Is the Pandemic Slowing Down Love?
SAPIENS host Jen Shannon speaks with biological anthropologist Helen Fisher about her research on love, sex, and everything in between. Fisher is the author of six books, the chief scientific adviser for the online dating site Match.com, and a leading researcher on dating trends in America. In this episode, Fisher shares insights from a recent survey.
The New York Times piece Fisher references in this episode is available here: “How Coronavirus Is Changing the Dating Game for the Better.”
Jen Shannon: This season we have talked about how the pandemic has affected the environment, our ideas about the future, our expectations for vaccines, and even our baking habits. Today we turn to how the pandemic has affected one of the most fundamental parts of being human: our connection to each other through courting and love.
During the pandemic, a lot of us have been shifting our activities online for our everyday lives—for teaching, for work meetings, for attending school. But people have been meeting online for a long time. There are all kinds of dating sites now, helping people connect, meet in person, and do the dance that’s been going on for millennia. So, in a time of social and physical distancing, has online dating changed in some way? Is it helping during these times, or getting harder?
Helen Fisher: The pandemic is horrible. I mean, no question about that. But it actually has given Cupid a leg up.
Jen: Helen Fisher is a biological anthropologist interested in love, sex, and everything in between. She’s written six acclaimed books, all revolving around the question of why we pick who we pick. She also holds a unique position for an anthropologist, chief scientific officer for Match.com. With Match, she’s conducted a scientific survey of single people in America in each of the last 10 years, tracking trends in courtship, sex, relationships, and love. Helen, welcome to the show.
Helen: I’m delighted to be with you.
Jen: So, I’m really excited to talk to you about the state of dating in America for all those singles out there. Inquiring minds definitely want to know. But first, usually biological anthropologists are interested in human origins and evolution, the human body and adaptation. So, I was wondering, how does a biological anthropologist end up working at Match.com?
Helen: Well, they invited me to do it, and I saw a great opportunity. But I really, you know, I really am a biological anthropologist. I mean, I really do study love. I mean I do trace it. I mean, in my book, Anatomy of Love, and in all my books, actually, I start 21 million years ago and, you know, talk about all the primates and then down out of the trees and standing up on two feet and the evolution of the various body parts and the brain. And of course, along with all this, what I really focus on is the evolution of pair bonding, which I actually think started about 4.4 million years ago with Ardipithecus ramidus. And then on into the modern world. So bottom line is, I remain an anthropologist. And even with all of my studies with Match.com, I always see it from the anthropological view. And so, for example, you know, I collect a lot of information every single year. I mean, we’ve got data on over 50,000 American singles: every age, every background, every part of the country, every ethnic group, every sexual orientation, etc. It’s a huge data set. It’s called “Singles in America,” this actual study. And one year I asked, you know, “What do you notice first about somebody?” And I had a data set of over 5,000 people. And the first three things that people notice is their teeth, their grammar, and their self, their psychological stability. And when you think about it from a Darwinian perspective, your teeth talk about your age. Your grammar talks about your social background and education. And your social stability talks about your ability to adapt in many ways. So, I’m always looking for the anthropological. I see a lot of psychological explanations, but I’m always looking for the anthropological. I mean, bottom line is, once an anthropologist, I think always an anthropologist, no matter where you go in life.
Jen: Well, so given that broad perspective across cultures and throughout time, I mean, millions of years, it seems like online dating is just the latest, then, among many different ways that humans have come up with for courting each other. And so, I’m wondering if you’ve noticed in your studies, is there anything they all have in common?
Helen: Well, they all love. I mean, this is a basic brain system like the fear system or the anger system. In fact, it’s a drive. And when we put people into the brain scanner, I thought we would find activity in brain regions linked with the emotions—which we did. But everybody shared activity in a tiny little factory near the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area or the VTA. And that’s a brain region that pumps out dopamine. And that’s what gives you the elation, the giddiness, the euphoria, the sleeplessness, the impulsiveness, et cetera. And in fact, that little factory, the VTA, lies right next to the hypothalamus and the pituitary, which orchestrate thirst and hunger. And the VTA activates love and romantic love. So, I’ve come to believe that romantic love really is a drive, a basic mating drive. I mean, hunger and thirst keep you alive to date. Romantic love and feelings of attachment drive you to form a partnership and send your DNA into tomorrow. I mean, people around the world, we pine for love. We live for love. We kill for love. And we die for love. I mean, the amount of myths, and you as an anthropologist know this, I mean, the myths, the legends, the stories, the plays, the operas, the symphonies, the ballets, the therapists, the self-help books, the cards, the letters, the holidays. I mean, even various castles have been, you know, the Taj Mahal was built for love. I mean, even the architecture. And bottom line is the world is saturated with love.
Helen: So, what is love? OK, so I had to figure that out before I worked on it. And as it turns out, there is a very—it’s a constellation of sweets linked with feelings of intense romantic love. The first thing that happens when you fall madly in love is a person takes on what I call special meaning. Everything about them becomes special. The house they live in is different from every house on the street. The car they drive is different from every other car in the parking lot. The music that they like, the books that they read, the music that they, et cetera. It’s all become special to you.
Then you focus on them. You just focus on them. As Chaucer said, “Love is blind” and focus on what you do like. Intense energy. You can walk all night, talk till dawn, all kinds of bodily reactions: butterflies in the stomach when you call them or text them or see them. Wobbly knees, a dry mouth. Separation anxiety. You don’t want to be apart. And last but not least, sex drive. It’s very difficult to control this feeling. It’s a feeling like hunger. It’s very difficult. You can’t control hunger or thirst. You can try to overlook it and do other things. But it’s much easier to control your emotions. This is why it’s a drive, a basic mating drive. I mean, as Standall once said, he said, “Love is like a fever. It comes and goes quite independently of the will.” And it does.
They’re not phases. An awful lot of people, think, oh, you start with the sex and you go to the romantic love and then you go into the attachment. That’s a total misconception. I’ve tried a lot to try and straighten that out with the press. But the bottom line is people will fall madly in love with somebody and then find them sexually attractive. Or you can be deeply attached to somebody in college or in graduate school or among your friends when you’re older. And then times change. You know, you lose your partner. They break up with theirs and boom, all of a sudden, the brain circuitry for romantic love becomes an activity. So, there are basically three different brain systems: sex drive, romantic love, feelings of attachment. And they can move in all kinds of ways. I mean, even within the same relationship, you can wake up in the morning and feel the sex drive. Then they say something so charming at breakfast and you feel this woosh of romantic love and then you get an email from them in the morning at work or whatever, and suddenly, you feel a sense of deep attachment. So, the three brain systems, they can operate in a host of different ways. Different cultures have different feelings about them, but we all own them.
Jen: Helen, let’s talk about the annual “Singles in America” survey you do with Match.com. What kinds of trends were you tracking before the pandemic?
Helen: Basically, we started this in 2010. And what I do in August, and I got Justin Garcia, director at the Kinsey Institute, to come on with me the last few years too. So, there’s about four of us, two people from Match and myself and Justin, and I come up with about 200 questions. We all do it together. But originally, I did most of it. Now everybody’s helping. Thank God. And about 200 questions of things I want to know and that Match wants to know. And I work on that starting maybe in August—July, August, September. Then we send it out to very reputable polling people. And right before Christmas, I get all the data back, and we create about 200 questions, and it destroys Christmas for me. It absolutely destroys it. And I’m looking for patterns. I’m looking to understand. It’s a deluge of data. I mean, remarkable. So anyway, that’s what we’ve been working on.
And you asked about what I saw before COVID. For several years now, I’ve found something that I call, I coined the term just “slow love.” And Americans seem to think that singles are just reckless, you know, just like rabbits. And indeed, over 50 percent of singles have had a one-night stand. Not necessarily in the last year, but over the course of their lives, friends with benefits, over 50 percent have lived with somebody long-term before they wed. So, Americans sort of think that, well, you know, these people aren’t serious. In fact, they are dead serious. What we’re really seeing is singles marrying later and later and later and spending more and more time getting to know somebody before they, “catch feelings” or before they walk down the aisle. So, what we’re really seeing is what I call slow love, an extension of the precommitment stage in partnerships. And they’re doing it very slowly. They start out these days as just friends. Oh, we’re just friends, and they begin to know, you know, they begin to look at each other. And then they move into friends with benefits. You learn a lot between the sheets, not just how somebody kisses and hugs, but also whether they’re kind, whether they are patient, whether they got a sense of humor or whether they can listen. You learn a lot. And then only after some time in bed and in the middle of the night and Netflix and chill, as they call it, they then go out and tell friends and family, and then they have the official first date. You know, Americans are thinking, my goodness, how come so many people have had sex before the first date? Well, the bottom line is these days, first dates are expensive. I don’t know about Colorado, but in New York, it can cost you US$200 to take somebody to dinner and have drinks, et cetera.
So, the bottom line is they’re slow, just friends, friends with benefits, moving out, telling friends and family, getting into on the official first date, then moving slowly into living with each other before they tie the knot. You know, 50 years ago, most people were marrying in their early 20s. Now they’re marrying in their late 20s or even early 30s. This long period of getting to know themselves, getting rid of people who are not going to work. They’ve defined. I’m so impressed with millennials. I’m telling you. They’ve defined all these terms. One of them is called, you know, DTR—”define the relationship.” And in one of my “Singles in America” studies I asked, “Well, how long do you go out with somebody before you go into this DTR, define the relationship conversation?” Four months is the average. These people want to know. And they want to walk down that aisle knowing who they’ve got, knowing they want who they got, and thinking they can keep who they got. And as a matter of fact, 89 percent of singles today actually do believe—they’re not cynical—89 percent do believe that when they find the right person, they can make a long-term marriage. And the reason, Jen, that this is so important to me as a Darwinist, the later you marry, the longer you court, and the later you wed, the more likely you are to stay together. And I know this because I have looked at the demographic yearbooks of the United Nations. I’ve got data from 1947 to 2011 on 80 cultures. And as it turns out, the longer you court, the later you wed, the more likely you are to remain married around the world. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing among millennials today.
Jen: OK, so pre-pandemic, we had slow love. And now, based on your survey this year, is the pandemic making slow love even slower?
Helen: [laughing] It is getting slower. And it’s so interesting, I wrote a piece for The New York Times that came out in April predicting that this, weirdly, I mean, the pandemic is horrible. I mean, no question about that. But it actually has given Cupid a leg up. So, we collected our data in end of July and early August. So, this is really during the pandemic. We didn’t collect the data before Christmas; we waited, strangely, for other reasons. And what we found is exactly what I’ve predicted. Thank goodness. I mean, I’m willing to be wrong, but it’s nice when you’re right.
Anyway, what I found is more and more people are video chatting. They’re spending more time as they video chat getting to know a partner, potential partner. They’re having more meaningful conversations, and 69 percent say that they’re now more honest. They’re having more honest interactions. They are more transparent, having more meaningful conversations. They’re less concerned about their own looks and the looks of another partner. Sixty-five percent are more likely to ask a date, “What are you looking for?” They’re getting right to the point. They are more interested in asking somebody whether they’ve got full-time employment. And they’re more interested in somebody who is financially stable.
So, we’re seeing the emergence of what I call “intentional dating.” They are using this video chatting as a vetting process. So, over 50 percent of these singles in this year’s study, in July and August, said that they met, they did some video chatting and found that they did not want to go out with somebody when COVID lifted. And over 50 percent said that they met somebody through video chatting and wanted to see them more. So, bottom line is we’re going to see fewer first dates, but they’re going to be much more meaningful. People are going to get rid of the ones that they don’t want before they go out on that first date. The first dates are going to be more meaningful. They will have worked things out much better. They will have had some of their honesty and transparency. They will know more about each other by that first date. And the first date might be much more relaxed, much more meaningful, and much more solid. And you know what’s so interesting? You know, I mean, prior to this pandemic, you met on the internet, then you went out on the first date. Well, what, you know, on the first date, there’s always this thing floating around: Do I kiss him? Do I kiss her? Should I hold his hand? Should I invite him to something right, et cetera. I mean, sex is off the table when you’re video chatting. The other thing that is off the table is money. You don’t have to decide, you know, for the first date, who you don’t, you know, really know. You don’t have decide whether you want to go spend a lot of money on a fancy bar, or are you going to go to a coffeehouse for 20 minutes? Sex is off the table when you do the video chatting. Money is off the table. It does lead to more meaningful conversations. It does lead to more honesty and transparency. It’s a very good vetting process so that you don’t have to get up and dress up and go out and spend a lot of money, and certainly, in the first couple of seconds decide this was a mistake. So, bottom line is we’re going to kiss fewer frogs. It’s going to slow down the dating process. And it’s going to lead, I think, perhaps, to a generation of more family stability.
Jen: Fewer frogs—that actually sounds fantastic! We’ve touched on online dating already a few times, but now I’d like to focus on it specifically. Do you think it’s taken on new meaning or a different role in people’s lives in the context of the pandemic?
Helen: Oh, sure. More and more people, you know, every single year I ask, “Where did you meet your last first date?” And, you know, I had a percentage of them that met the first date online and a percentage who met their first date offline, you know, in person someplace. And I compared them. And as it turns out, people who met somebody online as opposed to offline were statistically significantly more likely to have full-time employment, to have more higher education, and to be more likely to be looking for a significant, long-term commitment. So, it seems to be the place to go. And I think we’re going to see more and more of it. You know, it’s so interesting because Match was the first place to get into online dating, I think in 1995, and in those days, people really regarded online dating as, oh, it’s for the creeps. It’s for the losers, you know. And then we saw it begin to evolve into, well, it’s OK, but it’s not for me.
Jen: Right. People wouldn’t say, right? If they met someone online, they wouldn’t own up to it. They’re like, what’s our story? You know.
Helen: Exactly. And then it turned into. Well, it’s OK, OK. I mean, but it’s not for me. And now it’s turned into, well, for me too. Everybody’s doing it. And I tell you, I make a lot of speeches and absolutely regularly somebody comes up to me and says, well, you know, I met my husband online. And they’re proud of it instead of being horrified. So, it’s the newest way to do the same old thing. Technology is what, you know, it’s, in my day, I mean, the automobile had come in. There were motels. I mean, that was a new technology. And everybody was going parking, for God’s sakes. And now they’re meeting online and doing some. So, how you court is going to vary. We’ve always courted in specific ways. I mean, a million years ago on the Kalahari Desert, they met at the winter waterholes when things were dried up. Or was it summer? I’m not sure. Anyway, the bottom line is, you know, they met at waterholes. They met at the annual meetings of larger groups of people. And, you know, in agrarian days, you went to church on Sunday, and you met after Sunday lunch. People came for Sunday lunch, et cetera, or at a barn dance or this or that. So, the bottom line is people meet around the world in all kinds of different ways. But the brain system for romantic love is the same. And so, it’s a basic human drive.
Jen: Yeah. Well, I think one of the things that technology has made a little different is just the ridiculous amount of choices that someone has in selecting a partner when they’re doing online dating.
Helen: Very well said. This is the problem.
Jen: I’m just wondering what you think the effect of that is or if your research has shown anything that we could learn from about that?
Helen: Yeah, this is really important. You know, there’s nothing wrong with internet dating. The problem is that it’s new technology, and people don’t know how to use it. You’ve hit on the single biggest problem. I would imagine all the dating sites know this. The problem is, as you know, it’s called “cognitive overload” or the paradox of choice. And there’s very nice data now that the brain is evolved, right, to cope pretty easily with between five and nine options. But once you get 10 options, 11 options, 100 options, 300 options, you end up choosing nothing because you’re overloaded. It’s cognitive overload. You choose nobody. And the problem with these dating sites is that they offer you hundreds of people. And so, you’re always, we’re built to want to find the best, for God’s sakes. I mean, this is how we’re going to pass our DNA onto tomorrow. So, we’re sort of built to try, to keep looking, keep looking, keep looking. You know, get into a frenzy of it.
And so, when you get honest, any site, Match, any other kind of site, after you’ve met nine people, and I mean met, either met them in person or met them for video chatting. So that you see them. It’s very important that you see somebody. We are a primate. We evolved a very good visual system. Smell doesn’t work too well, and others don’t either. But the bottom line is we are a visual creature from millions of years of living in the trees. So, after you have met, either online or offline, nine people, get off the site and get to know at least one of these people better. That’s number one. Number two: Think of reasons to say yes. The brain is built to say no. There’s a huge brain region linked with what scientists call negativity bias in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It’s a big region that sizes you up and says no. And for good Darwinian evolutionary reasons. I mean, for millions of years, you know, if you and I were walking along on the grasslands, and we liked each other and then there was another girl who couldn’t stand us, it would be more adaptive for us to remember who doesn’t like us than to remember who does like us—because we could die. So, the bottom line is the brain is built to remember the negative. He likes cats. You like dogs. Forget about the cats and dogs. Think of reasons to say yes. So, nothing wrong with this technology. We just don’t yet really know how to use it.
Jen: Well, I know it can feel pretty bleak for singles right now, given social distancing and everything else, and it’s been so delightful to hear your perspectives on all of this. But there does seem to be hope, because I heard that while you’ve been analyzing all this data about other people dating during the pandemic, you were actually experiencing your own pandemic love story. So, I was wondering if you could tell us about that.
Helen: Oh, you’re such a sweetheart. Yeah, well, first of all, I’m old. I mean, I’m over 70. And I really hadn’t thought of getting married. I did want to find my last wonderful sweetheart, but I really hadn’t thought of getting married. And I got married two months ago to an absolutely wonderful guy, and, yeah, I’m absolutely astonished. And what’s really interesting for me, and I don’t know if I should say this, but, you know, I have studied love for over 45 years, and I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on the evolution of pair bonding in 1975. So, I’ve studied romance and attachment, oh, I don’t know, in 80 cultures. And, you know, I’ve traveled with a hunter-gatherer group and looked at it there and studied the brain circuitry of it and studied the evolution of it and looked at attachment patterns in other primates, et cetera. So, I’ve always understood it intellectually, but I’m not positive, until I fell for this guy, did I ever truly understand why you would marry? And now I get it. I get it. I just, I now figured out what a lot of teenage kids knew intuitively.
Jen: Thanks so much, Helen.
Helen: Thank you.
Jen: This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi; mixed, audio edited, and sound designed by Jason Paton; and hosted by me, Jen Shannon. SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod, with contributions from Executive Producer Cat Jaffee.
SAPIENS is an editorially independent magazine funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and published in partnership with the University of Chicago Press. Thanks to Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and all the staff at the Wenner-Gren Foundation and SAPIENS.org.
SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.
Until next time, we wish you well, fellow sapiens.