Sex and love are great.
Writing about these subjects is fun. There’s a lot of weird science out there about how and why people hook up — for example, did you know that several studies suggest body odor plays a major role in attraction? That weirdness is a big part of why science journalists like to muck around in these areas.
But it probably won’t shock you to know the other reason we (or at least, I) write these stories is because we know people will almost always read them. Finding science that’s exciting, presenting it in a truthful, accessible, well-sourced way — that’s the job.
But I worry, frankly, that people come to these stories for the wrong reasons. No science writer (or scientist) can provide you a rule book that’s going to get you laid, wed, or anything in between.
A quick little story like “9 weird psychological reasons someone might fall in love with you,” (if it’s responsibly written) will round up the best available science on the subject, couch it in caveats about the limitations of that research, and not promise any results.
These aren’t proven tricks. They’re oddball results from just a few studies, in a field that’s nowhere near well-enough understood to offer definitive answers. They’re fun to read, and wonder about, but they’re highly unlikely to offer some missing link to your dating life. That’s not why they exist.
Small numbers of studies can’t paint a picture of universal truths, because that’s not how science works.
Rather, we should think of individual papers more like points on a paint-by-numbers board that’s still filling in with dots. Some are more useful than others, but we need a whole constellation of them before we can make definitive statements about what they reveal. In the meantime, individual results can be confusing — and some flat-out wrong.
That doesn’t mean science isn’t valuable. In fields where the body of research is thick and well-understood, like mathematics or climate change, we can be as confident of its answers as we can anything in this world.
But the science of love and attraction is especially beset with noise. That’s partly because its substrate, the mind and brain, are themselves not well understood. We don’t really know why human being do small, daily things like yawning or laughing. So we’re a long way off from definitive answers on complex, layered behaviours like going home together after a date or marrying and raising children.
And what research does exist on the subject is often sketchy, raising more questions than it answers.
A study can tell us that people tend to prefer partners who resemble their parents, but that’s one data point in a vacuum. We don’t know if it’s universal and encoded in our genes, specific to some cultures or situations, or even definitively true without results that are reproduced several times.
On top of that, studies into sex and love (like many studies into human behaviour) tend to focus on the practices of the subjects most available to researchers: their local population of college students. I don’t know about you, but my thoughts and practices around sex and love look a lot different today than they did when I was 18. On top of that, the subjects and structure of the studies are way more straight, white, Western, and cisgender than the real world.
The most useful advice we can get from these studies tends to be obvious: Be open and engaging, be friendly, look for someone you who lives near you, and know that certain cultural markers of beauty might offer you some advantage.
But the fact is, while you can work on being a better version of yourself, you can’t be anyone other than the person you are. Fortunately, human beings vary so widely that in all likelihood someone else out there will think you’re pretty great. So keep reading the science — we’re picking up a lot of interesting insights along the way — but go out into the world not worrying about it too deeply.
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