Love: Dr. Robert Sternberg on its three moving parts

 Is love a matter of emotion or reason? What is the nature of human intelligence? Dr. Robert Sternberg, one of our time's leading psychologists, shares his ideas. Photo: LOVE, Philadelphia sculpture

FLORIDA, October 18, 2012 — What is it that makes someone intelligent? Is personal success a matter of genetic or environmental factors?

Understanding love can be a most difficult ordeal. Is it a matter of reason or emotion? The fact that there are different kinds of love makes this question all the more perplexing.

In this second part of our discussion, Robert Sternberg, one of our era’s foremost psychologists, explains his views about these subjects. He also tells us about the triangular theory of love, which he devised, as well as  about his own life and career.   

Joseph F. Cotto: Some academics and scientists believe that intelligence is attributable to social factors, while others deem it hereditary. What do you think?

Dr. Robert Sternberg: Intelligence is largely a function of gene-environment interaction — how genes and environments work with or against each other. If you are born with the genes to be potentially brilliant but are brought up in a closet, those genes will not be able much to express themselves. If you are born with genes to be less potentially brilliant but are given stellar opportunities in your life, you may achieve at very high levels.

The main differences among people with regard to their life achievements, in practice, are more a function of their motivation, perseverance, sense of responsibility, resilience in the face of failure, curiosity, desire to succeed, emotional regulation – not in their intelligence.

Dr. Robert Sternberg

Cotto: Understanding love can be very difficult, needless to say. Some believe that it should be considered only in a rational manner, while others say that it is a matter of emotion. What is your view on this debate?

Dr. Sternberg: I have proposed in my “triangular” theory of love that love has three components:  intimacy, passion and commitment. Intimacy is our caring, concern, communication, closeness, and compassion with another person. Passion is our charged excitement about another person. Commitment is our sense that we are in the relationship for the long term, regardless of what happens.

Different combinations of these components yield different kinds of love: Intimacy alone yields liking; passion alone, infatuated love; commitment alone, empty love; intimacy plus passion, romantic love; intimacy plus commitment, companionate love; passion plus commitment, foolish love; and all three, complete love.

These components of love produce stories we tell ourselves about what love is, for example, that it is a fantasy story (about a prince and princess), or a business story (about two business partners), or a horror story (about an abuser who abuses a partner), or a travel story (about a couple traveling together through time), or a teacher-student story (about one teaching the other), etc. I don’t think love has a lot that’s rational in it.

Cotto: Which of the triangular theory of love’s three components would you say is most important?

Dr. Sternberg: Different components are important for different people. We have found that couples fare best when their levels of the three components roughly match. In other words, if one person wants intimacy and the other passion, the relationship may be in trouble. In general, though, I think it is hard to form and maintain a relationship without a high level of intimacy.

Cotto: In your opinion, which of the triangular theory’s forms of love is most common today?

Dr. Sternberg: For many people in successful relationships, over time, love becomes largely companionate (intimacy plus commitment). I am very fortunate to be in a relationship that, after some years, maintains its passion as well.

I consider myself lucky every day to have a relationship of complete love and to have lovely 20-month-old triplets to show for it (as well as a son and daughter from a previous relationship). Young people, however, often mistake infatuation for something more and make mistakes because they have. I’m not just blaming others: I’ve done it myself in the past, when I was younger!

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering how you came to be such a prominent academic. Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Dr. Sternberg: I was born in Newark, N.J. and then moved to Maplewood, N.J.. Neither parent finished high school, my father because of the depression, my mother because she immigrated and lost the opportunity. I became interested in intelligence because as a child I performed poorly on intelligence tests.

My teachers thought I was stupid, I thought I was stupid, I did stupid work, and everyone was happy. In fourth grade, at age 9-10, I had a teacher who thought more of me and as a result I started being a good instead of mediocre student. In seventh grade, at age 12-13, I got into trouble when, as part of a science project, I gave IQ tests to my classmates. I almost got kicked out of school, I think. That cemented my interest in intelligence. Much later, I became interested in love when I was in a troubled relationship.  

In general, I have always studied topics that gave me difficulties in my life — intelligence, creativity, wisdom, love, and so on.

I went to Yale for the BA, then to Stanford, and then back to Yale as a professor. After that, I went to Tufts as a dean and now am at Oklahoma State as a provost and senior vice president. But without doubt, my most important contribution is my set of five children, of whom I am very proud. In the end, our true immortality is not through our work but through the children we bring into the world, who themselves often will have children and so on down through the years.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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