LOVEGAME PART 3.
In the previous instalment we began with a cliché from science fiction dramas. The most famous cliché of all may well be the one that comes at the end of most fairytales: ‘And they lived happily ever after’. Such an ending is based around the concept of the ‘one true love’ and this is clearly not something we consider just the stuff of fairytales. After all, when two people swap wedding vows declaring they will ‘forsake all others so long as you both shall live’, that is a clear expression of a belief that this person is ‘the one’.
YOU’RE THE ONE THAT I WANT
Now, marriages can last a lifetime so such sentiments are not necessarily unfounded, but neither are they entirely rational. Simple statistics make it unlikely that your sweetheart really is the best of all possible mates, because there are billions of potential partners and out of that multitude an individual meets only a few hundred or thousand. According to Steven Pinker, social scientists theorise that love is irrational because being rational about one’s mate choice would mean never settling down to a stable relationship. Why not? Well, the rational thing to do would be to settle only for the absolute best person who will accept you as a partner. Unfortunately, given the vast numbers of potential partners you will probably die single while waiting for this person to show up. The next best thing is to settle for the best mate you have found so far. But such a relationship is vulnerable if you both do the rational thing of pursuing the best you can get. One day, one of you might meet someone with more objective mate-value than your partner, in which case the rational thing to do would be to end your current relationship in favour of starting a new one with this superior mate. But, if this really is your attitude and assuming your partner is not the most desirable person in the world (in which case there is no chance of you encountering anyone better) it would be foolish to enter into a relationship with you.
What is the answer to this dilemma? According to Steven Pinker, “one answer is, don’t accept a partner who wanted you for rational reasons to begin with. Look for a partner who is committed to you by… an emotion that this person did not decide to have and so cannot decide not to have. An emotion that was not triggered by your objective mate-value and so will not be alienated by someone with greater mate-value”. This emotion is, of course, romantic love.
Now, romantic love is not triggered by just anyone. Anthropologist Helen Fisher believes each person’s life experiences builds up what she calls a ‘love map’, or a template of the sort of person we think might suit us. Such people tend to be those with similar ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, education, intelligence and attractiveness to oneself. “When you’re looking around and find someone who fits within your love map”, says Fisher, “you’re primed to fall in love”. We don’t set absolute standards of perfection, but we do set minimal standards for candidates on the dating market place. Nevertheless, there is some truth to Douglas Gates’ observation ‘people who are sensible about love are incapable of it’. This was demonstrated in a study conducted by the social psychologist Glenn Geher. When asked to fill in a questionnaire about current and previous partners, a vast majority (95%) believe their current partner to be above average. Says Geher, “people tend to paint their current partner as a ‘winner’- open-minded, outgoing, confident”. As for previous partners, they tended to be portrayed in a less flattering way. Former partners were rated as being “losers- closed-minded, emotionally unstable, disagreeable”. Objectively-speaking, it can hardly be the case that former partners are as bad as all that, or they would have not had much chance of getting a date to begin with. Neither are current partners necessarily as good as all that. When we are in love, something seems to affect our ability to make rational judgements about people’s qualities and drawbacks.
IF SHE IS BAD, HE CAN’T SEE IT
When you are in love, the brain’s neural reward system overwhelms the cortex with dopamine, and this creates powerful links between pleasure and one’s love interest. The dopamine high is rivalled only by addictive drugs. Brain scans of newly-in-loves reveal activity switches off in brain areas controlling social judgements. “As a result, says Helen Fisher, “although we can list what we don’t like about our sweetheart, we sweep those facts aside and focus on what we adore”. Love, it seems, really is blind. ‘My perfect partner’ is not an entirely rational appraisal, but an idealised persona from some drug-induced fantasy of the mind.
It is not just when we are in romantic relationships that our minds tend toward the irrational. There are unconscious biases affecting us while we are single. Men and women differ in their biases, and evolutionary psychologist Martie Heselton explained that these differences can be attributed to evolved error-management strategies. Men have a tendency to overestimate the sexual interest conveyed by a woman. Such a bias can be attributed to evolution working to reduce the worst kind of judgement error. Broadly speaking, such errors come in two types. There are false positives, when we think something is there when, in fact, it is not. And there are false negatives, when something is there but we fail to see it. Consider the consequences of these errors of judgement. A false positive (believing the female is interested when she really is not) could result in some embarrassment. But, from an evolutionary perspective a false negative (failing to notice a female’s interest) is much worse because that results in lost reproductive opportunities. Heselton explained, “you cannot simultaneously minimize the risk of both these errors, so it makes sense for systems to be biased towards the less costly error”.
As for women, they tend to see men as manipulative, and are more sceptical than men with regards to the meaning of gift-giving. For women, evolutionary pressure worked to reduce the chances of ending up pregnant by a man who is not truly committed to the relationship. Women make a greater investment in reproduction. They are, after all, the ones who get pregnant, give birth and, in many cases, make the greatest investment in parenting. Women’s biases reflect these facts.
While Heselton’s work showed the sexes differ in their biases, psychologist Maureen O’ Sullivan’s studies show how men and women tell different sorts of lies to potential romantic partners. Men are more likely to lie about how committed to the relationship they are, whether they are really in love, and how wealthy they are. Women are more likely to lie about their partners sexual prowess. This is not particularly surprising, given that everybody knows people lie to one another in order to increase their chances in the dating marketplace. However, O’ Sullivan’s study also revealed how we are prone to a flattering self-delusion. It seems that, while everyone readily admits people lie to potential partners, when asked about how much they themselves lie, individuals tend to rate their own honesty as being greater than that of other members of their own sex. Women are particularly prone to such delusional thinking.
LYING? OR IMAGE PROJECTION?
As any augmentationist will tell you, human beings don’t separate from themselves when socialising online. That being the case, we should expect to find rhetorical spin, misleading half-truths and barefaced lies in online dating and online romances. In ’Alone Together’, Sherry Turkle wrote, “a college senior warned me not to be fooled by anyone who tells you that his Facebook page is ’the real me’”. The reason why not is because of the common theme underlying the seemingly different platforms of online games, online worlds and online social networks. What is common to all of these is that they ask participants to project an identity. And, as Turkle said, “whenever there is time to write, edit and delete, there is room for performance”. Online, we have more scope to control what aspects of ourselves become public knowledge. We choose what facts we will reveal about ourselves, which images we permit others to see. In some cases, people don’t just abridge and edit personal information, but also deliberately alter it, often to cast themselves in a more flattering light. The same college senior who warned Turkle not to believe anyone on Facebook is ’really me’ pointed out that the background in some girls’ portraits are distorted in just the way you would expect if photo manipulation had been carried out in order to make someone seem slimmer than he or she really is. And, lest we forget that men are also prone to flattering self-delusions, a study conducted by Jeffrey Hancock (which involved examining people’s profiles on a popular dating site and comparing self-descriptions to the actual person) revealed how men tend to make out they are taller than they really are. Other studies have shown how a man who is 5 feet 6 inches tall needs an additional $15,000 income to be as desirable as a man who is approximately 6 foot and makes $62,000 per year. Both cases (men portraying themselves as ideally tall and women wanting to seem ideally slim) are all to do with maximizing one’s chances in the dating marketplace.
It is accepted that people lie about themselves, but what kind of lies are acceptable? To what extent should a person be allowed to re-invent oneself online? Rhiannon Dragoone made an interesting comment at a Thinkers discussion: “There is roleplaying, image projection, being other than your first-life self, and then there are lies”. The implication is that we should draw a line separating lies from projecting an identity that differs from one’s own. But, as is the case with any abstract boundary, different attitudes and beliefs lead to disagreements over where the lines should be drawn. This much is obvious from the conflicting beliefs put forward by people at Thinkers. On the subject of fidelity, for example, Scarp Godenot said, “I would consider a romantic relationship in SL to be cheating on my RL partner”. On the other hand, Rhiannon Dragoone pointed out that “there are people who have relationships here, even though they are married in first life. It’s like they are single in SL and married in first life. Don’t see a problem with it, nor do their partners”. Clearly, trouble lies in store for any relationship in which a couple fundamentally disagree on whether or not online affairs count as being unfaithful. One such case made it into news headlines back in 2008. David Pollard had met Amy Taylor via their avatars in Second Life and they subsequently got married in real life. David never committed adultery in real life, but engaged in sexual relationships in SL. To him, this was not cheating because cybersex was merely a fantasy and it involved his avatar, not himself. Amy, though, considered this an act of betrayal serious enough to end the marriage.
One wonders if this couple ever sat down and talked their different attitudes. It’s obvious that no one drawing of the boundaries can accommodate all beliefs. People embarking on online romances have to negotiate the terms and conditions of their own relationships, or decide whether it is better to compromise on one’s own convictions or walk away. One way to distinguish a lie from roleplaying may be ’any act that is contrary to agreed boundaries’. For instance, one couple in SL made a rule that extramarital affairs were permissible so long as it was done using an alt. Some might wonder what difference this makes. It’s like saying ’phone sex with somebody else is fine, but only if you use a different cellular phone”. But, whatever, it was their rule and it worked for them. Had one of them broken this rule, I would consider that lying to their partner.
Talking to other residents about the subject of what is, and what is not, permissible in roleplay, one attitude that seems to come up a lot is the belief that the harder it is to identify a projection as being ’other than oneself’, the more problematic it is. Scarp Godenot commented, “ I suspect playing an opposite sex seems more deviant because others know for sure that you are not [a furry] whereas they don’t know about an opposite sex”. Several others agreed with the sentiment that gender swapping is particularly deviant (but others disagreed, saying ’it is not deviant, an avatar is only an avatar’). By the same token, posting somebody else’s RL photograph in your profile is more deviant than posting an avatar’s portrait. While both are, strictly speaking, not representative of the actual person, a prospective partner can see this is the case with an avatar, but one might not realise the photograph of a real-life person is not a true representation of someone’s actual appearance.
Another belief that gets expressed quite a lot is the idea that if you intend to take an online relationship into the real world, then you need to conform your avatar to your RL identity. When, Lem Skall asked, “what does it matter what the RL person is like, even whether it’s a man or a woman?” Ivy Sunkiller replied, “it obviously does matter if you want to transfer the relationship to real life. Otherwise, personally, I don’t care”.
I wonder, though, if it really is true that anybody ‘really doesn’t care’ what the RL person is like? It is certainly the case that some people have quite fulfilling relationships within SL and other online spaces, knowing full-well their feelings are being projected onto what is essentially a fantasy figure. But I suspect that even the most ardent immersionist counts on the person behind the avatar being, in some sense, just like the persona they project. I suspect we all like to believe that there are some aspects to a person which simply cannot be faked and it is these qualities that we form loving relationships around.
I want to get around to that via a rather roundabout route that begins with an observation of the dissolving of another boundary that has long served to separate the real from the virtual. Up until quite recently, if one wanted to enter virtual spaces, one had to sit in front of a computer screen. As Sherry Turkle said, “the passage through the looking glass was deliberate and bounded by the time you could spend in front of a computer”. Nowadays we have much more access to portable devices like smart phones. Although we still look at a screen when using such devices, the very act of always having them on our person and being able to get online anytime, anyplace makes the boundary between offline and online much more fluid. Turkle called this “the mashup of what you have on and offline. We have moved from multitasking to multilifing”.
To illustrate ‘multilifing’ Turkle referenced ‘Pete’ (not his real name) who was in a disappointing marriage. Pete’s avatar, Rollo, is partnered to an avatar called Jade. “Pete has never met the woman behind the avatar Jade and does not wish to. Pete says ‘SL gives me a better relationship than I have in real life. This is where I feel most myself. Jade accepts who I am. My relationship with Jade makes it possible for me to stay in my marriage with my family’”. ‘Multilifing’ enters the picture when Turkle observes Pete spending time with his son while simultaneously accessing his iPhone to be with Jade. “Something is familiar: a man finding a relationship outside his marriage gives him something he wants. But something is unfamiliar: the simultaneity of lives…Pete says his online marriage is an essential part of his ‘life mix’’.
This case raises many questions. How can it be that an affair conducted exclusively online makes for a better relationship than a marriage in physical space? One explanation might be the observation made by sex therapist Kim Myung Gun: “People have been saying for a long time that men have lost their desire for real women. Rather than have sex with a woman who doesn’t fulfil their expectations, they would rather play with something that corresponds to their fantasy, even if she’s not real”. Gun was commenting about a brothel that rented out sex dolls rather than online worlds like Second Life, but the idea of preferring something that corresponds to a fantasy might still apply. An online identity is constructed by choosing which private details to reveal (and, in some cases, which details to invent). The very act of editing leaves out details and perhaps this encourages the mind to fill in the gaps. Current technology also places limits on how fully a human life can be portrayed through an avatar. Again, perhaps this is encourages active imaginations to fill in missing details. The temptation might be to project what one wants. As Sherry Turkle said, “at the screen, you have a chance to write yourself into the person you want to be and to imagine others as you want them to be”.
Something else that Pete said demands examination. ‘This (SL) is where I feel most myself. Jade accepts who I am’. Pete has never met- nor wants to meet- the person behind the Jade avatar. And whoever she is, her mental image of Pete is ‘Rollo’, his avatar which looks nothing like him. Given all that, how can Jade be the one who gets closest to the real Pete?
This brings us back to the point I raised earlier, about wanting to believe there are some things that cannot be faked. Should we believe such a thing, given that there are roleplayers in SL? In a study of the kinds of roleplay that go on in SL, Sounya Jain noted that relatively few residents (32%) wanted to reproduce their physical appearance through their avatars. The study also found that the more an avatar’s physical appearance differed (in an idealized way) from one’s actual appearance, the more attached to that avatar the user becomes. When it came to personality, though, the study found the opposite applies. On average, it is residents with the smallest psychological difference between RL and SL identities that are most satisfied and most attached to their avatars. Jain wrote, “we saw that users tend to see their avatar as having an idealized version of their own personality”. This corresponds with Turkle’s point about online identities being oneself written into the person you want to be. But Jain’s study also determined that there is a correspondence between personality difference and time spent in SL. The more time a person spends inworld, the less their online/offline personalities diverge. In the conclusion to the study, Sounya Jain commented, “overall, our data suggests that avatars might be a better vehicle to explore new forms of physical embodiment rather than exploring facets of one’s personality”.
At a Thinkers meeting, Halo Evermore commented, “the chances of the two meeting and being compatible in RL are very slim”. It is certainly true to say that close relationships have formed inworld between people who probably would not have exchanged a second glance had they first encountered one another in real life. It is also true to say that some relationships that moved offline have not survived the realization that the fantasy and reality do not match up. But, if it is true that personality differences get smaller the more time one spends inworld, maybe that means a longterm inworld relationship actually has a fairly decent chance of succeeding in real life?
“I’m there at Heathrow”, recalled one person whose SL relationship made such a transition. “When I saw her come out I knew immediately it was her. I felt like she had been on a business trip but that we had been together our whole life”.
Coming up in the next installment: ‘Romancing The Machine’.