News, Science & Research

Answers to cuffing season’s biggest questions: The science of looking for love

Over half of students want exclusive relationship, Herald poll shows

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Students have begun to indulge in scrumptious meals, bright decorations and festive jingles in the early days of this holiday season. But another period — cuffing season — is already in full swing as the snow finally flurries in and the temperature drops, ushering people into their classrooms, dorms and, perhaps, each other’s arms.

Earlier this semester, The Herald’s fall undergraduate poll found that 54.6 percent of undergraduates are not in any kind of relationship, though nearly the same number — 56.1 percent — desire an exclusive relationship with one person. Of the students who are not currently in a relationship, about half want an exclusive relationship with one other person, according to the data. The data suggests that there are about 3,600 single undergraduates on campus right now and more than 1,700 of them desire a monogamous relationship.

The Herald investigated the emotions, thoughts and hormones bubbling underneath these statistics through interviews with University researchers, professors and students.

What is romantic chemistry in college?

A decades-old research study involving college students revealed that they reported higher levels of attraction to their dormmates than other students, said Nick Perry, a post-doctoral fellow at the Alpert Medical School who teaches “The Psychology of Love,” a pre-college course at the University. People “kind of grow on you, and that does seem to be a real phenomenon,” Perry added.

Psychology can explain some aspects of attraction. The initial stage of falling in love, marked by extreme infatuation and worry about whether someone’s feelings are reciprocated, is referred to as “limerence,” Perry said. To find that extreme infatuation, a person will likely be drawn to those with shared interests, political beliefs and cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Physical proximity and repeated contact can heighten those emotions, Perry said.

On a biological level, seeing a crush leads to hyperactivity in the brain’s reward center. This reaction accompanies the state of “limerence” and triggers the flood of hormones that culminates in the excitement that people experience around others they like, Perry said. The desire for those feelings may help explain why the majority of students polled reported wanting relationships.

College is a common time for these serious relationships to begin, Perry added. Students acquire a newfound autonomy from their parents, and it is like a “playground and … a laboratory for learning all these really important skills,” including skills related to relationships, he said.

Independence in decision-making may indeed explain the increased engagement in relationships in college, said Professor of Sociology Gregory Elliott, a social psychologist. In social psychology, the three aspects of love are satisfying one’s needs, caring for another and being exclusive, though exclusivity may not always be necessary in the presence of the other two, Elliott added.

Since people spend a lot of time changing and finding themselves as young adults, serious relationships tend to come about in college, Elliott said. They often arise between people from the same school because maintaining similarities and connections with people is harder when they continue to evolve independently. For this reason, some students may choose not to engage in a long-term relationship if they have intentions of continuing on to graduate school, Elliott added.

Hearts, health, hopes and … hookups?

The Herald’s fall undergraduate poll found that 15.8 percent of undergraduates reported engaging in casual or consistent hookups, while 14.6 percent reported wanting hookups on some level.

Differences in sexual health are evident in different types of relationships, said Associate Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences Cynthia Rosengard.  Discussions about safe sex are less common in hookups than in monogamous relationships, said Kelsey Collins ’13, a psychiatry resident at New York University who conducted undergraduate thesis research on college relationships at Brown with Rosengard’s guidance.

Monogamous relationships “seemed to be more about mutual communication, emotional attachment and intimacy, whereas the casual hookups were … more just about sex, pleasure, more carnal desires,” Collins said about her research on Brown undergraduates.

In contrast, Rosengard’s research on adolescents has found that “once (people) identified themselves as being in a main relationship, they were less likely to be practicing safer sex,” she said. This outcome may be related to the trust that develops in a relationship and the common fear that discussions about safe sex imply infidelity, Rosengard added.

“On a more cultural level, I think having a greater ability for everybody to talk about sex and not having it be something that’s taboo from childhood on would really be the best intervention,” Rosengard said.

The fall poll data is relatively consistent with data collected when the same questions about relationships were asked in The Herald’s Fall 2012 poll. Nearly half of those polled in 2012 reported not being in a relationship, and a little over half wanted an exclusive relationship with one person.

Around the same time as the 2012 poll, Collins gathered data in surveys of 451 University undergraduates over  the age of 18 and graduates from the five years prior. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed reported not being in a relationship, 40 percent were in some type of monogamous relationship, around 14 percent had casual hookups and only about 3 percent were friends with benefits, she said.

Despite the fact that only 14 percent of students at the time reported they were casually hooking up, the majority of students believed that casual hook ups were the most prevalent type of relationship on campus. At the same time, most students personally longed for long-term, monogamous relationships. The concept of pluralistic ignorance — the idea that people follow what they incorrectly assume to be the actions of the majority — may explain the rise of hookups in college compared to high school, she said.

Lusting for love on campus

Collins found that students struggled to initiate exclusive relationships, a problem seen in the more than 1,700 hopeless romantics on campus this fall.

To alleviate some of the burden that comes with making the first steps in starting any kind of relationship, the Blognonian created the Three-Day Relationship match this November, said Blognonian co-Editor-in-Chief Emma Weiss ’21.

The team sent out a survey that, among other questions, asked students about the kind of relationship they wanted, whether it be a romantic, long-term relationship, a fling, or just a friend, study buddy or distraction from finals. Based on their answers, students were paired with another person, and the couples were then given the location of their dates and possible questions to ask, she added.

About 35 percent of the total 1,020 relationship requests asked for a fling, while 31 percent sought a long-term relationship, said Blognonian co-Editor-in-Chief Elliott Lehrer ’21.

The “student body seems to have responded really well to it … we’re just providing a service that lots of people are really appreciating,” Lehrer said.

“It’s kind of an unspoken need,” Weiss added.

Challenges in the contemporary relationship

The ongoing cultural shift toward social disengagement facilitated by today’s technology may increase the difficulty of finding a relationship and the likelihood that students may be satisfied with their single status. The Herald poll found that about 12.2 percent of students are not looking for any sort of relationship.

Emma Watson ’14 recently coined the term “self-partnered” when talking about her own relationship status. Watson’s words reflect the modern capacity for solitude, wrote Assistant Professor of the Practice in Literary Arts Andrew Colarusso, who teaches LITR 1230: “Why Don’t We Fall in Love?” in an email to The Herald.

“(We’re) living through the first half of what is likely to be a self-partnered century,” he added. “I myself am in a committed relationship with my Nintendo switch. … It’s comfortable and safe and sometimes fun. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t waiting for some sweet human to come along and change my mind.”

Nowadays, people’s constant attachment to technology enables them to disengage from social interactions and avoid the “messiness” of human relationships, Colarusso wrote. “I think, more often than not, we are choosing to be alone — hesitant to recapitulate the violence of our antecedents, all the while committing (to) new forms of social violence,” like cyber bullying.

The tendency to use texting for deep conversations and the rise of ghosting are also factors that undermine healthy relationships, Rosengard said. There is a lack of clear, in-person communication that is needed for partners to understand each other and the state of their relationship, she added.

“It would be terrific to actually have some real specific training at a young age. How do you manage relationships? How do you initiate them? How do you navigate them? And then, really, how do you end them in a way that is healthy?” Rosengard said.

“Romantic relationships are really important … and … we put a lot of pressure on ourselves I think to get it right, but college is a really good time to start to figure it out what works and doesn’t work,” Perry said. “I would try to enjoy that learning process as much as you can, as hard as it is.”

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