Measuring Love Intentions
To some people, scientific research on love is preposterous. Skepticism runs especially high when a researcher claims to explore loving motives and intentions. But research on the motives of love is possible — and it offers key insights for living well.
In a previous blog, I outlined three major areas of love research (see “Measuring Love”). These three correspond to the three basic aspects of a robust definition of love. The first aspect pertains to intentions and motives.
If love requires intentionality, research on love may explore an agent’s motives and intent. Motives matter.
Of course, scientists cannot place motives under a microscope. In fact, we cannot perceive motives in themselves with sensory perception – sight, sound, touch, etc. This presents a problem for this aspect of research on love, because most scientists presuppose that sensory perception is the only perception possible.
At best, we perceive or become directly aware of our own motives. Even then, we are not likely fully aware of all our motives. Research on love can overcome this problem at least partially, however, by concentrating on a subject’s primary motive for any particular action.
We all presuppose that at least sometimes one motive predominates over other motives when we choose to act in a particular way. And most of the time we can be accurate about discerning our primary motives.
The issues of discerning motives and the role motives play in our decisions are complex. There exists no philosophical or scientific uniformity on the salient issues. My argument only requires the claim that we have motives, that these motives influence our choices, and that we can be cognizant at least to some degree of what our primary motives might be.
I propose at least three general methods for researching primary motives as they pertain to love.
Self Report of Motives
The first method for research on the motives of love involves hearing from those who report their own motives. In particular, self-report based research focuses on what subjects believe to be their primary motives for intentionally acting in a particular way.
Take the work of psychologists Susan S. Hendrick and Clyde Hendrick, as an example. They used a self-report method to explore the relation of love to religious belief. These scientists asked over 500 participants in two separate studies to report on what kinds of love they express and to report on their religiosity. The self-report study focused on a 42-item love styles scale and addressed six types of love: eros (romantic), ludus (game-playing), storge (compassionate), mania (possessive), pragma (practical), and agape (self-less/religious).
The result of the Hendricks’s research shows that participants who self-report being very religious also self-report expressing more storge, pragma, and agape love forms. These same highly religious people, however, self-report expressing ludus love (game-playing) less than non-religious participants. The Hendricks conclude that “subjects who were more religious endorsed the more ‘dependable’ love styles of storge (compassionate), pragma (practical), and agape (selfless), while they relatively rejected ludus (game-playing).”
Self-reports are advantageous for many reasons. The main one is they emerge from the witness of those who know their primary motives best: the subjects themselves.
The disadvantage to self-reports, however, is that those surveyed may not report their motives honestly. Various incentives may tempt them to characterize their primary motives as loving when they are not.
Scientific research on love based on self-report is important but cannot lead to absolute certainty with regard to the research project goals. But failure to attain certainty does not eliminate it from science. Absolute certainty is not possible for any scientific project, and therefore does not disqualify self-report research methods.
Inferring Motives in Others
The second general way in which love research focuses on motives pertains to inferring a subject’s motives based upon observing its actions. Researchers may rightly infer that some actions are motivated primarily by the actor’s intent to promote well-being. Observation and inference are bedrock activities in scientific research.
Admittedly, inferring another person’s motives entails conjecture. Inference can result in misperception and never attains absolute certainty.
But conjecture and failure to achieve certainty do not disqualify this research method. Other scientific methods based on observation – e.g., scientific explanations for conflicts among Maasai lions or planetary research based on telescope observations – also rely on conjecture and cannot provide explanatory certainty. However, it should prompt those who use this method to be modest and cautious when reporting their research results.
A scientist exploring love can increase the likelihood he or she accurately infers a subject’s motives. A researcher can reduce the likelihood other factors influence a subject to exhibit nonloving primary motives.
For example, Daniel Batson’s research sets up conditions to increase the likelihood he can accurately infer the motives of subjects as loving or not loving. In one experiment, Batson told undergraduates they would form teams of two participants. Each undergraduate would play a role in a stress experience. One student was randomly selected to undergo up to ten electric shocks. The second team member observed the first. Batson told all participants they could withdraw from the experiment at any time. Participants in this test did not know, however, that every undergraduate was “randomly” selected for the observer role.
As assistants escorted each to an observation room, the undergraduate learned he or she would watch on closed-circuit television as a young woman named Elaine – the person they presumed was his or her randomly selected partner – received the series of electric shocks. The scene each student watched, however, had been pre-recorded so that all participants watched the same experience.
By the end of the second “live” shock treatment, Elaine’s reactions were so strong to the electrocution that the assistant administering the treatment “interrupted” the procedure. The assistant asked Elaine if she was feeling okay. A conversation ensued in which Elaine confessed that as a child, a horse threw her onto an electric fence. After the fence incident, a doctor said that in the future, she might react strongly to even mild shocks.
Hearing Elaine’s (made up) story, the assistant wondered aloud if the undergraduate participant watching in the adjacent room might take her place. With a mixture of reluctance and relief, Elaine consented to the assistant checking on this possibility.
After a brief moment, the assistant entered the room in which the student was watching the shock treatments on closed-circuit television. The assistant asked if he or she would be willing to take Elaine’s place. The assistant also gave the person the option to remain an observer.
“If you decide to help Elaine by taking her place,” the assistant concluded, “she’ll come in here and observe you. You will go in and perform the recall trials while receiving the shocks. Once you have completed the trials, you’ll be free to go. What would you like to do?”
Batson found that most observers who judged themselves dissimilar to Elaine (based upon previously completed questionnaires) opted out of taking the shocks in her place. However, those who judged themselves similar to Elaine – based on similarities evident in the questionnaires – were likely to take her place, even when they could easily escape the situation.
Whereas only 18% of dissimilar observers helped Elaine when given an easy escape, 91% of highly similar observers helped Elaine when given an easy escape. These results give reason to believe that the primary motive of some people in some situations is genuinely altruistic. They are willing to promote overall well-being by responding intentionally to relieve Elaine’s stress.
Batson’s experiments are powerful, because he sets up controlled circumstances and introduces or eliminates various factors. This helps him increase the likelihood that he can infer correctly a subject’s primary motives.
Batson is quick to say, however, that such studies do not prove irrefutably that the participants expressed love. After all, the possibility always exists that students such as those who took Elaine’s place in the experiment acted with selfishness as their primary motive. It may be that some observers took Elaine’s place, for instance, because they knew they would feel enormous guilt if they did not. Their primary motive was the selfish desire to avoid guilt.
In sum, scientific studies on motives to promote well-being are important. They cannot prove irrefutably that a subject acts lovingly, however. They play an important part in love research generally, because they examine the intentions of those whom may have acted lovingly.
Intentionally Acting on Convictions
A final subdomain of research on intentions and motives explores how personal beliefs, convictions, and principles – when acted upon – influence a person’s decision to love. This research also requires inferences based on observation of actions. But it relies upon observations of others over a long period of time rather than a controlled experiment like the one Batson constructed.
In their book, Some Do Care: Contemporary Lives of Moral Commitments, developmental psychologists Anne Colby and William Damon look at a twenty-three people who are moral examples of love. Colby and Damon use both self-reports and their own inferences based on observation for their research.
The first moral exemplar Colby and Damon present in their book is Suzie Valadez, known as “Queen of the Dump.” Valadez has spent her life handing out food to the poorest of the poor in the squalid conditions outside Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Valadez worked for more than 30 years helping others, often sacrificing her own health and safety and that of her family members. Colby and Damon report, “She was consumed by the work, fully and completely engaged. For Suzie, her work is her life… As she sees it, the work with the poor of Juarez is what she is her for, what she most wants to do.”
Colby and Damon conclude that the moral exemplars they studied acted lovingly for others despite difficult circumstances. But all were motivated by unswerving commitment to principles. These moral exemplars have “a common sense of faith in the human potential to realize its ideals,” they report. Faith in the human potential to attain something better is “what made the center hold throughout all the decades of the exemplars’ uniquely consequential lives.”
While the scientific import of the other two aspects of my love definition must wait for future posts, I want to conclude with a brief theological comment.
The arguments above pertaining to motives are important for engaging love research. But I think they should also prompt Christians to ask about the sources, shaping experiences, and mechanisms of motives.
I believe God is the ultimate source of our motives to love. But I don’t think God is the only actor in love. God inspires and empowers love. But our love involves choosing to respond appropriately to God’s prior (prevenient) loving actions.
In addition, the Church and Christian practices can play a major role in shaping and cultivating love motives. What we do in community and the rituals of our lives make some motives possible that otherwise would not be possible.
While what God does ultimately and primarily matters, what we do as persons and communities also matters. The science of loving intentions helps us demonstrate this.