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The New Science of Love

What a charming idea it is to bring science to the study of matchmaking—if only the people Lori Gottlieb interviewed (“How Do I Love Thee?” March Atlantic) were doing it. It was disheartening to learn that Helen Fisher has uncritically adopted the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which, scientifically speaking, is no advance over the theory of the four humors. (Come to think of it, why not match choleric people with phlegmatic mates?) One study of the Myers-Briggs found that fewer than half of the respondents scored as the same type only a few weeks later, and there is little evidence to support the test’s key premise: that knowledge of a person’s type reliably predicts behavior on the job or in relationships.

Gottlieb was also caught by one of the oldest cons in the pop-personality biz: the supposed “personality profile.” She took the Duet test and was classified as “Risk Averse, High Energy, Cautious, and Seeks Variety.” (A good rule of thumb is to avoid any test that describes you in Capital Letters, let alone in self-contradictory terms.) “The site then interpreted the findings, which, to my surprise, rather accurately captured my personality,” says Ms. Gottlieb. Well, yes and no. When people believe that a description was written just for them—whether it’s the result of a personality assessment, horoscope, or handwriting analysis—they are always amazed: “It describes me!” So common is this phenomenon that teachers love to demonstrate it in large classrooms—you give your 300 students the identical “profile,” and they all think it was tailor-made for them. Psychologists call this the Barnum Effect, because P. T. Barnum knew you had to “have a little something for everybody.” The profiles are vague enough to apply to almost everybody, they are flattering, and they incorporate all possibilities.

The two factors that best predict successful matches are awfully low-tech: proximity and similarity. Computer matchers can help people with the latter, but please—can’t we just claim it’s a fun and interesting way for like-minded people to meet, and leave pseudoscientific theories of dopamine and Capital Letters out of it?

Carol Tavris
Social psychologist
Co-author of Psychology
Los Angeles, Calif.

While Lori Gottlieb’s article made for interesting reading, I was disappointed that she did not press Neil Clark Warren on his company’s policy of excluding gay and lesbian clients. Although the first Frequently Asked Question listed on the eHarmony Web site is “Why won’t you accept separated members?” nowhere is there an explanation of the assumption that men must only seek women and women must only seek men.

Matthew Peck
Chicago, Ill.

My ardor for The Atlantic has diminished considerably since reading Lori Gottlieb’s “How Do I Love Thee?” What was billed as “the new science of love” was in fact a rehashing of the worst sort of pop psychology. I’m sure that many of your readers with a scientific background were startled to discover that personality is completely determined by four or five neurotransmitters; that an anthropologist has determined which genes are responsible for calm, stability, popularity, and religiosity; and that seminal fluid can induce romantic love.

Trust is an essential part of any relationship. Any more articles like this and I’m afraid my long-lasting affair with The Atlantic will be over.

Joe Sirott
Seattle, Wash.

Reading Lori Gottlieb’s article, I wondered why, rather than just interviewing dating-service creators, she didn’t interview some of the people who actually used those dating services. Also, in fairness to the dating services, I wish Ms. Gottlieb had dated the three “matches” she got from eHarmony.com. I’d like to see if they, upon further examination, were better matches than she thought, or if her first impressions were accurate.

Jennifer Leaf
Fayetteville, N.C.

Defending Capitalism

Clive Crook’s defense of corporations and free-market capitalism in the United States (“Capitalism: The Movie,” March Atlantic) reminds me of Gandhi’s description of Christianity as a wonderful religion—if it could only be put into practice somewhere. Even a cursory glance at the corporations and industries in the United States demonstrates how great the distance is between Crook’s idealized picture of a consumer-dominated marketplace determining winners and losers and the truth of how our society functions. In most areas, the government has forced its way into the picture, distorting any free and open marketplace, usually to protect and subsidize the rich and powerful. In transportation, the railroads initially were given very profitable land, without cost, the airlines received exceptionally profitable air-mail contracts, and the trucking industry depends entirely on the expensive national highway system. In agriculture, there are subsidies on top of subsidies on top of tariffs, from sugar to farm parity payments for many commodities. In manufacturing, there are absurd governmental contracts (to Halliburton, Bechtel, etc.), whole industries (airframe manufacture, heavy machinery) that rely on government purchases, and ridiculous protective patents and copyrights. And, of course, the written organs of information (printing and publishing) have never paid their way in the postal marketplace, receiving extraordinary subsidies.

No, it won’t wash. The government is in there everywhere, adjusting, regulating, fixing, charging, sponsoring, subsidizing, etc.

Dr. A. N. Feldzamen
Ithaca, N.Y.

Why do defenders of capitalism always blithely gloss over the consequences of this system? Clive Crook states that capitalism “creates, or leaves unattended, a host of problems that decent societies must address by other means.” But then he fails to enumerate them, or to admit that, for the most part, even “decent” societies never address them adequately. This is mere lip service. Has anyone ever done a serious study on the economic impact of drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, crime, divorce, pollution, economic disparity, and psychological illness caused by a capitalist society in appraising its efficiency? And what about the less tangible effects of promoting a rampantly consumerist society, which becomes increasingly shrill, greedy, selfish, and superficial as it endlessly pursues free markets and economic growth? The negative impacts of a capitalist society on human development and well-being are incalculable. While communism surely failed, capitalism represents no triumph.

Martin Aronson
Oakland, Calif.

If American culture “radiates suspicion of free enterprise,” as Clive Crook contends, it is largely a result of the fact that Americans have chosen socialism as the organizing principle for educating our young. As Marshall McLuhan put it: “The school system … has no place for the rugged individual. It is, indeed, the homogenizing hopper into which we toss our integral tots for processing.”

Education is a protected monopoly of state and local governments. Instruction naturally favors collective—as opposed to free, individual—enterprise. If Americans fail to appreciate that, as Crook puts it, “what best serves a nation’s interest is competition—it’s why markets work, when they do,” we need look no further than the collectivizing project known as K–12 education. It has made us what we are and explains what we are not.

Tom Shuford
Lenoir, N.C.

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