Love makes us mean, say researchers

Researchers from University at Buffalo in New York State say that being in love (or loving someone in general, or even just having a vague connection to them) can make us mean. But not to the person we care about: to everyone else. We’re far less likely to be compassionate and empathetic in a situation where someone we care about is pitted against a stranger.

Michael J Poulin and Anneke E.K. Buffone surveyed a group of study participants about a time when a person they loved was threatened by someone else and asked about their reactions, which were uniformly angry. But to check if they were all just talk, they also set up an experiment.

The researchers told study participants a poignant story designed to evoke compassion about someone they’d never met, who was allegedly in the next room with a second person. They said that both (fictional) people were about to take a maths test but would first be given hot sauce to measure how pain affects performance. The participants could choose how much hot sauce their new (fake) friend’s rival was given… and those meanies routinely choose to load up their spoon.

While it makes sense that someone would spring to the defence of someone they love/like/don’t think totally sucks when they’re in some kind of danger, studies haven’t before suggested that humans are keen to harm someone who doesn’t present a particular threat, so that a loved one can succeed. So love makes us mean, but it also makes us over-protective. According to Buffone and Poulin’s paper, ‘the idea that empathy can drive aggression absent of provocation or injustice is quite novel’.

The researchers took saliva samples before and after the experiment and found that two neurohormones, oxytocin and vasopressin, which are linked to feeling close to someone, also corresponded to an increase in aggression. While there might be times when this is helpful, it’s probably a good idea to try to still have empathy for other people, even if you don’t really care about them.

Image via Pixabay.

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