9 great books on the science of love
The mathematical equation for “happily ever after” and other data-driven revelations
Scientists have been thinking about love. They've done chemistry and psychology and statistics on it. They've used algorithms and microscopes. They've masturbated in MRI machines. And they've got a lot to say.
For Valentine's day this year, we've drawn up a list of some of the best books in the science of love and sex. "Science" is not a singular voice. There are contributions from mathematicians, psychologists, and anthropologists (among others). Some authors are interested primarily in empirical puzzles. Some are interested in applying the science to help people enjoy better sex and romantic lives. But all of them share the conviction that clear analysis and lots of data are the best tools to learn about love.
Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking) by Christian Rudder
Your dating apps have been watching you. And they've learned a lot of things that might surprise you. For example: you'll do better at dating if some people think you're unattractive, and men are much more open-minded about women's appearance than the other way around.
Christian Rudder is a co-founder of the popular dating site OKCupid and leader of its analytics team. Dataclysm digs into data sets from other dating sites as well as giants like Facebook and Google and comes out with some sparkling insights. What makes this approach so interesting is that while survey research reveals how people describe themselves to researchers, our online behaviours reveal what we do when we (naively) think no one's looking.
Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethà
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethà think that the science of sex is dominated by a false "traditional narrative": Men desire sexual promiscuity. Women want security and resources to protect the children they're presumed to have. Monogamy is the uncomfortable compromise between these two reproductive strategies.
Sex at Dawn draws on findings in anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychology to argue that our natural state is closer to communal free-love than to monogamy.
The book is deeply controversial and its claims have been critiqued by scientists and non-scientists alike. That said, it's an eye-opening read for many and does a good job of showing that the monogamous reproductive pair-bond may not be as natural as many people think.
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
If you want to laugh out loud learning about sex science, read Bonk. Mary Roach is one of the most entertaining science writers in the business, and this follow-up to her hit Stiff is one of her best.
Many of the books on this list have a feeling of scientific detachment, presenting the data but never gossiping about individuals. Roach reads very differently. She delves into the careers and personalities of sex researchers as well as the results of their studies. The result is a book that will teach you about the findings of modern sex science, but also entertain you with a cast of lab-coated eccentrics, improbable experiments, and bizarre facts. You'll read about the best research on: whether dead men can achieve an erection; why Viagra doesn't work on women or pandas; and the long history of medical masturbation.
Emily Nagoski has made it her life's mission to teach women to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies.
"Come as You Are" is both the title of Nagoski's evidence-based sexual self-help guide, and its mission statement. Nagoski wants her readers to know that women's bodies and sexualities are hugely variable and nearly all of the variations should be called "normal." Therefore, they should worry less about trying to live up to whatever standards have found their way into their brains, and more about enjoying their unique sexuality.
How surprising you'll find the science depends on what you already believe. Some women may already suspect that "stress, mood, trust, and body image are not peripheral factors in a woman's sexual wellbeing; they are central to it." Nonetheless, Nagoski does a great job of providing scientific legitimacy for these claims.
Hannah Fry is clearly in love with math. "Mathematics is the language of nature," she writes, "It is the foundation stone upon which every major scientific and technological achievement of the modern era has been built. It is alive, and it is thriving." And this makes her the perfect person to write a book about the math of love.
Love may seem unique and unpredictable, but it follows patterns. And math is the study of patterns. If math can tell us something about the weather and the behaviour of stock markets, Fry reckons it can tell us something about love. Specifically, it can tell us: how many people to reject before settling down to max-out our chances of finding "the one" (chapter 7); how to maximize a night on the town (chapter 3); and how to live happily ever after (chapter 9). With clear and accessible writing and juicy subject matter, Fry makes math even sexier than usual.
The All or Nothing Marriage by Eli Finkel
Eli Finkel is a social psychology professor who's published over 150 scientific papers. His first book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage, argues that even though people hold marriage to higher expectations than ever, today's best marriages are better than at any time in history.
Finkel's grand thesis is that, since the 1960's, the emphasis of marriage has shifted from love and companionship to self-expression and personal growth. Before, people's main expectation of their spouses was that they would love and cherish them. Today, we look for partners in a voyage of self-realization and personal growth.
The book mixes scientific research with practical advice, including both overall strategies for achieving a "summit marriage" as well as "love hacks," which are low-effort tactics that can yield major results.
Anatomy of Love by Helen Fisher
Helen Fisher is a biological anthropologist, chief scientific advisor to Match.com, and the woman who explained what "stashing" is to us. Originally published in 1992, Anatomy of Love delved into our evolutionary history to show that humans are "built for love." In 2016, Fisher released this revised second edition, updated with reams of new research into brain science and online dating.
The result is a scientifically-informed but sensitive view of human love. Fisher explains how we fall in love and out of love; how we form attachments; and how different historical and economic conditions contribute to changing relationships. She follows our love lives from its origins in Africa 20 million years ago, through the monogamy-promoting development of agriculture; to today's world of online dating where she sees young people moving into a new world of "slow love."
The book is both an update of a classic and the result of a lifetime of research into the science of love.
Sex by Numbers: What statistics can tell us about Sexual Behaviour by David Spiegelhalter
Sir David Spiegelhalter, superstar statistician, brings snappy writing and statistical mastery to bear on the data gathered for the Natsal Survey 2010, the largest sexual behaviour survey since the Kinsey Report.
Sex by Numbers will teach you as much about statistics as it will about sex (which is a lot). He provides the numbers, but instead of sensationalizing them, he rates their reliability and is careful to explain the limitations of the studies upon which they're based. This both helps to debunk oft-repeated statistics ("men think about sex every seven seconds," for example) as well as to make his own conclusions more reliable.
For a taste of the insights and infographics available in Spiegelhalter's book, check out this summary at the Wellcome Collection.
Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
Attachment theory is a psychological theory originally developed to explain the distress experienced by infants separated from their parents. In Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller applied this theory to adult relationships, and popularized a new way of thinking about relationships.
According to Levine and Heller there are three main attachment styles: anxious (insecure and need a lot of assurance); avoidant (have trouble forming close attachments); and secure (can be attached while maintaining individuality). Attached explains the characteristics of these different types; which types match well and poorly with each other; and how to improve your relationships no matter what your and your partner's attachment style.
Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.