CORVALLIS, Ore. - The next time you're at a party with the love of your life, don't spend a lot of time trying to identify other couples in love - chances are, you aren't very good at it.
Golfers may be able to identify a sweet swing, and runners admire a lengthy stride in others, but a new study has found that when it comes to identifying couples in love, no one is worse than - well, couples in love.
"Love is truly blind," said Frank J. Bernieri, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Oregon State University and one of the authors of the study.
"People in the study who had the longest relationships, were immersed in reading romance novels and spent lots of time watching romantic movies just loved this research. They all were quite confident of their ability to identify others in love.
"And without exception," he added, "they were, by far, the least accurate in their assessment."
The study was just published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. Bernieri co-authored the paper with lead investigator Maya Aloni, who was an honors undergraduate at the University of Toledo when Bernieri was on the faculty there. She is now at State University of New York-Buffalo pursuing graduate studies.
A team of clinical psychologists at McGill University in Montreal filmed 25 couples for another study and used a battery of common assessment tools - including the Sternberg Love Scale, the Hatfield Passion Scale and other relationship measures - to determine the depth of couples' affection for one another. All of the couples had been together for at least three weeks; many for several months.
On film, the couples were seen interacting casually. Bernieri showed snippets of each couple to a series of volunteers and ask them to assess the depths of the filmed couples' feelings for each other.
"The range of accuracy was really extraordinary," Bernieri said. "Those who were best at it were about twice as good as those who did the worst. Imagine observing 10 couples and trying to identify the five who love each other the most, and the five who loved each other the least. If you were in love at the time of the study, you would only get three or four out of 10 couples - so you'd be wrong twice as much as you'd be right.
"But if you weren't in love, you'd get it right six or seven times out of 10," he added. "That, in my book, is a huge difference."
Bernieri said what likely happens is that couples in love tend to project some of their own theories and attitudes about love onto others. Or they may identify certain behaviors by other couples - snuggling, a hand on the knee, intense eye contact - and attribute them to true, long-lasting companionate love instead of, say, infatuation or lust.
Some of the filmed couples had been going out for a short period of time and had no intention of continuing the relationship longer than a few months. Yet self-proclaimed lovers viewing their clips were just as likely to insist that they were madly in love as long-term lovers who were on the film.
So, who did do well in the study?
"The question turned out to be, 'who did poorly?' Bernieri said. "Overall, we simply could not find any common attributes among those were who very good at this - other than the fact that they were not in love at the time of the study. The ironic part was discovering that people who were most in love were most confident in their ability.
"But as it turned out," Bernieri said, "they were so blind in their love they turned out to be wrong more often than right."