My love language? Empirical evidence

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In 1992, a US Baptist pastor called Gary Chapman published a self-help book asserting that there are five “love languages”: physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, and receiving gifts. Everyone has a primary language, he claimed, and couples are happier when they “speak” their partner’s language.

The book sold more than 20 million copies and spawned a whole new career for Chapman. His central concept made the jump to meme, becoming a sort of cultural shorthand, and is now being trotted out afresh on TikTok and self-help blogs.

There’s just one problem: according to three relationship scientists, citing dozens of studies published over the past two decades, Chapman’s claims are bogus. In a paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, the scientists systematically disprove nearly every claim made in the book.

No study has found that “shared” love languages increase or decrease satisfaction. The very concept of a “preferred” language was found to be unrealistic—all forms of affection were measured to be important. (The five original “languages” are arbitrary and limited, the authors say, excluding things like a person’s ability to mitigate conflict, or to fit in with their partner’s friends and family.)

Even if Chapman’s claims were true, the authors point out another problem: people are pretty bad at pinning down what “language” they’re speaking.

This was most clear in our tendency to misrepresent how much we really want our loved ones to buy us gifts: less than four per cent of people self-described “gifts” as their primary language, but when assessed by a multi-question quiz, more than half of the respondents ended up with “gifts” as their preference.

The authors conclude with an alternative suggestion: think of love not as a language to be spoken and learned, but rather as a diet, to be well rounded and nourishing. The real language that needs practice, they suggest, is science communication.

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