8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Let me say a few things first to avoid misunderstanding: I do not mind reading books that I find myself disagreeing with. Often, those are actually more stimulating. And of course any scientific book contains claims that can be contested. If it did not contain such claims, it would not be science. Furthermore, I am not a relativist with respect to lots of things (though I work in the humanities, I am not a postmodernist or something like that). While some things undeniably are socially constructed, money for instance, other things are not. I think, for instance, that in some kinds of love a certain kind of emotion plays a role and that that emotion is universal, i.e. can be felt by any normally developed human adult, whereas its expression is not necessarily universal (just like many facial expressions of emotions are not, see Ekman & Co.). So what about the book? First, no doubt "The New Psychology of Love" is a well-meant book that contains some interesting surveys. I might even use some of them in my classes. Second, it also contains several different articles presenting different views. So it provides a decent overview of the field and you are not indoctrinated by a limited selection or something like that. However, I do expect a book that carries the banner of a science to be methodologically proper. But this book, to be honest, I found embarrassingly weak in terms of methodology and in terms of content.
Several articles base sweeping claims about love on surveys among US college students. Well, of course nothing about the nature of love or ideas and ideals about it can be deduced from that--at least not about ideas or ideals that go beyond that little group. It is important to note that particularly the students of the top 50-100 institutions in the US (from which the data likely is drawn) are a pretty homogenous crowd; perhaps, in part, due to their similar socioeconomic background. Furthermore, as I see in my own classes everyday, many of these students give default answers that don't necessarily reflect their own stance on things, even if the survey is anonymous--perhaps in high school they were taught to give politically correct answers, but really I have no idea. I have repeatedly asked students of mine to fill out anonymous surveys on a variety of topics (including love and sex). Often, I get stereotypical answers. But if I then play devil's advocate and inform them about the meaning of some claims and explain what all those claims commit them to, or if I tease them about inconsistencies and then tell them that it is fine to reveal their real opinion, they often change their claims drastically. For example, if I ask students what the best reason for marriage is and why they would marry someone, most of them will say that love is. However, this stands in contrast with the reality of some of their dating and mating habits that frequently reveals serious disrespect towards their future partner. Think frat and sorority parties. Think date rape. Think guys bragging about their trophy wives. Think ladies saying things such as "I was meant to be taken care of..." And so forth. (I am not sexist here, I actually have heard, heard about, or seen all of that. And I also find such behavior and beliefs disgusting...) Of course, there can be a discrepancy between love as an ideal and actual behavior. But if there is a discrepancy, I wonder what good it is to ask people about their ideals if we really want to explain their behavior or the prevalence of certain kinds of mental modules guiding behavior.
Anyway, even if there are solutions to the above problem, I worry about the following: I have talked to a good number of older people about sex and love. Most of them report that they changed their views on love, sex, and marriage drastically throughout their lives. Many, if not most, of them were rather disillusioned. Several articles in the book claim that, somewhat interestingly, men in particular have a romantic notion of love, particularly as a reason for marriage, in contrast to more pragmatically minded women. Talking to older people, I find that most older men just like most older women tell me that marrying for love would have been nice, but it is not how life works for the most part. Many, if not most, of them also have experienced a decline in sexual attraction after 7 years or so, such that companionship becomes the most important factor in their marriage. Many told me that the early infatuation period is way overrated in the scheme of things anyway and that in some cases that overestimation of its importance is what got them into trouble later. Note also that their conclusion was not that romantic love changed into merely caring love in time, but at least some insisted that they were still loving in a manner quite different from mere care or attachment, despite there not being sex anymore. In other words, romantic love without sex seems perfectly possible, but most essays in the book don't seem to seriously consider this possibility. So, given these very different evaluations that might come with age and experience, of what use is it then to ask students about their ideas and ideals of love if they did not even ever enter the stage in a relationship yet where lack of attraction and sex became an issue? Nonetheless, the book tells me that men generally think of romantic love as the ideal. So there is some tension here.
Long story short:
a) Surveys based on self-assessment/evaluation are generally pretty unreliable, even if you built in trick questions testing for consistency.
b) Surveys based on a particular group of people cannot be used to support general claims.
c) Surveys based on young peoples' response do not warrant representative answers regarding gender stances on love and marriage in general.
Obviously, the concept of love endorsed by people might vary across ages, cultures, and times. Gladly, there are several articles in the book that specifically talk about intercultural surveys. And some of these sound very interesting. But even these are mostly based on self-assessment and report, which eventually makes for very bad data again. There is lots of room for misunderstanding, lots of room for different interpretation across cultures, etc. Nonetheless, several authors use such surveys to claim that a particular notion of love is shared globally. Fine, but only after you have excluded the previous potential sources of error. And frankly, I don't see how this can be done by standardized surveys (see my class room experiences). Never mind that, given the global pop culture these days, asking young people around the globe does not tell you much about universal standards and attitudes either. They might just adopt it from the same kind of sources. So how about historical documents? Some authors claim that such documents support their universal claims, but I very much doubt that that is true, at least for anything beyond descriptions of an emotion. Have a look at the three volumes of Singer's "The Nature of Love." It will make you doubt a good number of claims in "The New Psychology of Love." It is history and philosophy, so the goals and the emphasis is different, but it will do the job.
More about love and emotions. While it is plausible to argue that some kind of emotion plays a role in certain types of love, it is utterly implausible to claim that love is an emotion. And yes, at least one of the articles suggests this. Why is it implausible? If you claim that love is an emotion, this commits you to say that you only love a person when that emotion is present in you. So parents for the most part would not love their children. Only when they look at them or think about them and feel that affections... I am sure you catch the drift. Some theories instead claim that love is a disposition of sorts. That is better, but still faces problems. Some theories are more sophisticated, but beg the question. One of the evolutionary psychology articles, for instance, claims that "love is an adaption, or more accurately a complex suite of adaptions, designed to solve specific problems of survival and reproductions." Never mind that the claim eventually involves a category mistake (depending on how you read it), but note how the assumption reduces love to something rather uninteresting from the start (and not that which we obsess about). Some of the more complex theories later on would not fit here, so evolutionary theories would not be able to cope with them. Other theories pretend to explain something, but don't explain much after all. My favorite: love is a triangle, a triangle of intimacy, passion, and commitment. I can imagine this triangle printed in a textbook and students having to memorize it. Ah, so... Meh. Come on guys, get serious. You could merely say that this conception of love has three necessary conditions or aspects, but then you don't have a quantifiable area. Oh, that is right. So let us rather call it a triangle. Sigh.
Perhaps some of these theories are defensible, but interestingly the book does not contain arguments as to why I should endorse any of these theories in particular. Mostly, the theories are simply suggested, without defense or explanation of their virtues. Well, I can make up 10 new theories of love ad hoc, and each will have some aspect that is somehow empirically investigable. But that will be in vain unless I have and give good reasons for why I should endorse any particular one of these. The absence of reasons goes further. A good chunk of the book is presenting surveys about how people think about love. Fine, that might be mildly interesting. But how is that illuminating about the nature of love? Demonstrably, people hold many bad and inconsistent views. So I need at least some reflection on what exactly the explanatory status of these surveys is supposed to be. But there is no such discussion in the book. There are hints, but nothing systematic, nothing remotely convincing.
Furthermore, a good number of essays are not careful with respect to important distinctions. It is, for instance, one thing to look for behavior that allows me to tell whether someone is in love or not. It is quite another to then deduce, based on this, that this behavior is an essential feature of a specific kind of love. I might identify a person based on how he or she looks, but that does not tell me anything about the nature of that person. The same applies for love. None of this would be problematic if the editors and several essays would not claim to be informative regarding the nature of love. I just don't see how they are.
There are also a good number of essays in the book for which I suspect that there is serious confirmation bias at work. Some authors suggest, for instance, that there is an evolutionary explanation for monogamy (at least serial monogamy). One of the standard moves then is to compare humans to (allegedly monogamous) chimpanzees. The problem is that genetically bonobos are almost as close to us as chimpanzees are, but bonobos are not monogamous at all. In many respects, their social behavior is much closer to humans and thus they are much better suited for comparison, but that would be much less flattering, since they would not fit the explanation a good bourgeois person would want. Their rule basically is: everyone with everyone, pretty much all the time. It feels good and relieves stress, so why not? And, by the way, you get the sociobiological explanation, stress relief, for free, just like you get one for monogamy, child rearing. That, by the way, should make you very suspicious regarding the explanatory power of both sociobiology and evolutionary psychology (pretty much the same anyway). If a theory can explain either the evolutionary benefits of monogamy as well as polygamy, given the same background assumptions and circumstances, it is a bogus theory (think psychoanalysis... ha!). Never mind that there is plenty of anthropological data that suggests that humans for the most part of their history were not monogamous at all, although I grant that it is debated, if not a minority position. That was one of the refreshing aspects of "Sex at Dawn," even though that is not a scientific book by any standard, nor authoritative by any means. It also was annoying in tone and writing. But at least it was entertaining and gave food for thought. The point here simply is that the book is full of similar claims that are taken for granted but not properly reflected upon.
It also is suspicious that some authors reference old philosophers like Plato when it comes to the question what love is (they do not mention the inconvenient things that Plato said about love), but they fail to mention any of the rather sophisticated philosophical theories out there nowadays. When it comes to the question what love is, or what a reasonable conception of it is (and not merely what people are inclined to say), I find books like Soble's "Structure of Love" or Frankfurt's wonderfully clear and simple "The Reasons of Love" much more instructive and illuminating than this book. But these are philosophical in spirit and do not contain surveys about how other people think about it. They have different goals than psychologists have. But granted, philosophical conceptions might not help you developing therapies and won't receive much funding.
Since there were a number of dismissive comments on Bhattacharya's review, let me say a few points about that. I did not find that review particularly helpful either, and I do not know the reasons for labeling evolutionary psychology as speculation in that review, but things are not as simple as "pobasted" makes them here in response to it. I take it that the reviewers criticism is not one of the biological theory of evolution in general (one of the best confirmed scientific theories out there), but one of evolutionary psychology in particular (one that lacks proper confirmation). It is one thing to make claims about the prevalence of biological traits based on evolution, it is another to extend the same reasoning into the social realm, and arguable love is at least in part a social phenomenon, at least when we are talking about something more substantial than a particular emotion. Ah, there is that trick again. Pretend that you explain something social by first stripping it of its social essence and reduce it to something biological such as an emotion or adaption... One problem is that the contents of beliefs, included the beliefs about love, often are normative in nature, whereas brain states and modules are not. If you just talk about brain states and modules, you are simply losing a very important dimension of love and beliefs about it. You can do that, but then you are not explaining the phenomenon anymore, unless you provide an account of how to naturalize normativity. There are plenty more arguments like that to be had, and some of them create serious trouble for evolutionary psychology. By the way, evolutionary psychology arguably might just be relabeled sociobiology, eventually rebranded for the sake of funding. Sociobiological methods and claims have been seriously challenged and partly debunked in the 90s to the point that the discipline is more or less dead nowadays (sorry, Mr. Wilson, I really liked you, but...). There are very good reasons for thinking that evolutionary psychology will face the same fate, simply because its methodology and claims do not hold up to rigorous scientific standards. But who knows, maybe the discipline will improve. But it makes me wonder where the authors of the first few articles get their confidence from that evolutionary psychology is well accepted. Well, it surely is accepted among evolutionary psychologists, it would be odd if not, but it is less accepted outside of it. Be that is it may, there is no problem at all with being a skeptic regarding evolutionary psychology while not being a skeptic about some other social sciences, although in fact I don't think economics is a science proper (except for very few sub-discplines of it). It is difficult to make a general claim about psychology as a whole being scientific. I'd say a realistic assessment is that some branches of it are, others are not. If the book gives an accurate impression of what the psychology of love is doing at its best, that branch is not science proper (at least not yet). I should hope there is better stuff out there. And if this is as good as it gets, I am very glad that I did not read the previous edition. Sorry, editors, I am sure you put lots of work into this... Perhaps the next edition is going to be better... but whatever you change, please please include some arguments for the particular theories or at least a discussion about possible ways to defend them in an extra chapter.
P.S.: Sorry that this has grown into an excessively long review, but I thought, "better too much info about why I gave such a low rating than too little."