KSU faculty breaks down Valentine’s Day using psychology, biology applied conflict


Valentine’s Day Statistics

Katherine Schaeffer

Red roses, candy hearts and teddy bears: all symbols of the idealized version of romance associated with Valentine’s Day. The holiday represents a common perception of what love should be, but fails to capture the biological, psychological and social processes unique to human relationships.

Scientifically, the process of falling in love isn’t as chocolate-covered and rosy as it might seem. And making a relationship work in the long term requires more than just gift giving and romantic nights out. Faculty from Kent State’s psychology, biology and applied conflict management departments provide some insight into what love is really about.

Psychology: The laws of attraction

The rules of human attraction are clouded with myths and misconceptions. Studies run by behavioral psychologists have proven that although there are exceptions to every rule, there is a set of general guidelines dictating what humans look for in a partner.

Fourth-year psychology graduate student Shannon Claxton said that a common misconception when it comes to human attraction is the idea that opposites attract. Generally, people are drawn to partners with similar backgrounds and perspectives.

“We tend to be attracted to people who are similar to us,” Claxton said. “That can be demographically — similar in age, and other demographic characteristics and physical characteristics. But also, we are attracted to people who share similar values or have similar attitudes, so political attitudes or religious values.”

Another myth is that playing hard to get is an effective strategy, Claxton said.

“We tend to like people who like us, so essentially it’s what’s called ‘reciprocal liking,’” Claxton said. “So if someone kind of hints that they may like you back, then you tend to start to like them as well.”

Claxton said that while psychological research has uncovered some behavioral patterns when it comes to love and romance, relationship behaviors often differ among individuals.

“There are some aspects of relationships that tend to be relatively universal, but there’s always individual differences,” Claxton said. “We do find those things — like that people who are more similar tend to be more attracted to each other, or that good communication is important for relationships — but there is also a ton of variability in terms of how different relationships work.”


Neurobiological research has found that falling in love triggers the same chemical release in the human brain as snorting cocaine or injecting heroin. In other words, the sensation of falling in love is literally a high.

 Assistant biology professor Heather Caldwell specializes in neurobiology, a branch of biological study that focuses on the human brain. Caldwell said that neurobiological studies have taken a look at the effect different types of love have on human brain activity. A series of functional MRI scans confirmed that looking at a photo of the object of one’s affections activates the same sections of the brain that taking drugs does.

Caldwell said that the MRIs show that the human brain releases large amounts of dopamine, the feel-good chemical associated with the drug usage.

“Some of the neurochemicals that are known to be involved in attraction, and also ultimately in love, are things like dopamine,” Caldwell said. “So when you think about a neurotransmitter like dopamine, you’re thinking about the neurotransmitter that is released heavily when you take drugs. When you take cocaine or heroin, or whatever your particular drug of choice is, the reason you want to keep taking it, the reason you’re addicted is because every time you do you get this lovely dopamine release. When you’re attracted to somebody, you also have a dopamine release.”

“Love is its own type of neurochemical addictive cycle. Dopamine helps to reinforce behaviors, and so if you have a love interest, and you’re interacting positively with them and you have dopamine released, that helps to reinforce your bond with them.”

Caldwell said that the second neurological component associated with being in love is the release of oxytocin, or “the cuddle hormone.” Oxytocin, a hormone that helps facilitate social bonding, is an essential component of any long-term social relationship and is also a component of platonic and parental love.

“Another neurohormone that’s been implicated in things like attraction, and potentially for a longer-term social bond like love, is oxytocin,” Caldwell said. “And so a lot of people think about oxytocin as being the hormone of love.”

If love is a high, a breakup is a form of withdrawal, Caldwell said

“It is like drug withdrawal when you go through a breakup, Caldwell said. “You enter kind of a depressed state because you’re no longer getting that reinforcing person in your life, and so you actually have physical symptoms of depression and drug withdrawal after a serious breakup, where things that used to bring you pleasure, like foods or going out with your friends, aren’t as much fun as they used to be.”

Conflict Management

Conflict is a part of any healthy long-term relationship. As a couple spends more time together, occasional arguments or disagreements crop up, and navigating through them can be tricky.

Applied conflict management professor Karen Cunningham said that the difference between constructive and destructive conflicts depends on the way couples handle disputes. The most important elements are communicating effectively and keeping emotions in check.

Doing so includes the following: being assertive without attacking the other person, expressing needs and concerns and listening to other person’s needs and concerns.

Cunningham said that most conflicts in long-term relationships stem from the struggle to find a balance between meeting one’s own needs and meeting the needs of a partner. Another common problem is the lack of communication.

“You can have people who just don’t like conflict at all, so maybe they won’t say anything when there’s a problem,” Cunningham said. “And if that happens, you find them getting more and more frustrated because they want the other person to do things differently, but they don’t tell them. So they get angrier and angrier, and then you can end up having problems in a relationship when you don’t talk about things.”

Cunningham said that one of the most effective conflict-management strategies when it comes to interpersonal relationships is collaborating, a system where both people work together to find a win-win situation. Although collaboration isn’t always possible, the process of talking through both parties’ needs and concerns often helps on its own.

“Oftentimes collaborating works the best in a relationship because then you’re able to talk about what you need, but you’re also able to take into account what the other person needs,” Cunningham said. “You’re both really trying to work to see that either of you is happier in that relationship.”

Another strategy Cunningham suggests is “negotiating” the relationship. When a couple communicates their expectations of each other and negotiates what behaviors are best, it can prevent problems before they arise.

“It’s an interesting concept to think about because you know if you put things out on the table, you know if your expectations mesh,” Cunningham said. “You know if you’re compatible with each other. You know if something happens, you already have in mind the appropriate way to handle it”.

Cunningham said that although conflicts can generally be resolved with good communication and respectful dialogue, couples’ with recurring issues may need to take a step back and determine whether their conflict is fixable.

“You have to be able to step back sometimes and say, ‘Does this make sense? Is this working?’” Cunningham said. “There are times when if you have that much conflict in a relationship, it’s actually better to end the relationship. Trying to assess when that’s appropriate is just one of those tricky things you have to figure out.”

Cunningham said that experience in the applied conflict management field has taught her the importance of paying attention to others’ feelings and emotions, something she says might help prevent conflicts within relationships as well.

“One of the things I’ve found over the years, the longer I’ve been in the field, is a lot of it goes towards really being more aware,” Cunningham said. “Kind of being aware of how the things we do affect other people, of how we react to other people, and I think a lot of times, we don’t pay a lot of attention to that because we’re busy and wrapped up in life and all the different things we have to do. There’s a lot of things we don’t pick up on that we would notice if we were paying attention.”

Contact Katherine Schaeffer at [email protected].