• Updated
02 June 2022

Why is our love for love growing?

The importance of love in culture increased during the medieval and early modern period in Eurasia, showing a convergent evolution in cultures as different as Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Indian and Japanese... The construction and analysis of a database of ancient literary fictions covering 19 geographical areas and 77 historical periods, or 3,800 years, confirms this trend in literary fiction, and associates it with a high level of economic development. The results of this study, entitled "The cultural evolution of love in literary history", have just been published in Nature Human bahaviour.

Interview with Nicolas Baumard, cognitive science researcher and first author of the publication.

Romantic love: a fluctuating success story

Romantic love is a universal feeling, and love stories can be found in all societies: " Tristan and Iseult in the West, but also Majnun and Layla in the Arab world, Khosrow and Shirin in the Persian world or Nala and Damayanti in India, quotes Nicolas Baumard. Today, love is an essential, even central, ingredient of fiction, whether in novels, films or television series”.

But this has not always been the case; historians of Western literature have noted that romantic fictions are more frequent in some periods than in others. “In the Greek epics or ‘chansons de geste’, love, although sometimes present, is much more marginal, says the researcher. In fact, the feeling of love first rose during the Hellenistic and Roman periods (we can think of Ovid, or Greek love novels such as Daphnis and Chloe), then again from the 12th century onwards (Tristan and Iseult, Lancelot and Guinevere, etc.), and this has continued up to the present day, where love stories are more numerous, more central and more egalitarian as well”. If all this has been known for a long time, what is less known is that periods of increase are also observed in other parts of Eurasia: "under the Tang and Song dynasties in China, during the Heian period in Japan, the Gupta dynasty in India, the Abbasids in the Arab world...


Tristan and  Iseut- the death of the lovers / Laylah and Majnun faint / Nala reunites with Damayanti ©Wikimedia Commons

The study of these fluctuations of the theme of love in the history of literature highlights underline a certain pattern, which seems to make the evolution of romantic literature coincide with periods of economic development of societies. According to Nicolas Baumard, this observation is not new: "this was already noted by the great historian of the Middle Ages, Georges Duby... But when I discovered this pattern, I first asked myself if it was true: is the feeling of love always more frequent, more valued during periods of economic development? And if so, can we explain this pattern?”


Creating a new database of early romantic literary fictions

But how can we observe and study the importance given to the feeling of love in a society? This is where literary fiction comes in: "Fictions are ideal material for studying preferences, explains the researcher. A large number of studies show that they tend to reflect the preferences of those who consume them: more exploratory individuals tend to like adventure or science fiction stories, more social individuals like dramas and romantic comedies, etc.".

Although other types of material could have been used, such as letters or philosophical treatises, Nicolas Baumard points out that the latter are less well preserved over time, and are often absent in the least developed societies. "This is not the case with fictions, even if, obviously, their use also has its limits: fictions were written by the upper classes for the upper classes, and often by men for men. In fact, there is a very empirical problem here: there are very few cultural productions of the middle and lower classes for the pre-modern periods”.

The study of these love fictions and their association with economic development also requires numerical data, whereas the scientific literature on the subject has so far been mainly qualitative. "These data are increasingly precise in economic history, but they did not exist in literary history. It was therefore necessary to create a database of literary fictions since the beginning of written literature, explains the researcher. This is what we did using Wikipedia. Wikipedia is in fact a formidable scientific tool that is increasingly used as a collaborative science project because it allows an immense mass of information to be gathered in the same format, and with the same rigour as scientific literature, since articles on literary history are systematically accompanied by references to scientific literature!

However, using literary fiction to measure the importance of love is not always easy. "Different cultures, and different periods within the same cultural tradition, may use very different words to talk about love. Moreover, in some cultures people do not talk openly about love, says Nicolas Baumard. To overcome this problem, we focused on the plot and the script. Romantic stories share similar plots - love at first sight, tragic separations, faithful love and suicide for love - that appeal to well-known psychological elements of love: idealisation of the partner, emotional attachment, long-term commitment and reorganisation of life priorities”. It is these universal plot elements of love stories, found all over the world, that the researchers selected to quantify the importance of the feeling of love in the fictions described in Wikipedia.

The Last Meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bitish Musem) and Romeo and Juliet (Ford Madox Brown ,Delaware Art Museum), two illustrations from stories involving the universal psychological elements of romantic love: love at first sight, tragic separations, faithful love etc.

Cultural preferences shaped by economic growth

The development and analysis of this huge database allowed the researchers to first confirm the association between the importance of the feeling of love and economic development, and then to go further than this simple association. "We showed that economic development had a causal effect on the feeling of love. To do this, we used methods from economics to test the causality of a statistical association. We have shown that European regions which, due to favourable soil conditions, have developed more strongly with the introduction of the heavy plough, are also those which have seen the development of more romantic literature”. The researcher points out that this is a true exogenous causality, since geology is a factor external to romantic literature, completely dissociated from it. "Unless we postulate that romantic literature determines the amount of limestone in the soil, we must conclude that it is really economic development, favoured by a certain type of soil, that explains the importance of romantic love”.

One of the analyses that showed a strong correlation between economic development and the occurrence of words referring to love was the average distribution of these words in Wikipedia entries in relation to GDP per capita.

A lot of recent work shows that the standard of living affects individual preferences: "when the standard of living increases, people tend to have more long-termist preferences, which is reflected in a large number of domains, says Nicolas Baumard, people are more curious, more exploratory, more perfectionist, they also have more confidence in others, and are more optimistic. In short, there is a whole 'syndrome' of preferences that change with economic development”.  This preference syndrome, which is the subject of a seminar at the Institut Jean Nicod, includes the valorisation of lasting romantic relationships. "What we have shown is that this psychological mechanism probably explains long-term cultural changes, such as the growing importance of romantic love in people's lives”.

Will fiction continue to become more romantic over time? Do we have a certain level of saturation? Are we seeing the emergence of new phenomena such as polyamory? Can we imagine individuals who renounce love as some renounce sex, "a-lovers as there are a-sexuals"?  These are all open questions on which Nicolas Baumard and his colleagues in the Evolution and Social Cognition team at the Institut Jean Nicod are currently working. 


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