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Prototypes Of Love

People think in terms of concepts. For example, love, sex, and intimacy are concepts. But what is a concept and how is it defined? Recent theorizing in cognitive science treats a concept as either a best example, or as a best set of features. These best sets may be viewed as an abstract average of the characteristics that compose the concept. This abstract average is called a prototype.

In numerous studies, Fehr (1988; Fehr and Broughton 2001) has explored a prototype conception of love. For example, she (1988) had people list the features of love that they considered important. A list of sixty-eight features emerged, including both passionate and companionate features. The most frequent features that emerged were trust, caring, honesty, friendship, and respect (Fehr 1993).

So where was passion in this feature list? It was there, but low in importance. Other studies asked people to rate the importance of twenty different kinds of love.

Mother love, parental love, and friendship were the three most important types of love, and romantic love ranked fifth. However, passionate love and sexual love ranked low on the list.

The prototype approach indicates that people clearly distinguish between passionate and companionate love. Companionate love appears to be the foundational type of love. It is general in that it applies to many types of love relationships (e.g., parent, child, friend). Passionate love is more specialized, and its links to sexuality lead to societal restrictions on the people for whom this type of love is appropriate (e.g., lover, spouse).

Fehr's research was concerned with love in general. Another approach could focus only on romantic love and ask people to list its features. Pamela C. Regan, Elizabeth R. Kocan, and Teresa Whitlock (1998) did such a prototype analysis of romantic love. In this case, results showed that sexual attraction and passion were among the central features of romantic love. However, sexual attraction and passion ranked well below trust, honesty, and happiness in importance. When given a large list of features, people appear unwilling to rate passion and sexual feelings as important defining features of love—even when the focus is on passionate love!

What is going on in these studies? One answer was provided by Arthur Aron and Lori Westbay (1996) in a complex statistical reduction (factor analysis) of the sixty-eight features to the smallest possible number of independent factors. Three factors emerged that were identified as passion, intimacy, and commitment. Features on the intimacy factor were rated as more important to the meaning of love than the features of passion or commitment.

So love includes intimacy, commitment, and passion, but the greatest of these is intimacy—at least according to this theoretical tradition. These three prototypes of love form the basic concepts of another theory of love proposed by Robert Sternberg (1986).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaOther Marriage & Family TopicsLove - Passionate And Companionate Love, Prototypes Of Love, Triangular Theory Of Love, Attachment Theory And The Evolution Of Love - Conclusion