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The reasons to research romance

Fred Birchman / msnbc.com file

Can scientists break down the ingredients of a good romance?

Want to improve your love life? Have you considered changing your name, or your hair color, or stretching the truth on an online dating site? Maybe you just need to fine-tune your conversation skills. Justified or not, those are some of the lessons you might glean from the latest batch of scientific studies in the Valentine's Day spotlight.

February is prime time for all sorts of scientific and semi-scientific claims about romance.

Some studies are totally engineered by companies trying to take advantage of the Valentine's Day spotlight: for example, the "very informal poll" claiming that 25 percent of those who use a particular mobile app text their significant others at least 10 times a day, or the report that 10 percent of the players of a particular game have had a romantic hookup as a direct result of playing the game. In many such cases, the results are as meaningless as msnbc.com's own unscientific online polls.

Other studies follow more science-minded guidelines to come up with some seemingly strange findings: For example, one study has gotten a lot of attention for suggesting that British gentlemen prefer brunettes, not blondes. (The study was actually published online last August by the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, but it only recently showed up in print.) Another study, appearing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that people with easy-to-pronounce names were evaluated more positively than those with hard-to-pronounce names.

But you don't have to dye your hair or change your name to benefit from romantic research, as two recently reported studies illustrate.

Deception in dating
The online environment offers a whole new world for the study of interpersonal relationships, said Catalina Toma, a communication science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "I find it absolutely fascinating that there are more opportunities for communication," she told me.

Toma's research, conducted in collaboration with Cornell University's Jeffrey Hancock and published this month in the Journal of Communication, focuses on online dating sites. Toma and Hancock compared the actual height, weight and age of 78 online daters to the information they posted on four matchmaking websites, and found that about 80 percent of the daters stretched the truth on some level. Men tended to claim they were taller than they really were, and women tended to portray themselves as thinner (8.5 pounds thinner, on average).

"People's behavior on the Internet is not fundamentally different from their behavior face to face," Toma observed. The big difference is that a lot of communication can take place online without the usual nonverbal cues to detect deception, such as eye contact, body language or nervous behavior. So the researchers looked for linguistic cues that could separate the truth-tellers from the truth-stretchers.

Toma said "people like to think they are good at detecting deception, but in reality they are awful at it." She said past studies have shown that humans can pick up on deception only 54 percent of the time during face-to-face interaction. Toma and Hancock were able to improve on that figure, using linguistic cues alone. By analyzing the phrasing of a dater's online profile, they could identify the fibbers 65 percent of the time.

The researchers found that a deceptive profile was less likely to use the first-person pronoun "I" — apparently "because they want to distance themselves from their deceptive statements," Toma said. The deceivers were more likely to use phrases with a negative cast — for instance, writing "not sad" rather than "happy," or "not boring" rather than "exciting." They also tended to keep their self-descriptions shorter.

"They don't want to say too much," Toma explained in a news release. "Liars experience a lot of cognitive load. They have a lot to think about. The less they write, the fewer untrue things they may have to remember and support later." 

Such findings could be find wider application than, say, the blonde-vs.-brunette research. "The technology is not there just yet, but in the future we can employ the scientific knowledge to create an automatic deception detector," Toma said. "This is the long-term goal of this research."

Toma also noted that textual cues are easy to change, just by revising the online profile. The fact that they're not changed could be interesting. "We can infer that these cues are actually produced unconsciously," she said. "If these cues cannot be controlled by liars, that's good news for deception detection."

Romance 'in the zone'
For a more positive approach to Valentine's Day social science, consider the studies conducted by Kansas State University psychologist Brenda McDaniel and her colleagues. They studied more than 50 heterosexual couples, aged 18 to 20, who had been dating for at least six months but were not engaged, married or living together.

"These relationships are, by nature, unstable to begin with," McDaniel said in a news release issued last week. "They are early dating relationships. Sometimes it is hard to even get the couples to engage in conflict. Conflict does exist but, because the relationship is so new to them, they don't want to cause a breakup."

The researchers were interested in how young couples responded to upsetting episodes, so they had participants in the study spend 20 minutes talking about a topic that they knew would cause tension in the relationship — for example, flirting with other people, or family frictions. The couples were asked to follow that with 20 minutes of talking about a positive shared time during their relationship — say, their first kiss, or a vacation together. During the conversation, the researchers monitored physiological stress cues and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

In those cases where couples reported high satisfaction with the relationship, and high levels of closeness, the cortisol levels went up during the stressful conversation but came down during the positive conversation. But if the cortisol levels stayed high during the happier discussion, the couples were more likely to report low levels of satisfaction and closeness.

"In addition to recovery being associated with positive relationship outcomes, we also saw recovery being related to conversation flow," McDaniel said.

McDaniel told me that flow is a focused "state of enjoyment or creativity and pleasure" in which you lose track of time — like an artist immersed in painting, or a basketball player in the zone, or two friends who talk the night away without even noticing it. "Individuals who are better able to cope with stress are more likely to be able to enter the flow state," she said.

Being able to enter the romantic flow when you're young may serve as practice for longer-term relationships later in life, McDaniel said.

The results so far were presented in January at a meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and McDaniel said the study is being fine-tuned for journal publication. In the meantime, she had this advice for the young people out there: "Try to engage in as much conversation as you can with potential romantic partners. The partners that provide you with the most rewarding experience during those conversations are likely the ones to pursue."

That advice may make McDaniel sound less like a hard-headed researcher and more like your mom. But at least some folks clicking through the Cosmic Log Facebook page say that science has helped them with their love life.

"It's helpful to read how biology, and especially neurobiology, can create feelings out of motivation. They can be quite deceptive," Cosmic Log correspondent Dana Nourie observed. "Being mindful to all of this helps us realize that we can opt out when we want, and helps us be more aware when we decide to indulge."

What's your story? Feel free to weigh in with your comment below, or cast your vote on Facebook.

More science for Valentine's Day:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.