Tue, 1 November 2016
Imagine if we could find the secret to romance and love, the real secret, one vetted by science. Wouldn’t that be … well, what would that be. According to Anna Machin, an anthropologist who actually does study romance, it would be disheartening.
“I don’t want to find the formula for love,” she tells interviewer Dave Edmonds in the latest Social Science Bites podcast. “I think that would be incredibly depressing.”
But Machin, a professor at the University of Oxford and part of an experimental psychology research group run by another Social Science Bites alumnus, Robin Dunbar, is nonetheless fascinated by how evolution has created this thing we call love, using the tools of neurochemistry and qualitative social science. Her research ranges from “our primate cousins” to popular dating sites. And before you insert your own joke here, know that these two examples have more in common than you might think.
Distinct primate-centric patterns quickly emerge in dating site profiles, Machin explains. For men, it’s displaying their value – their status, resources and good genes. For women, it’s their fertility, including youth, and good genes – regardless of their own wealth or status.
Not, she cautions, that we’re exactly like the rest of the menagerie. “The relationships we build, the reproductive relationships, our romantic relationships, are categorically different to those in other animals,” she says. “They persist for much longer, the cognition involved is much more complex,” and the neurochemistry doesn’t explain how we can stick together for such an incredibly long period of time.
Machin’s own academic background is varied, beginning with bachelor’s work in anthropology and English and leading to a PhD, in Archaeology, from the University of Reading (her thesis was on Acheulean handaxes). As an academic, she delights in explaining her work to the public, an avocation that has including working with the TV show Married at First Sight, where she’s used her own scholarship to help participants find life partners.