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Dr. Sara Algoe is social psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she directs the Emotions and Social Interactions in Relationships Laboratory. She also founded and directs The Love Consortium, a community of scholars who collaborate to advance the field. Sara’s expertise spans emotions, relationships, and health psychology, and she has studied the dynamics of social interactions in friendships, romantic couples, and coworkers.
Abby: I want to start by taking it back to the very beginning. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Sara: You know, that is so interesting. I have no idea what I actually wanted to be when I grew up, but I, what I remember is that both of my parents were teachers, and my dad taught high school math, and my mom taught sixth graders, and, and I have come from a huge family of educators, like, you all my tons of aunts and uncles and cousins and people would regularly say, “Oh, do you want to be a teacher when you grow up?”
And I would say, No, of course not. Because you know, I didn’t want to, you know, follow in the footsteps. And it was only when I was like two years into graduate school head down in research and that was what I thought I was doing research, research, that I realized, “Oh. I’m on track to become a professor,” which is, you know, I’m just like, I got there through a different route, but I guess it’s always been in my, in my DNA or something.
Abby: That’s funny. And do you, do you remember a time, maybe a specific moment or a course you took in either high school or college when you first became interested in specifically studying human relationships, human dynamics?
Sara: Yeah. So, I confess that I have always been a people watcher. I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamics between people.
So, and what really stands out to me are, you know, moments in high school where we’d be hanging out with a bunch of friends and then one person would walk in the room. I have a vivid image actually. One person would walk in the room and has a conflict with somebody. And so the whole vibe changes and then the trajectory of that set of social interactions shifts from one type to another or I guess even more recently just being in a grocery store and watching someone ask the cashier how their day was and the cashier lights up, right? So those moments between people have always been really fascinating to me and so I always knew that I was interested in psychology.
I also love to read and the kinds of novels that I love to read always the things that I love about them are those like dynamics between people really. So, I was so lucky when I landed into a psychology course where the, the professor, uh, actually is funded by the Templeton Foundation, Dacher Keltner, um, so this is at, at UW Madison. And I got into his class at the last second, you know, it was a last minute add. And he happened to be studying at that time, he was studying dynamics of, you know, social dynamics in real time. And he was doing these amazingly innovative studies, like in hindsight, now, even now they, you know, you think about it, there just aren’t that many people who still do things like this.
Uh, he was having fraternity brothers tease one another on video and romantic partners do the same thing. And he was, at the time, I didn’t even know that that was a possibility, that you could just take the thing that that I loved and actually convert it to, you know, scientific evidence and, and really systematically examine how these moments between people actually shape different kinds of dynamics.
He let me into his lab. So I then the second, the next semester, I was able to do, I was able to do some of this behavioral coding and it just really, I just feel so lucky and grateful about the coincidence that I landed in his lab that year because the next year he went off to UC Berkeley. And so I had that beautiful example of ways of thinking about humans and also eliciting real social interactions, real behavior in live interactions, and that it’s a not easy thing to do, but perfectly, it’s a really reasonable way to study human behavior that goes well beyond asking people to respond to questionnaires.
At the time, those questionnaires were done by pen and paper. But now, obviously, we collect all kinds of data online. But so that, that was just a really wonderful coincidence that, yeah, really inspired me.
Abby: Very cool. Dacher was actually our first guest on the podcast. Yeah. It’s a fun full circle moment .
Sara: I love reconnecting with him and I’m always like, you inspired me, you know.
Abby: Oh, it’s so great to have those people. So you became interested in emotions and social interactions and relationships. What specifically drew you to the niche of the scientific study of love and what makes couples bond, stay together, form these meaningful relationships?
Sara: Yeah, well, again, I started in a very different place, which was more focused on trying to get people to get along better. I kind of thought that by studying emotional communication, You know, we could help people overcome, uh, miscommunication really, and, but then I started collecting all these data from people in these real relationships.
And at the time I was actually studying gratitude, I moved from gratitude to love. And we had all these video recordings. So I was able to watch these real interactions between people. And there’s two things I got really fascinated by. One of them is this behavior about responding well when somebody shares good news and so the, the sharing of good news is we’re capitalizing on this great thing that happened. There’s a lot of really cool work on that. But what’s more interesting is the way that people respond actually shapes our own perceptions of that wonderful experience. You got a promotion or, you know, for me, I got paper accepted or I got a podcast invitation, uh, you know, I share this news with somebody and um, the way they respond actually shapes my own experience of that, but also shapes my relationship with another person. So the, the way to respond based on research is actually, I’ll, I’ll back up. I think it’s easy to demonstrate that anybody can think of examples in their own life when they shared good news with someone and the other person said something like, “Oh, cool that that, you know, cool that you got that paper in. Did you hear about the paper I just got accepted at this cool journal?” Or “Oh, you got a new job, man, we’re never going to see you anymore.” That is actively destructive is the way that, um, Shelly Gable, uh, and her colleagues characterize that kind of response to sharing of good news. But there’s one way that they have characterized through video recorded data and self-report measures, experimental manipulations, and that is called active constructive responding.
And it’s when you are, what it sounds like, actively engaged and happy for the person. So it might be, “Oh my gosh, I know you’ve been working so hard for that. I’m so. so excited for you. This is just wonderful.” That’s it. Very simple. And so that was some data that we were looking at. We were doing some work there.
I got really intrigued thinking about who are those people who spontaneously do this? I bet many listeners can think about people in their own lives who just, I have an old friend that I can think of and she just does get happy for other people when you know, even if she doesn’t know them very well or whatever, she’s just vicariously experiences their joy and revels in it with them.
So like, who are those people? Then I was had all these video recordings of people who were expressing gratitude to someone that they loved as well. I have now thousands of videos of people expressing gratitude to their partner and again, watching these videos and you just see that even though they’re all expressing gratitude, some of them add this extra touch of like care and warmth toward this kind of, it’s not just, you know, they might say like, it’s not just, it’s not just this, it’s that you, you think about other people all the time and it’s one of the things that I love about you.
So I’m seeing these like video after video. And so I just started to get really fascinated by like, wait, we don’t actually know what is love. We don’t really know that much about it. Like, because I was looking at the literature and there was a really beautiful boom of work on love, especially in the 90s.
And then there hadn’t been more recent interest, you know, very much more recent interest in it. And I just thought there were a lot of new questions about it that we needed to be tackling. And the other part. I mean, there are a million reasons. It’s like, you know, poets think that love can move mountains, right? And we actually have no evidence. I need evidence! I need evidence! So, but there’s also, you know, just so much more. And we had better statistical methods, more advanced ways of looking at these. Some of the questions that I think are really open questions. And so that’s kind of how I stumbled into it.
Abby: That’s great. I want to pull out that thread a little bit where you were talking about your one friend who is kind of just naturally seems to be a loving person is drawn to empathize with people and share in their joy. I guess from a scientific perspective, what makes someone a loving person? What are its defining features?
Sara: That’s a great question. I’ll try to give you a satisfying answer. If you bear with me for one second, so I would say this is sounds circular, but loving people are people who enact love regularly, right? So then, of course, the question is what is enacted love, and we’re starting to get a sense in my lab of what makes people feel loved. How, what is the experience of feeling loved? So that’s a thing that I would be happy to talk more about. And then there’s just this range of behaviors that are out there in the literature, a couple that I just spoke about that are pretty highly correlated so far with actually making people experience those feelings in the world.
And so those. behaviors could be, it’s a wide range of things. So being supported during a challenging time, feeling understood by somebody else, when somebody else is excited for you, if you share good news with them, having another person show you how much they value you and appreciate you or tell you they’re grateful to you.
Also, receiving compassion from someone when you know you’re not bringing your best self forward, for example, those are the kinds of things that make people feel loved. And so this is some of the work actually that we’re trying to do in my lab right now. We’re trying to do two things. One is really get a strong working definition of a core construct of the momentary experience of love.
What is that like? We are starting to have some answers. And then on the flip side, how can we enhance more of those moments? And then there’s another, to get back to your original question, how would we ever get people to be more capable of being more dispositionally loving and enacting those behaviors more regularly?
So by the way, that is, I just described about 10 years of research or 15 years of research. So one of the things that I will share, we do have a sense of what people experience say that they’re experiencing when they’re experiencing love. And these are from data that we collected where people were recalling moments when they were spending time with a romantic partner.
We also have one study where we actually had partners talk about a wide range of things. They had seven different video recorded conversations in the lab. So they’re live moments where in one instance, they’re talking about how they first met. In another instance, they’re saying what they admire about the partner.
Another conversation is one partner is telling the other a goal that they have for the next six months. So, wide range of conversations. And after the people either recall or are in those situations, we had them fill out these questionnaires to tell us, you know, how they were feeling in the moment. And what we had done to for that questionnaire was we actually took the thoughts and the writings of scholars across a wide range of disciplines, theology, obviously, psychology, sociology, philosophy.
We took a lot of different disciplines and the things that people said constituted momentary experiences of love in those disciplines. And we basically gave those to our participants as in a huge list. And we started winnowing down which of those things actually is correlated with their spontaneous use of the word love to describe that interaction that they had just had with their partner.
So we had them fill out the questionnaire. We also, after that, we said, okay, is this an experience of love or is it caring or is it just having fun with the partner? Which of these things is it the most like when they said it was the most like love? We paid attention to those moments. Here’s what it is, I know you’re just waiting, moments of love, when people say that they’re experiencing moments of love, they typically mean that they’re feeling intense, caring affection and adoration for their partner, as well as a deep sense of commitment and loyalty.
And so I think that that definition or that set of, you know, feelings will really resonate with a lot of people, maybe about their romantic partners. But I also think it often describes the way that we feel even toward our friends. You think about a wonderful moment with a friend when you just have that feeling for, um, that you love them or a family member or a child.
And so that’s one of the areas that I’m really excited about heading and we’re working on that.
Abby: That’s great. I love, I love that definition.
Abby: After the break, Sarah discusses the impact of technology on the dating world, the relationship between gratitude and love, and how her research on relationships has impacted her own life. You’re listening to the Templeton Ideas Podcast from the John Templeton Foundation. If you’re enjoying this episode, check out templeton.org/news for more awe-inspiring perspectives from scholars, journalists, and colleagues. You can sign up there to get our newsletter in your inbox, or follow us wherever you are on social media. Now, let’s get back to our conversation.
Abby: So my next question, I have a feeling it might be something that. is on your mind given that you are teaching an undergraduate course right now. I’m very curious about the ways in which technology in a variety of forms, you know, dating apps, just the omnipresence of our devices in our hands, is impacting the landscape of love for this younger generation.
Sara: Yeah. So for me, the, the most important thing to just to think about is opportunities to meet people and apps provide really important opportunities to meet people, hands down. It’s really hard to meet people. And the biggest thing that apps can do is help increase your options, basically, so that you have a greater chance of meeting “the one” or whatever.
So that’s great. But. The downside is that actually having more potential alternatives makes us feel less committed to our partners. There is really great early, early evidence starting in the 80s about the role of thinking that we have a lot of alternatives out there that actually makes us a little bit less satisfied and less committed with our current situation.
Now, of course, if you’re the kind of person who goes on an app and you actually think there aren’t alternatives and you did find them, then great, then it’s, it’s a different story. But so that’s kind of one way of thinking about it. And there’s not enough work. There probably is more work out there that I’m not aware of, but that’s one area that I think is worth considering is like, how do you overcome that idea of like always thinking that there’s something better around the corner, right?
Sara: The other thing is obviously about kind of the momentary opportunities for connection with people. And so there’s a tension in my own life. I was, oh, let’s go back to my undergraduate class that I’m teaching right now. Just the other day, I told them I’m actually really terrible at responding to email. I so value people who are great at responding to email.
But my excuse that I tell them is that I get a lot of emails and when I’m in a meeting, I’m in a meeting. I’m not multitasking. I’m looking at the person. We’re having a rich conversation. And then, you know, so, but I have a lot of meetings in a day, right? And so then, and then when my day ends, I go home to my family and then I’m with them, you know?
And so, because I try in my personal life and my professional life to manage my face to face relationships and because I think that those are so valuable, then I have that trade off of I’m really terrible at responding to emails and so I try to, you know, figure that out. But anyway, so, so that’s one thing.
It’s like having the phone around all the time is, can be really distracting and, and make people feel unseen and unheard and undervalued. And so that has been something that I think is another thing that we can try to overcome a little bit.
Abby: Bringing kind of your, your research life and your professional life, studying love and relationships, kind of fusing it with your, your personal experiences. How, if at all, has your work in this realm impacted your own relationships?
Sara: Oh, gosh. Where do I begin? I just, I mean, so one, one thing, that’s just like, really, where do I begin?
One thing is that it has been, it’s such a privilege to have had the experience of watching hundreds and maybe thousands of videos of people interacting with someone that they love and seeing the wide variety of behavior and the wide variety of examples and so I actually have just this privilege of seeing a lot of that.
And seeing the variability and seeing what is not so great in people’s interactions and what is good, for example. And I do bring that into my personal life and I have my own little checklist of those moments to increase quality is what I try to incorporate into whether it’s work meetings or my interactions with my friends or with my romantic partner or with my family members.
I do kind of try to emphasize those data driven pieces, which is, I hope a lot of other scientists do is bring, bring the science into their own lives. So those, some of those things are not being afraid to share good news in a genuine way with, with other people and being excited, like not being shy about being excited for them, but also sharing laughter with them, not forgetting to express gratitude.
Shared laughter is a really nice one for, you can really apply it in any context. So with my work colleagues, we actually have a we have a regular faculty meeting once a week, but we play a game during the meeting, a card game during the meeting, while we’re also like, you know, talking about whatever other random thing is, is coming along. So there are ways that we, that I do try to sprinkle it in.
Abby: That’s great. So I want to pivot a little bit. We’ve touched on gratitude a bit here and there and I want to dive a little bit more deeply into gratitude as a feature of love and as something that maybe underlies a loving relationship. How is gratitude related to love?
Sara: Great question. They’re in the same family of emotions. I was trained as an emotion scholar, first and foremost, I was trained as an emotion scholar. So I’m thinking about my friend Belinda Campos, who is at the University of California, Irvine, and they have collected data on love and she and I have had lots of conversations about gratitude and love as you know, what are the differences between them as emotional states in that context.
So they’re related. And gratitude, I would say, helps to build a foundation for love. Because really all of our data suggests that moments of gratitude are, it’s just a moment when we, somebody else has done something kind for us that, that we think that they didn’t have to do for us, really, and that feels great.
And then when we express it, we can show that and then the person feels loved.
So that’s just like a foundation for love. So far, it seems like people can experience love in a lot of different contexts. So I think, actually Barbara Fredrickson, a friend and colleague and collaborator, she has called characterized love as the supreme emotion, kind of encompasses all of the po, all the positive emotions. So that kind of is the other way of saying that gratitude is related.
Abby: That’s great. That’s a great, uh, great new branding for love. Yeah. Supreme emotion.
Sara: Yes. A love supreme!
Abby: I’m curious if, and I would take either an anecdote that’s personal or something that you’ve seen in a study come across like a specific example of a powerful gratitude experience or a relationship changing gratitude experience.
Sara: Hmm. Well. For your listeners, I will say that one of the things that happens in our video recorded conversations between romantic couples is that these are people who love one another. Happy couples tend to come to our, our studies. It’s not like they have bad relationships. And we just say, you know, in this interaction, we’re going to have you think about something that your partner has done for you recently that you feel grateful for.
And they take a minute to write down the thing privately. They each pick something and they write it down and we say, you’re going to, you’re going to have a chance to thank your partner. And we say, you know, you can say whatever you want. You have up to five minutes. Your partner who’s listening to the expression of gratitude can respond however they want.
We regularly see tears from people. My favorite one is the, it’s because of the way he said it to her is when he, he, um, she was at a work event and she, there was food being served and, you know, those lemon bars. They’re like dessert, whatever. Yeah. I love that. Everyone’s grandma made. I know. Yeah. I love those things.
Right. Apparently it is. I don’t know because, because what he said was. You grabbed me an extra lemon bar and you brought it home, you know, from your work event. And he’s like, and you thought of me and he’s like, it was just so nice to know that you were thinking of me in the middle of the day. And it’s just one of those things that you do for, you know, whatever.
So they don’t even have to be big things. And this is the, this is the stuff of happy relationships. And this is the kind of thing that really helps to build relationships. So those are the things that I think about when I think about our data and gratitude.
Abby: I love those examples. I see why you get teary eyed. They’re all very, very sweet and definitely resonate. So I think I just have one more question that I want to wrap up with. And we like to ask this fairly often to the the folks we interview. In an alternate world, if you didn’t go into academic research, what would you be doing?
Sara: Well, the only thing I’ve ever half-heartedly considered but dismissed is event planning.
The reason I dismissed it is because I don’t. I wouldn’t want to have to deal with other people’s expectations too much, but what’s great is that I’ve actually been able to incorporate that into my life. So I love to throw an intellectual party. And so as the one of the things that I do is I direct the Love Consortium.
And I really, the point is to try to bring people together who should be talking to one another. Um, and so we have, we host a lot of conferences and meetings. And so through the service I’m trying to do for the field, it actually helps to scratch that other itch of, I love to bring people together and connect them and, and try to kind of engineer ways for them to connect with one another and actually use our data to.
Um, help them have a good time and, and really, in this case, advance the science of love.
Abby: I have, um, I have kind of a silly question and I can scrap it if you don’t want to answer it. But as someone who studies love and has dedicated a good part of your career to doing so, do you have a favorite love song, rom com, love movie, just these like pop culture things that, from your, from your expert opinion, really just resonate with you?
Sara: Well, I’m very willing to tell you that I was a child of… I guess the 80s and 90s or whatever. And uh, When Harry Met Sally is just like, it just, it’s like you’ve got the vignettes of the different, you know, and all of their interactions and all the little couples in between. It is just so fun for me from that perspective. I really love watching that movie.
Abby: Very cool. Well, thank you so much for all the time you’ve given me. This has been really, really fun.
Sara: Yeah, it’s really great to meet you. And thank you so much for having me on the podcast. I appreciate it. I really enjoy listening to it. So nice to appreciate being on this side. Thank you.
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