What Is Love?

Love is one of the major human emotions

lovers holding hands
Photography by Bobi/Moment/Getty Images

What is Love?

Despite the fact that love is one of the major human emotions (some would even say the most important one), love has only fairly recently became the subject of science. According to Sigmund Freud (1910), the study of love in the past was left to "…the creative writer to depict for us the 'necessary conditions for loving... In consequence, it becomes inevitable that science should concern herself with the same materials whose treatment by artists has given enjoyment to mankind for thousands of years."

While research on this subject has grown tremendously over the last 20 years, early explorations into the nature and reasons for love drew considerable criticism. During the 1970s, U.S. Senator William Proxmire railed against researchers who were studying love and derided the work as a waste of taxpayer dollars (Hatfield, 2001).

Since that time, research has revealed the importance of love in child development and adult health. But what exactly is love? How do psychologists define this important emotion?

Using a psychometric approach to love, social psychologist Zick Rubin devised a scale used to assess levels of liking and loving.

According to Rubin, romantic love is made up of three elements:

  1. Attachment: The need to be cared for and be with the other person. Physical contact and approval are also important components of attachment.
  2. Caring: Valuing the other persons happiness and needs as much as your own.
  1. Intimacy: Sharing private thoughts, feelings, and desires with the other person.

Based upon this view of romantic love, Rubin developed two questionnaires to measure these variables. Initially, Rubin identified approximately 80 questions designed to assess the attitudes a person holds about others.

The questions were sorted according to whether or not they reflected feelings of liking or loving.

Rubin's scales of liking and loving provided support for his theory of love. In a study to determine if the scales actually differentiated between liking and loving, Rubin asked a number of participants to fill out his questionnaires based upon how they felt both about their partner and a good friend. The results revealed that good friends scored high on the liking scale, but only significant others rated high on the scales for loving.

Is Love Biological or Is It a Cultural Phenomenon?

Biological views of love tend to view the emotion as a human drive. While love is often seen as one of the basic human emotions such as anger or happiness, some have suggested that love is instead a cultural phenomenon that arises partly due to social pressures and expectations. In a Time article, psychologist and author Lawrence Casler said, "I don't believe love is part of human nature, not for a minute. There are social pressures at work."

If love were a purely cultural invention, it would stand to reason that love would simply not exist in some cultures.

However, anthropological research suggests that love is a universal emotion. Love is most likely influenced by both biological drives and cultural influences. While hormones and biology are important, the way we express and experience this emotion are influenced by our personal conceptions of love.


Gray, P. (1993, February 15). What is love? Time. Found online at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,977763-1,00.html

Hatfield, E. (2001). Elaine Hatfield. In A. N. O’Connell (Ed.) Elaine Hatfield. Models of achievement: Reflections of eminent women in psychology, 3, 136-147.

Continue Reading