A new study demonstrates that thinking about love--but not about sex--causes us to think more "globally," making it easier to come up with new ideas
By Nira Liberman and Oren Shapira
Love has inspired countless works of art, from immortal plays such as Romeo and Juliet, to architectural masterpieces such as the Taj Mahal, to classic pop songs, like Queen's “Love of My Life”. This raises the obvious question: why is love such a stimulating emotion? Why does the act of falling in love – or at least thinking about love – lead to such a spur of creative productivity?
One possibility is that when we’re in love we actually think differently. This romantic hypothesis was recently tested by the psychologists Jens Förster, Kai Epstude, and Amina Özelsel at the University of Amsterdam. The researchers found that love really does alter our thoughts, and that this profound emotion affects us in a way that is different than simply thinking about sex.
The clever experiments demonstrated that love makes us think differently in that it triggers global processing, which in turn promotes creative thinking and interferes with analytic thinking. Thinking about sex, however, has the opposite effect: it triggers local processing, which in turn promotes analytic thinking and interferes with creativity.
Why does love make us think more globally? The researchers suggest that romantic love induces a long-term perspective, whereas sexual desire induces a short-term perspective. This is because love typically entails wishes and goals of prolonged attachment with a person, whereas sexual desire is typically focused on engaging in sexual activities in the "here and now". Consistent with this idea, when the researchers asked people to imagine a romantic date or a casual sex encounter, they found that those who imagined dates imagined them as occurring farther into the future than those who imagined casual sex.
According to construal level theory (CLT), thinking about events that are farther into the future or past - or any kind psychological distancing (such as considering things or people that are physically farther away, or considering remote, unlikely alternatives to reality) triggers a more global processing style. In other words, psychological distancing makes us see the forest rather than the individual trees.
A global processing style promotes creative thinking because it helps raise remote and uncommon associations. Consider, for example, the act of finding a gift for your partner. If we think about a gift while in a local mindset, then we’ll probably focus on more literal and concrete options, most of which involve a tangible object wrapped in colorful paper. We’ll probably consider the usual suspects, such as a watch, a book, or perfume. However, thinking about a gift more globally might inspire us to consider a gift as "anything that will make him/her happy". This may, in turn, bring to mind more diverse and original ideas, such as going on a joint vacation, writing a song, or cleaning and remodeling the house.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should always think globally. While local processing might interfere with creativity, it also promotes analytic thinking, which requires us to apply logical rules. For example, if you are looking for a piece of furniture in a big display according to a pre-defined list of criteria (e.g., size, color, price), a local mindset may help you find a match, by preventing you from being side-tracked by attractive but irrelevant options and by making you pay more attention to relevant details.
In sum, the authors suggest that, because love activates a long-term perspective that elicits global processing, it should also promote creativity and impede analytic thinking. In contrast, inasmuch as sex activates a short-term perspective that elicits local processing, it should also promote analytic thinking and impede creative thinking.
The authors present two studies to support this model. Participants in the first study first imagined one of three situations: a long walk with their beloved one (the love condition), casual sex with a person to whom they were attracted but not in love with (the sex condition), or a nice walk on their own (the control condition). Participants then attempted to solve three creative insight problems and four problems that assess analytic thinking, which were logic problems from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) (e.g., if A < B and C > B then ?) As predicted, participants in the love condition solved more creativity problems and less analytic problems than those in the control condition. Participants in the sex condition, on the other hand, solved less creativity problems and more analytic problems compared to participants in the control condition.
The second study examined whether more subtle reminders of love and sex can also elicit similar effects. First, as part of an alleged attention task, participants were subliminally presented with words related to love (e.g. "loving"), words related to sex (e.g., "eroticism"), or a non-word letter string (control condition; "XQFBZ"). Next, analytic thinking was measured using the same GRE problems as in the first study. Creative thinking was measured this time using a generation task, in which participants had limited time to generate as many uses for a brick as possible. Replicating the findings of the first study, participants in the love condition generated more creative uses and solved less analytic problems than those in the control condition, whereas participants in the sex condition displayed the opposite pattern.
One of the most noteworthy implications of these experiments is that love and sex don’t simply influence the way we think about the people we love or desire. Instead, they influence the way we think about everything. The same researchers demonstrate this tendency in yet another experiment. When in love, it seems, we struggle to distinguish between the different qualities of the beloved person (e.g., "If he is so handsome, he must also be kind!"), a phenomenon that is often labeled the halo effect. Does love also promote halo effects for other objects? It seems that the answer is yes. The same group of researchers reasoned that the halo effect reflects global processing, and therefore it should increase when people think of love and decrease when they think of sex. They found the predicted pattern of evaluations (that is, less differentiation between distinct qualities after thinking about love and more differentiation after thinking about sex), not only in evaluations of a romantic partner, but also in evaluating different aspects of a chair! The takeaway lesson is that thinking about love, or anything that promotes a distal perspective or global processing, can make us more creative. Perhaps love is an especially potent way to induce in us a sense of transcendence – being in the here and now yet also contemplating the distant future and maybe even eternity.