we aren’t. It makes us sick, it makes us drunk, it makes us blind.
Turns out we’ve been suckers for centuries. Perhaps, anyhow.
It might be possible to turn love up or down, like a dial.
Indeed, psychologists suggest we might be able to use behavioral and cognitive strategies to steer our sentiments. Authors of a new study suggest evidence of “love regulation” — the ramifications of which are enticing, if a little creepy. Techniques of love regulation could help us boost passion if feelings of love decline, say, in long-term relationships, or post-heartbreak, to douse our feelings and swipe right into new romantic prospects.
The researchers, Sandra Langeslag from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Jan van Strien from Erasmus University Rotterdam, examined 40 participants in what was “the very first study” of its kind, according to Langeslag. Each participant came armed with 30 photos of his or her current or former partner — half of the participants were in a relationship, while half had recently been through a breakup— and were instructed to try to regulate their love feelings by using the technique of “reappraisal” — viewing a slideshow of the images and focusing each time on a positive aspect of their beloved for “up-regulation,” or a negative aspect for “down-regulation.”
The results? Well, participants did indeed feel more love after up-regulation and less love after down-regulation. What’s more, brainwave measurements showed this wasn’t just an illusion: The Late Positive Potential brainwave, which “indicates how emotionally salient a stimulus is for you,” was diminished after down-regulation and somewhat enhanced after up-regulation, says Langeslag.
“The idea that we can regulate love makes a lot of sense, because we can regulate every other emotion,” says Dr. Holly Parker, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard University, where she teaches a course on the Psychology of Close Relationships. There is plenty of evidence, she says, that “we can dramatically change how we see something, how we see someone, based on how we frame our perspective.” Indeed, James Gross, a professor at Stanford University, is one of the pioneers in the field of emotion regulation, which has shown that despite feeling that emotions “arise unbidden and it’s hard to do much about them,” people can actually modify their own emotions when they see fit.
This is not a new concept — psychologists stretching all the way back to Freud have thought that our mind may be able to control certain emotions. So it’s a little surprising that more research like this hasn’t already happened. The field of emotion regulation research, says Gross, has tended to concentrate on strategies to regulate negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety, without much prior research on how to regulate positive emotions like love. Besides which, the members of Foreigner are not the only ones unsure of what love is. Many psychologists refer to love not so much as an emotion itself, but instead a motivational state to a variety of emotions such as happiness or perhaps jealousy. Love is not obviously a “pure” or “basic” emotion, says Gross. “I think we can be pretty confident that there’s something moving around,” he says, “but we can’t yet be sure that it’s really love.”
With a sample size of just 40, more research is clearly necessary. Future studies could use additional objective measures such as facial expression recognition to confirm the brainwave measurements, says Gross. So by all means, spend your weekend trying to un-love your ex with a PowerPoint presentation, but no promises.