Does Passionate Love Reduce Cognitive Ability?

Most of us, at some point of our lives, have experienced the feelings accompanied by finding a new love. Compassionate love has been associated with intimacy and commitment, two aspects that contribute to long-term relationships. But passionate love is thought to play a central role in forming a relationship with a partner by becoming attracted to that individual. Passionate love usually involves enhanced, near-obsessive attention to the beloved. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the lover’s concentration for daily tasks, like studying and work, may actually be impaired, suggesting reduced cognitive control.

This study, conducted by Steenbergen, et al (2014), looks to find empirical evidence to suggest that new, passionate love can effect an individual’s cognitive ability. They had fifty one participants take the passionate love scale as well as conducting both the Stroop and flanker tasks. These two tasks assess the individual ability to attend to relevant information while filtering out distracting, irrelevant spatial and semantic information. Effects on a Stroop task may reflect response inhibition whereas effects on the flanker task might reflect a modulation of the visuo-spatial focus of attention.

The participants, all of whom had to recently fallen in love within the last six months, received task instructions that emphasized speed and accuracy. They then proceeded to practice the Stroop and flanker tasks, which included performance feedback. The participants where then asked to imagine and write about an appropriate romantic event from their past, or focus on a romantic vignette. During this ten minute period, the participants were also listening to their own favorite love-related music through headphones. This ten minute period was to evoke intense feelings of romance. Participants then performed a block of 72 trials for each task, and the order of the tasks were counterbalanced across the participants.

The results of this study showed a negative correlation between passionate love and cognitive ability. Though the study could not express causation since it is a correlational study, there seems to be a strong relationship between passionate love and impaired cognitive control. This suggests that when we are in love, we are not able to focus and attend to the environment around us. When we are consciously aware of the love, our unconscious awareness takes away from our automaticity.

A perfect study would be a more longitudinal study in which participants would be asked to take the Stroop and flanker tasks before ever falling in love. Then, once they do, have them undergo a similar romance evoking situation, and then have them retake the Stroop and flanker tests. This way, participants do not have as much of a range in time they had fallen in love. Also, since all love is not the same, having the participants take more than just the passionate love scale could be beneficial. Brain studies would also be helpful as different forms of love have different systems and neurochemicals within the brain.

van Steenbergen, H., Langeslag, S. J. E., Band, G. P. H., & Hommel, B. (2014). Reduced cognitive control in passionate lovers. Motivation and Emotion, 38(3), 444-450. doi:10.1007/s11031-013-9380-3

One thought on “Does Passionate Love Reduce Cognitive Ability?

  1. breathexeasy

    This is a very interesting blog post, I never really thought of passionate love as being something that can reduce cognitive ability. I have been under the impression that being in love makes everything better, therefore I automatically associated it with a boost in cognitive functioning. I agree that a better study would be a longitudinal study, I would however also be interested in the opposite. I wonder how breakups and heartbreak affects cognitive ability. My best guess is that it will also hinder someone’s cognitive ability due to a lack of attention. I also never knew that there was a passionate love scale, that was something new to me entirely. I wonder if they could tweak the experimental design to include a segment where the participants are actually able to interact with their loved one for a period of time, and after that they would then be tested on their cognitive abilities. I wonder why passionate love affects cognitive ability more than compassionate love does, I theorize that it may have to do with our innate need to procreate in order to ensure our survival. Therefore, passionate love would overtake one’s mind due to its evolutionary importance. It makes sense that someone’s lover would be more important than paying attention and performing well on various test, it is as if our minds and bodies know that the situation (Love) could potentially lead to the furthering of life as we know it. Attraction is evolutionary, therefore it will probably overtake other mental processes. Awesome blog post, I enjoyed reading and replying to it!

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