The Basic Economical Psychology of Love and Desirability

Why is it the more we perceive someone as being prized or "in demand," romantically-speaking, the more we are drawn to them (lurking variables aside)?

OK, before dismissing this postulation as mere sweeping generalization, consider a few points. As much as we would like to believe mature, "healthy" relationships are free from the power plays of, say, adolescent romances, consider that envy and pride are natural human traits not extinguished by the process of aging alone.

And, what makes us most envious of all? The perceived--or real--affections of our partner toward another potential mate. Here, however, emerges a sort of quagmire. While generally speaking we do not want a philandering partner, if we witness affections bestowed upon him or her by others, this, consciously or not, affirms our choice in a desirable mate, one with some measure of "demand." At our most primal level, we are pleased to have won the prize. After all, what has guaranteed the continuation of our species but "winning?"

And, what do we do, when our own personal vulnerabilities have been threatened or exploited in the messy business of love? We, in turn, seek to become "in demand." Whether or not we actively seek out that which will provoke jealousy in our mate, we attempt, however naively, to "better" ourselves. We want to become the more scarce, sought-after prize. We lose the weight, we get the facelift, all the while aware we are not a scare commodity

What a completely base perception of love! you say. Love is not about where lies the greatest demand, but about the incomparable feeling by which we are bowled over when we look into the eyes of another who sees us for who we truly are. But, let's be truthful here, those eyes are pretty sexy, right? As a whole, why is our society drawn to the conventional standards of beauty if not because it is continuously reinforced that these traits are in demand, are what we should demand?

Consider the explanations of love and desire put forth by some of psychoanalysis's greatest minds. In the philosophies of Slavoj Zizek and Jacques Lacan, love and desire are no more than constructs of our fantasy worlds. According to Lacan, the love of another is an entirely narcissistic act of fantasy fulfillment. In Freud's Papers on Technique: 1953-1954, Lacan writes, "That's what love is. It's one's own ego that one loves in love, one's own ego made real on the imaginary level."

We might like to believe we are above the mind games of love, more highly evolved and actualized than our animalistic ancestors vying for the ultimate prize. We might like to believe we are above the empty, esoteric conjectures and "junk science" spewed from the doctrines of certain revered psychoanalysts. Unfortunately, the data suggests otherwise.

Let's consider what is known as the "forbidden fruit effect." According to "TIME" magazine, "When a person is forced to divert his attention from that cute bartender--by, say, a jealous partner's opprobrium--it could result in a sort of "backlash" effect, which may end up reducing his level of relationship commitment."

The "TIME" authors draw their conclusions from research published in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology," which tests this hypothesis on a number of college-age students in romantic relationships.
The study notes:

Just as people want jobs they cannot have, salaries they cannot earn, and cars they cannot afford, people may desire attractive alternatives more and desire their current relationship partner less when they are placed in situations that limit their ability to attend to attractive alternatives.

The results of the test conducted by researchers found:

...participants who had been unknowingly prevented from looking at attractive faces reported less relationship satisfaction and more positive attitudes toward infidelity than people who were allowed to peep at all faces equally.

The reality of the research seems to support the hypotheses put forth by the likes of Zizek and Lacan: desirability resides in the realm of the fantasy world--we want what we can't have and we can't have what we ultimately want. Love and desire are one big narcissistic, fantastical power play. Then how can we possibly be to blame for always chasing that ever-fading horizon?

After all, what attractiveness would celebrities, for instance, hold for us if everyone we encountered were a sexy silver screen star?