The REAL science behind your favorite Christmas rom-coms

tmas rom-coms have plots that are backed up by science

Love at first sight  It’s that most classic of romantic plot devices: eyes meet across the room and all of a sudden everyone is falling head over heels in love. This trope is at its absolute best in Serendipity as a young John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale meet and fall in love in one magical evening.  However, outside of the silver screen, Dr Yakir says the real picture isn’t quite as simple.  ‘We call everything love, but there are actually different stages to it,’ Dr Yakir said. ‘There is a stage of attraction and infatuation, the butterflies in the belly falling in love state, and there is the stage of attachment.’  In this first stage of falling in love, Dr Yakir explains that our brains are overwhelmed by a potent mix of organic drugs including oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. At this point, our hormones drive us to feel intense feelings of attraction for that person. It’s only later, once our brains have developed a tolerance to these chemicals, that we move towards the more stable attachment stage of love.  Dr Yakir says that love at first sight like in Serendipity is scientifically better understood as attraction at first sight as our brains flood with hormones that encourage attraction

While it can take years to reach the stage of attachment, this first stage can kick in anywhere between six hours and two years after meeting someone.  ‘When we get to know somebody there is a screening happening in the brain that is entirely unconscious,’ Dr Yakir explains. ‘That first impression we get from someone is based on evolution. If he is strong, tall or pretty are all signs of the sex hormones we look for even in a partner of the same sex.’ So, while some forms of love do take years to develop, love definitely does begin at first sight. The magic of the first kiss If rom-coms have taught us anything, it’s that the first kiss is a magical moment where the love affair is sealed and our starring couple live happily ever after.  Somewhat surprisingly, Dr Yakir says that science actually agrees with the movies. ‘For every mammal, when they meet the first they they do is sniff each other. Kissing is our sniffing,’ says Dr Yakir. ‘When we kiss we share a lot of information, emotional information, biological information, chemical information, and psychological information.’ Our unconscious screening processes kick in when we kiss as we instantaneously ‘screen’ partners for potential mates, Dr Yakir explained.  ‘There are a lot of chemicals in that are the product of our immune system and the activity of the germs that live in our bodies carried in our saliva,’ she added.  The first kiss is not only romantic as in Last Christmas, but it is also important moment for bonding as the love hormone oxytocin is transferred in our saliva

This chemical backwash tells us a lot about how physiologically fit someone may be as a potential partner and if they are genetically compatible.  ‘It’s not only the people that fall in love but their germs have to be compatible too,’ Dr Yakir joked.  She says that our bodies are so sensitive to this information that even the taste and smell of a person can make or break a relationship. Saliva contains oxytocin, the hormone responsible for creating feelings of attachment and social bonding. So kissing someone can add even more chemicals the the hormone soup which supercharges our feeling of attraction into full blown-love.  Sometimes the chemical information contained in a kiss tells us that we aren’t compatible, just like in the heart-wrenching final goodbye in Love Actually

The fake date   One bizarre plot point that comes up again and again in romantic comedies is the situation where two people must pretend to be a couple. Of course, as we might expect, the two inevitably end up falling madly in love.  This trope is on full display in the 2021 romantic comedy Love Hard, when two strangers fall in love after pretending to be a couple over Christmas. But, once again, Dr Yakir says this strange plot device does actually get a scientific seal of approval. Even though our brains subconsciously screen potential partners for fitness, Dr Yakir says that spending enough time with someone can, literally, change our minds.

One bizarre plot point that comes up again and again in romantic comedies is the situation where two people must pretend to be a couple. This trope is on full display in the 2021 romantic comedy Love Hard, when two strangers fall in love after pretending to be a couple over Christmas

Oxytocin: The ‘love’ hormone  Oxytocin, known as the ‘love hormone’, engenders trust and generosity. The chemical is released naturally from the brain into the blood of humans and other mammals during social and sexual behaviours. It is produced by women during labour to help them bond with their baby, and stimulates the production of breast milk. The chemical is also released during lovemaking, earning it the nickname ‘the cuddle hormone’. Other loving touches, from hugging a teddy bear to stroking your pet dog, also trigger the hormone’s release.

Dr Yakir said: ‘It’s all down to hormones.  ‘Oxytocin will be secreted when you look into each others’ eyes, when you sit together and when you  talk, especially when talking about emotions. ‘The thing with oxytocin is that when it’s secreted you start to see this person as more attractive.’ So even if you start out disliking someone, just like in so many films, acting out a relationship can trick our brains into falling in love.  That’s why there may be more than a little truth to some of the more outlandish rom-com plots.   Childhood best friends to lovers While rom-coms have been doing pretty well for scientific accuracy so far, there are some areas where they truly miss the mark. One such misstep is the classic ‘best-friends to lovers’ trope that is the core of Christmas rom-coms like Just Friends. In the movies, the star-crossed lovers grew up together and drifted apart, but ultimately end up realising they loved each other all along. Unfortunately for Hollywood, Dr Yakir says this trope actually goes against some of our most deeply ingrained genetic instincts. In her upcoming book, A Brief History of Love, Dr Yakir references a study of children who grew up together in Israel’s collectivist Kibbutzim.  While Ryan Reynolds might have found love with his childhood friend in Just Friends, Dr Yakir says this may have gone against our most basic instincts against incest

Dr Yakir says that in the Kibbutz, children raised together in close proximity began to experience the same kind of sexual revulsion found between siblings. ‘The brain wants to search for someone that is [genetically] close to us, but not too close,’ says Dr Yakir. ‘Our genes drive us to find a partner that’s good for reproduction, so we are driven to avoid incest because it’s not good for the gene pool.’ Since our brains put childhood friends into the category of close relations, our natural aversion to incest kicks in to squash any potential attraction.  So, contrary to what film might have taught us, when two people grow up together their attraction to each other is actually diminished.   The high-status man  From Let it Snow to Love Actually, rom-coms are abound with pairings between powerful men and less successful women. While this could be explained away as nothing more than male screenwriters living out their power fantasies, there may be a grain of truth to this trope. Dr Yakir says that humans have a ‘mammalian style’ of mate selection where females are attracted to the strongest, genetically fittest males.  ‘It comes down to the difference between oestrogen and testosterone and how they impact our behaviour,’ Dr Yakir explains.

‘Testosterone in the male brain evolutionarily prepares him for war. ‘Males in nature are busy in their struggles for power and their place in the social hierarchy because females like the alpha males.’ Dr Yakir explains that this makes it more likely for women to be attracted to men in positions of power or high social status and even explains the attraction to narcissistic men. It is worth noting that the concept of the ‘alpha male’ is widely contested. Frans de Waal, who first popularised the term in relation to primate,s now argues that the term has been misused to imply a dominant or bullying personality type. However, Dr Yakir maintains that our mammalian past still explains a lot about how we choose our partners today.  The ‘player’ settles down  This same logic of hormonal differences also undermines another classic rom-com trope: the ‘player’ settling down.  In the extremely festive Single All the Way, Peter is ultimately convinced to give up his single life and settle down for true love and monogamy.  Yet Dr Yakir says that this common plot simply doesn’t reflect biological necessity.

Unfortunately, Dr Yakir says that males are not biologically programmed for monogamy so the idea that the player will one day settle down isn’t backed up by science

‘Polygamy is the evolutionary stable system, not monogamy,’ Dr Yakir says. ‘In polygamy, males struggle for power and the winner takes all. Testosterone wires men’s brains for that.’ Testosterone, Dr Yakir points out, also counteracts the effects of oxytocin on the brain. This means that the ‘high-status’ man who has spent his life sleeping around may have a biological resistance to love at the chemical level. So, sorry to all the hopeful romantics out there, but this trope only comes true in the movies.

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