In the previous essay, I said that this one would go back to the beginning. But where might we look for this beginning? Scientists who study human nature have asked a similar question while studying the many aspects of love. Is there a common evolutionary ancestor to all forms of love and, if so, where should we look for it?


It makes sense to look at the first bond someone forms with someone else. That is: Maternal love. From studying rodents in the laboratory, we know that late pregnancy causes oestrogen levels to boost the number of receptors for oxytocin in parts of the brain. During labour, oxytocin is released and when the hormone hits those receptors, the mother becomes addicted to her pups and their particular smell. Bryan Ferry told us, “love is the drug” and there’s some truth in this, because hormones flooding the brain as we bond with someone stimulate the same reward circuits that drugs target. Those reward circuits are found near the base of the brain in the ventral tegmental area, which is connected to the front of the brain where the nucleus accumbens is found, just beneath the frontal cortex. What the ventral tegmental area does is send key information about the value of an activity to the cortex, where the reward information is coordinated with emotions and memories. With hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin causing powerful feelings of attachment, low fear, high trust between mother and infant, it is not surprising that these two form a powerful bond and prefer to be together.

Of course, another good reason for feeling a strong attachment towards one’s offspring is the fact that the offspring is so weak. Broadly speaking, natural selection favours two kinds of solutions to this problem. One is to give birth to lots and lots of offspring, thereby increasing the odds of at least one surviving to adulthood. The other is to be very, very protective of one’s offspring. Humans clearly took this latter evolutionary route.


Humans also form strong attachments between mates, a bond that is the exception rather than the rule for mammals. The usual state of affairs among mammals is promiscuity, and among the few that practice monogamy true sexual fidelity is uncommon. One mammal that does bond extraordinarily close to its mate is the prarie vole. This animal has a close cousin- the meadow vole- which prefers promiscuity. Scientists have determined that this difference in behaviour lies in the fact that the meadow vole has far fewer receptors for vasopressin than the prarie vole. Because vasopressin receptors exist in abundance in the reward circuits of prarie voles’ brains, sex is powerfully rewarding and promotes bonding between male and female. It is possible to block these receptors with drugs, and doing so results in prarie voles acting as promiscuously as meadow voles.

Interestingly, among humans there is substantial variation in the gene that controls the distribution of vasopressin receptors. Given that infidelity sometimes occurs in human relationships, could the reason why some people love them and leave them have anything in common with the reason for faithfulness and infidelity among prarie and meadow voles? Unfortunately I cannot reveal whether this is true or not, because as yet no studies have correlated the distribution of vasopressin receptors in human brains with monogamy or lack of it.

What has been determined scientifically is the fact that oxytocin and vasopressin play important roles in human love. This was demonstrated in studies conducted by Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki at University College, London. Using fMRI to scan the brains of lovestruck students, they found activity soaring in parts of the brain that are rich in receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin. According to Helen Fisher (who has conducted similar studies at Rutgers University) looking at photographs of one’s sweetheart results in “fierce energy, concentrated motivation to attain a reward, and feelings of elation, even mania”.


‘Attachment Theory’ was founded on the need to explain the emotional bond between mother and infant. In 1987, Lindy Hazan and Philip Shaver took attachment theory (which was developed by the developmental psychologist John Boulby) and successfully applied it to the study of romantic relationships. They determined that:

1: Both romantic relationships and infant-caregiver relationships have emotional and behavioural dynamics governed by the same biological system.

2: In both romantic relationships and infant-caregiver relationships we observe similar differences in behaviour between partners in the relationship compared to how they behave with people outside of the relationship.

One strong role provided by an attachment figure is that of ‘proximity maintainence’. That is, providing the comfort of being there when its presence is needed to bestow praise or alleviate fear. Attachment figures also play a related role of ‘safe haven’. When faced with something out of the ordinary, both infants and adults feel more comfortable exploring the new situation if their attachment figure is accessible. In contrast, ‘separation distress’ can be triggered in both infants and adults if the attachment relationship is disrupted.

This tendency to treat one’s romantic partner as a ‘safe haven’ was demonstrated in an experiment involving a virtual reality setup. Because it used VR, this experiment also showed that we bring our evolutionary habits online with us when we enter cyberspace. In the experiment, a person wears a VR headset and finds themselves on a virtual cliff that has a narrow winding path dangerously close to a sheer drop. Of course, this is entirely computer generated and in physical reality the volunteer is in no danger whatsoever. You might think this would rob the virtual environment of all its threat, but in fact many studies have shown people experience high anxiety while taking part in this kind of experiment. 

So, anyway, the participant finds him or herself on this narrow trail and have to follow it to the end, if they can. Waiting for them at the end of the trail is their partner- or, rather, an avatar of that person. Unbeknown to the participant, this avatar is actually under the control of the scientists conducting the experiment. The experiment places the partner avatar in three kinds of control condition. There is the ‘attentive condition’ in which the avatar uses body language that communicates ‘come on, you can do it, everything is going to be alright’. There is the ‘inattentive condition’, in which the avatar simply stands there offering no encouragment. And, finally, there is a control condition in which the partner avatar is completely absent. This experiment demonstrates, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it is the participants whose partners offer encouragement who are most likely to complete the task. This experiment also demonstrated a tendency to allow ‘virtual’ behaviours to affect real life. The team conducting the experiment observed couples’ behaviour toward each other afterwards. They found that those participants whose partners’ avatar offered no encouragement tended to maintain more personal distance between themselves and their partner. 


These people had already found that special someone, but what about the rest of us? What do we look for?

THE UNIVERSALS: These are the attributes nearly all people find attractive, namely beauty, intelligence, and financial resources. Men tend to be attracted to women whose features suggest youth and fertility, such as soft facial features, full lips, and a low waist-to-hip ratio. Women find signs of virile male beauty attractive- features such as broad shoulders and a square jaw. It has also been determined that women tend to be attracted to men who look as if they have wealth or the means to acquire it.

Although these qualities are universally attractive, and those people we call sex symbols are attractive for good biological reasons, we are not usually most strongly attracted to the richest and most beautiful person we know of. If that were the case, we would all be pursuing screen idols like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. That would be a futile endeavour for most people, because super mates like these are inaccessible to all but a few. Instead we tend to be attracted to those whose beauty, intelligence and status are on a similar level to our own. Therefore, another key factor in finding someone attractive is SIMILARITY.

DESIRABLE CHARACTERISTIC OF THE OTHER: Studies by people like Agala Pines have determined that both men and women mention some aspect of their partner’s personality as being a crucial factor in finding this person attractive. Women mention personality slightly more often than men do. But when it comes to physical beauty, we see far more discrepancy. 81% of men say they were attracted to the physical appearance of their partner, compared to 41% of women.

RECIPROCAL LIKING: Arthur Aaron said, “if you ask people about their experience of falling in love, over 90% will say that a major factor was discovering that the other person liked them”. One tends to feel good about oneself when it is known somebody finds you attractive. Feeling good about oneself in the presence of another makes one more likely to develop feelings of attraction toward them.

EXCLUSIVENESS: Feelings of attraction tend to be enhanced when one spends time alone with the object of one’s affection.

MYSTERY: People often find someone with an air of mystery or intruige about them to be romantically appealing. ‘You will meet a tall, dark stranger…’

PROXIMITY: Several studies have shown that seeing someone repeatedly creates a fertile atmosphere for love. Psychologists refer to this as ‘repeated exposure’.

THE HISTOCOMPATIBILITY COMPLEX: This refers to a particular set of genes. Mates with a dissimilar histocompatibility complex produce healthier offspring with stronger immune systems. Studies show that people tend to rate the scents of T-shirts worn by others with a dissimilar histocompatibility complex as more attractive.


Obviously when looking for love online this latter clue to a prospective partner’s suitability is simply not an option. And, given that one is probably alone with a computer rather than with the object of one’s affection (at least in the early stages before an online romance moves into physical space), one might also think ‘proximity’ is also a factor missing in online relationships.

But this would be a mistaken assumption, because it is repeated exposure to someone, rather than their physical presence, that matters. This was demonstrated in experiments conducted by Robert Zajonc. He pretended to be conducting an experiment in visual memory, which involved subjects looking at photographs of different people. Each viewing lasted 35 seconds, but Zajonc varied the number of times each photograph was shown. The actual purpose of the test was to determine whether or not a correlation exists between the frequency of exposure to someone and the level of liking toward them. Zajonc found that his subjects tended to feel more positively toward the persons whose photographs were shown most frequently.

When interacting online, one has the opportunity to be repeatedly exposed to aspects of behaviour that would be much harder to ascertain from a simple photograph. This was reflected in comments made by ‘Charlie’ in interviews with Tom Boellstorf in his book ‘Coming Of Age in Second Life’:

“I met my SL boyfriend the first week I was here. I came to an event at his club, and I was so impressed with him right away, thought what he did was so incredible. I would come back every day and looked forward to his events. And I began to have feelings for him”. 

This quote also shows that a kind of proximity does exist online, a point that was made by Deb Levine who wrote ‘the Joy of Cybersex’. Levine points out that proximity in cyberspace is defined by a chatroom, MMOG, online world, that users have in common. Meeting people online entails being in the same chatroom etc at the same time as they are using it. Because chatrooms etc often have themes, the Web also facilitates another principle cause of falling in love. One can spend time in chatrooms that revolve around a subject one is interested in. Since other participants are likely to be interested in the subject as well, there is a better chance of meeting someone who is similar to yourself. Arguably, this makes online spaces more suitable for dating than ‘singles bars’ where proximity is defined by co-presence in a physical location, but which does not necessarily concentrate people with common interests into that area. As Deb Levine reasoned, “your best bet is to find a community that revolves around a subject in which you are interested…and spend time there on a regular basis”. 

Tom Boellstorff has argued that people confuse episteme (or knowledge) with techne (or craft) when being sceptical of the ability to fall in love and have meaningful relationships online. Speaking for such skeptics, someone called ‘Halo Evermore’ made the following comments at Thinkers:

“I think SL ‘relationships’ are ridiculous…why not have a real life romance? Why would someone want an SL relationship without touch and real sex”? Halo also made the point (as did several others) that “it’s so easy to lie to someone in this game”.

Regarding this latter point, Tom Boellstorff said “what operationalizes love in virtual worlds is not knowing who someone is in the actual world, but crafting a relationship within the virtual world”.  Notice that Halo refers to SL as a ‘game’ which is associated with words like ‘pretend’. But what if you think of SL as a ‘place’? Take the quote from ‘Charlie’ for instance, the one that begins ‘I met my SL boyfriend the first week I was here’. If you swap the first sentence for one that reads ‘I met my boyfriend in the first week I moved to San Francisco’, doesn’t the rest of the quotation read like a perfectly legitimate reason for falling in love?


Obviously it is true that no physical touch exists between avatars. In fact, it is often the case that two avatars embracing one another will pass between each other’s bodies as though they were phantoms. Rhiannon Dragoone referred to this lack of physicality when she said, “when you hit someone with a hammer here, it isn’t real”. But she also made the point that “when you make a cutting remark it is [real]”. So, while physical acts that happen inworld are, at best, crude approximations of the real thing, mental acts are indistinguishable.

When it comes to any physical show of affection such as a kiss, a caress, or holding hands, this act is very much a form of communication that imparts one’s subjective feelings toward another. It is an emotional touch as well as a physical one. When someone somewhere on another computer agrees to having their avatar perform a kiss, perhaps embellishing it with textual or spoken descriptions like ‘our lips brush softly together, and the warmth of your body against mine makes me shiver slightly in passion’, the same emotional touch that accompanies a kiss in the actual world unites these people who are co-present in a virtual world.

If this is comparable to anything, it is the act of writing love letters. As the song famously goes, “love letters straight from the heart, keeping us near while apart”. How many, while listening to this song, feel it hard to relate to the sentiments it expresses? Imagine someone responding thus: “How can anyone feel sentimental over a load of words on a piece of paper?”. The answer to which, obviously, is that it is the emotions the love letter conveys which is important, not the medium which conveys them. We may also suppose that, for the person who wrote the love letter and for whom it was written, a great deal of shared personal history existed between them, imbuing each sentence with meaning that might have been lost on a stranger reading the letter. Similarly, shared personal history in SL can add layers of meaning to the animations and poses that stand in for kisses and cuddles. For instance, I remember when I said something insulting to my best friend, a response triggered by a situation that arose (and which my friend was not responsible for). I regretted lashing out at her afterward and expressed my shame. At this point, the message from SL requesting permission to animate my avatar popped up on my screen. My friend wanted to hug me to demonstrate her acceptance of my apology and to show our friendship still had meaning for her. One can well imagine a stranger, unaware of any past history, watching avatars performing a ‘cuddle’ animation and feeling no attachment whatsoever. But for me (and my friend) the hug was as important a reconciliation as any real life hug would be.

Or think about ‘Charlie’. Perhaps it is not too much of an exaggeration to suppose that, while she waited to see how her male interest would respond to her request for a virtual kiss, she felt much the same excited trepidation one feels when about to kiss someone in real life? “Have I misread the signs? Am I about to make a fool of myself?”. And when her flame reacted positively to her advances, is it really so hard to imagine she felt that same happy feeling one has when you are attracted to someone who is likewise attracted to you?

I once tried to summarise all this to my best friend in the following way:

“If one person can imagine wanting to kiss someone, and that someone can imagine wanting to be kissed by that person, and they can communicate their desires over the Internet, and that communication is heartfelt, then it (that is, the kiss) really happens”.

Someone put forward much the same argument in ‘Coming Of Age in Second Life’, saying “you can be blind and be in love; the brain compensates fully for the lack of sensorial input. So the SL experience doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be good to a certain degree, and from there on, the brain takes over”.


So, it is a fact that online courtship is missing some of the aspects of courtship in the actual world. Specifically, physical touch. It is unarguable that any courtship which can provide the full spectrum of affection, the physical as well as the emotional, must be preferable to one where some aspects are missing. On the other hand, imagine the following scenario: Roboticists perfect sex dolls, and now you can get a lifelike ‘man’ or ‘woman’ whose synthetic skin looks and feels indistinguishable from the real thing. It has the same texture, the same warmth. Your man (or woman) can offer the same physical intimacies that a human male or female can offer. But, it is entirely physical. Your partner has no personality at all. He or she is an animated department store dummy. If you compared a relationship with this partner to one that occurs online and offers no physical touch but the full spectrum of  emotional connections  and meeting of minds with a vital living being, as projected through an avatar, well, which seems more like a legitimate partnership? If you think the ‘avatar’ offers something closer to a legitimate relationship, you are considering the emotional aspects of love and sex to be more important than the physical aspects. 


Many people would argue that something else is missing from online relationships: The visual appearance of your love interest. Deb Levine argued that, because the visual aspect of a person’s identity is missing, “the online world gives people who do not fit a stereotypical model of beauty a chance to be Don Juans and Carman Mirandas… For those considered beautiful by societal standards, it gives them a chance to be attractive for reasons other than their physical qualities”.

It seems to be a popular opinion that physical attractiveness plays little to no part in someone’s reason for being attracted to someone else in SL. This attitude was expressed by Anouk Valeska at Thinkers: “Online you can see the inner person before judging based on the outside”. It is easy to see how this might be the case with ‘the online world’ of the Web itself, what with all its forums and chat rooms where texting is the only means of communication. But, clearly, the situation is a bit different with an online world like SL, where everyone does have a visual appearance in the form of their avatar. 


You can, with some effort, take on any visual appearance you like in SL. But anyone wandering around the online world will come to realise that, for most people, the favoured appearance is a human with an instantly recognisable gender that carries all the stereotypical attributes of beauty for that gender. But does the appearance of the avatar affect the way we judge people, and does it have any bearings on how people feel in themselves?

This latter question was examined in an experiment conducted by Nick Yee. What happened was, participants were assigned avatars, some of which were more attractive than average, some less attractive. The participants were asked to spend 20 minutes talking to other avatars about their personal lives. It was noted that those who had been assigned more attractive avatars exhibited more signs of confident behaviour, such as positioning themselves closer to the avatar they were talking with, and divulging more personal information. As for those who had been assigned less attractive avatars, they tended to act aloof. This inworld behaviour occurred irrespective of the actual physical attractiveness of the person controlling the avatar. Whether this person was handsome or not, embodying a beautiful avatar affected one’s behaviour such that they displayed behaviour typical of their avatar’s appearance.

Now, there is a difference between the virtual reality employed in Nick Yee’s study, and Second Life. This was because the former virtual world made use of headsets that fully immersed the participants in audio and visual virtual reality. When they moved their limbs, they perceived their virtual limbs moving. SL is not as immersive as this, since it is viewed confined to a screen and you operate your avatar remotely via the keyboard. Perhaps, then, being less immersed in SL and less embodied as one’s avatar reduces the tendency to change one’s behaviour to suit the avatar? On the other hand, I have argued in another essay (Virtual Sex and the Invisible Gorilla), that certain tricks of the mind can make SL seem very immersive and effectively render the mechanics of it all invisible, at least for some people. Furthermore, one has the chance to spend much more time as an avatar in SL than the mere 20 minutes people spent as avatars in Yee’s study. And, for all people, unlike in Yee’s study the individual can edit their avatar’s appearance until it is most visually appealing to his or herself. One suspects that spending lots of time as one’s idealized visual self boosts self- confidence.

What about the other aspect of visual appearance, the way others act toward it? I have sometimes wondered if stereotypical human beauty might be less attractive inworld than more abstract representations. Let me be clear that I am not talking about ugly avatars which are easy to do (since one can quickly and easily adjust one’s avatar so that it looks deformed) and is associated by many (rightly or wrongly) as the visual appearance of choice for griefers. I mean an avatar that is not human at all, but totally abstract. It could be argued that such an avatar would signal several attractive qualities. It would signal creative thinking, the ability to be inspired. If there was something humorous about the creation it would signal a sense of humour. If the avatar looked like the result of a great deal of work, that would signal commitment to Second Life (remember, that a key aspect of falling in love is feeling secure in the knowledge your partner will not disappear). Wouldn’t an avatar that is beautiful, but not stereotypically so, be more attractive than all those Barbies and Action Men out there?


A study by Kristine Nowak and Christine Rauch of the University of Conneticut suggests otherwise. They wanted to know whether or not an avatar’s appearance affect how others perceive you. Participants typed messages to one another, and were assigned a variety of avatars ranging from those with a clearly defined gender to ones that were completely androgynous. When asked to rate the other participants, the volunteers tended to consider those with androgynous avatars to be less trustworthy. Nowak and Rauch attributed this breakdown in trust to the non-human appearance of the avatar, a conclusion that was supported by MIT Media Lab’s Judith Donna: “If someone says ‘that’s so sweet’, was it sisterly or patronising?”, she said, arguing that avatars of no clear gender come across as being more difficult to ‘read’.

But, whichever avatar is more likely to be seen as attractive, the fact that everyone does have an avatar in SL provides one of the key influences in promoting attraction: Mystery. As David Levy explained in his book, ‘Love and Sex With Robots’, “a person who carries an air of mystery will often be found to be romantically appealing”. And Sherry Turkle said that, “often the appeal is that we don’t know who they ‘really’ are. So they might be perfect”.


So, yes it is true that SL is missing some of the elements of RL courtship, such as physical touch. But it also amplifies others. In 1996, Joe Walther of Cornell University coined the phrase ‘hyper personal effect’, to denote the tendency of people online to be more honest and intimate with others. Walther attributed this tendency to the fact that communication typically occurred via text. One has the time to construct a response, and one is freed from worrying about how one looks and sounds. This means people can focus exclusively on what they are saying. In 2002, Walther conducted a study that showed people communicating online are more likely to disclose personal details about themselves, behaviour he attributed to the fact that online anonymity can act as a shield from disapproving facial expressions and awkward consequences.

Of course, one does have a visual appearance in SL. But one is nevertheless largely freed from having to worry about visual appearance, because avatars just don’t have a bad hair day (well, not after you adjust the hair so it correctly fits your avatar). Inappropriate body language of a kind can exist (see ‘The Poseball, the Animation and the Intentional Stance’ by Koshian Fisher), but I suspect most people focus their attention on text chat, IM or voice. This was supported by Wagner James Au who wrote in ‘The Making of Second Life’, “the real drama is in the space where seduction takes place [and] relationships (real or virtual) are formed…the private middle space of IMs”.

So, I think it is likely that a hyper personal effect can arise out of the mask of anonymity offered by an avatar, and the freedom from having to worry about visual appearance (once you have crafted it into your idealized avatar).  Appearing as one’s idealized self probably boosts one’s self confidence, and the air of mystery that surrounds an avatar aids in one’s romantic appeal as well. In short, we look great, we think we are somewhat more shielded from disapproval than is the case in RL, and we flirt accordingly. In the first part of this series, I mentioned how many people cite a speedup in romance as being common in SL. I think the reasons I have given go some way to explaining why this acceleration factor exists. I asked participants at Thinkers why they thought it occurs. Responses included:

“SL implies roleplaying; roleplaying implies narrative, stories…stories are generally compressed in time”- Madeleine Fitzgerald.

“We can change our environment. We can live in a new house as often as we like, for example. After several changes like this, we perceive a large amount of time as having past”- Scarp Godenot.

“We suspend disbelief enough to trust others more quickly”- Scarp Godenot.

“I have been here a year and I’m still not married”- Alexi Flux.

I would imagine that last statement was intended to show how not everyone engages in accelerated romances in SL. And indeed they do not. But it also seems to betray an expectation that this should happen. Imagine someone moving to Australia and saying ‘I have lived in Melbourne for a year and I’m still not married’. A mere 12 months hardly seems like a long time to wait before meeting someone you would consider marriage material. Or even just a proper boy or girlfriend as opposed to a casual date. But, in SL it seems, if you have gone 12 months since first entering the online world and you have still not found yourself in a romantic relationship you can imagine heading for marriage, you have been waiting a long time. If people generally expect romance to blossom earlier in SL, and generally act on this expectation, wouldn’t that explain the tendency in SL for romances to bloom more quickly?

In this essay we have encountered opinions and studies that view the masks we wear online in a positive light. But, often, people consider these masks to be untrustworthy. “The person you’re in love with is probably lying about themselves” is a fairly common opinion expressed in group discussions regarding online relationships. As we shall see in the next essay, the idea that your love is based on a lie is very likely to be true, because love makes liars of us, and poor at detecting the faults of that special someone.

Coming Soon: Lovegame: When A Man Loves A woman, She Can Do No wrong.

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