Reduced cognitive control in passionate lovers

People who are in love are less able to focus and to perform tasks that require attention. Researcher Henk van Steenbergen concludes this, together with colleagues from Leiden University and the University of Maryland. The article has appeared in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

The more in love, the less focused you are

Forty-three participants who had been in a relationship for less than half a year performed a number of tasks during which they had to discriminate irrelevant from relevant information as soon as possible. It appeared that the more in love they were, the less able they were to ignore the irrelevant information. Love intensity thus was related to how well someone is able to focus. There was no difference between men and women.

Cognitive control

The participants listened to music that elicited romantic feelings and thought of a romantic event to intensify their love feelings. Participants also completed a questionnaire that was used to assess the intensity of their love feelings. The results of the study by Henk van Steenbergen differed from results from previous studies. Those previous studies showed that the ability to ignore distracting information is required to maintain a long-term romantic relationship. Being able to control oneself (also called “cognitive control”) and to resist temptations that could threaten the relationship is essential in long-term love.

Thinking of your beloved

In the study by Van Steenbergen, in contrast, the participants had become involved in a romantic relationship only a few months ago. “When you have just become involved in a romantic relationship you’ll probably find it harder to focus on other things because you spend a large part of your cognitive resources on thinking of your beloved”, Van Steenbergen says. “For long-lasting love in a long-term relationship, on the other hand, it seems crucial to have proper cognitive control.” Over time, a balance between less and more cognitive control may be critical for a successful relationship.

Why is romantic love associated with cognitive control?

Van Steenbergen emphasizes that the link between romantic love and cognitive control is a new area of research. “The reason why romantic love is associated with cognitive control is still unknown. It could be that lovers use all their cognitive resources to think about their beloved, which leaves them no resources to perform a boring task. It could also be that the association goes in the opposite direction: people who have reduced cognitive control may experience more intense love feelings than people who have higher levels of cognitive control.” Future research will have to clarify this.

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