What is love? Study finds small gestures warm one’s heart best

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Despite the pervasive notion that the feeling of love cannot be put into words, it would seem that Americans have to come to a general consensus on what it comprises, a new study finds.

Turns out it’s the small gestures between people that resonate the most — as opposed to explicit declarations — when it comes to a person feeling loved.

Researchers at Penn State surveyed 495 American adults on whether they thought any of 60 hypothetical scenarios accurately described an individual who felt loved by another, whether a pet or romantic partner.

Couple in love
What is love? A new study found that most Americans agree smaller, non-verbal gestures between people makes someone feel more loved than larger, explicit declarations.

Each of the 60 scenarios were intended to elicit a specific emotional response, with a mix of positive (“someone celebrates their accomplishments”), neutral (“the sun is shining”), and negative interactions (“someone wants to know where they are at all times”).

Cross-referencing their findings against a cultural consensus model — meant to account for the diversity of beliefs — the researchers found that there was much more agreement than dissent among the general population as it pertained to the concept of love.

“We found that behavioral actions — rather than purely verbal expressions — triggered more consensus as indicators of love. For example, more people agreed that a child snuggling with them was more loving than someone simply saying, ‘I love you,’” explains researcher Saeideh Heshmati in a university news release. “You might think they would score on the same level, but people were more in agreement about loving actions, where there’s more authenticity perhaps, instead of a person just saying something.”

Likewise, there was broad agreement among respondents on what wouldn’t be considered love.

“In American culture, it seems that controlling or possessive behaviors are the ones people do not feel loved by,” she says. “If someone wants to know where you are at all times, or acts controlling, those actions are not loving to us. This could be a cultural difference, though. There’s research showing that in more communal societies, these types of controlling behaviors may be seen as affection.”

Men, interestingly, seemed less aware of the accepted behaviors to express intimacy or affection, which Heshmati attributes to a different perspective on the phenomenon of love.

Conversely, individuals who reported being in a relationship, or possessing agreeable or neurotic personality traits, seemed to be more aware of popular opinion.

All in all, the researchers emphasize that many of the most effective gestures involve non-romantic, simple actions.

Still, before becoming a couple, each partner must be consider one another’s preferences.

“It may not be wise to go into a relationship assuming that both of you know the same things about feeling loved or that all of the same things will make you feel loved,” Heshmati concludes. “I think it’s important to communicate these things to each other, which can assist in being more in tune with each other and feeling loved in the relationship.”

The full study was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.