Cyber Crush: The Allure of Online Attraction

April 27, 2008 at 3:34 pm (Communication, Friendship, Life, Love, Relationships, Second Life) (, , )

Awhile back I invited guests to submit relevant topics to post on my blog. My great friend Joey Svenska finally took me up on the offer. This is his original post, in its entirety.
~Cindy Kesey

I think it is human nature for people to want to connect with others. We want to be liked and accepted, and either consciously or otherwise, we tend to seek out and bond with others whom we perceive to be similar to ourselves. I also think the majority of people who purposely put themselves into social situations–even virtual ones like Second Life (SL)–are generally receptive to interacting with others; otherwise, they’d have their noses in a book or their eyes glued to the television set instead of venturing out.

But as human beings we are, at our most base level, merely animals, and some of the most primitive of human instincts are those that involve the desire to seek out a potential mate. Thus it’s no surprise that with the right combination of physical attraction, charm, and witty exchanges, the desire to socialize and the innate primal impulse to find a partner can coalesce into a classic recipe for “hooking up,”especially when all of these elements are combined within a virtual framework designed for interaction. Add a couple of glasses of wine to that and it’s very easy to see how so many people in SL find themselves deeply infatuated with someone else online–whether they intended to or not.

As many of we SL veterans can attest, meeting and connecting with a new person in-world can be rather exciting, especially if we find our counterpart to be charming and visually-appealing. And of course, as we all have seen, in SL virtually everyone is drop-dead gorgeous. But why is it that the initial spark we often feel when meeting someone new is so short-lived? And why do we, time and time again, find ourselves craving the intense energy and strong emotional feelings that we get from new encounters?

I think some of the answers may come from an area of psychology known as cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are learned behaviors that influence and sometimes foul up our ability to make rational decisions. One particular cognitive bias known as the “halo effect” was identified by psychologist Edward Thorndike and later expanded upon by Solomon Asch. They discovered that when an observer finds a particular aspect of a situation appealing they tend to assume that the other undiscovered traits of the situation are also positive, even in the absence of supporting evidence. As such, when one person finds another physically attractive or particularly intelligent, it’s quite common for the observer to generalize that the observed person’s other personality aspects are equally appealing.

We also tend to perceive brand new people in the best light because we are initially unaware of their faults and shortcomings. Over time, we slowly and inexorably discover that the new person is just another ordinary human being, fraught with their own merits and faults. But during those blissful initial stages, the new person is often regarded as if they truly do wear a halo.

The halo effect seems to explain, at least in part, how we become so myopically focused on the positive aspects of a partner whilst we are–at least temporarily–blind to their differences and faults. As time goes by and as we learn more about the new person’s proclivities and foibles, our overly optimistic initial perception of the new person tends to wane along with the law of diminishing returns.

So why are we so addicted to the bliss of initial encounters when we know based on our past experiences that the magic almost always fades away? It’s probably because our brain experiences an arousal response when we meet new potential mates. The stimulation provided by a flirtatious conversation with a sexy new person in a romantic setting is a likely trigger for the release of neurochemicals in our brains, giving us a temporary “high”– something that feels really good and makes us crave more.

But alas, as with all mind-altering substances, the partaker builds up a tolerance to the conditions that facilitate the “high,” and as the effects are successively shorter-lived they thus require more and more of the stimulus to get to that exalted happy place. Paradoxically, as we learn more about the new person, their halo starts to dim and we begin to lose, little by little, the charge of that initial excitement. At that point I think the focus of the relationship must necessarily change from one of simple attraction into one based on honest communication, mutual respect, and shared experiences in order for it to grow and thrive.

After some reflection on this, it has become rather apparent to me how easy it is for people to become so totally enthralled, and, yes, even addicted to establishing new relationships. I also see how some of us can suffer a bit from our nascent online infatuations and even become somewhat frustrated as we continue to crave the intense feelings associated with the ephemeral high of those sublime first encounters.

So the next time an initial physical attraction sparks up your primitive mating instinct and gives you those warm fuzzy feelings, be sure to enjoy that moment to its fullest. As it’s quite likely that future encounters with the new person may become successively less thrilling. However, if you go into the situation knowledgeable of the halo effect, and you put forth some time and effort to really get to know that person better and communicate openly and honestly about your feelings, you may find yourself with something that is far more rewarding than a simple cyber-infatuation: that of a true friendship and a lasting relationship.

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3 Comments

  1. Ero said,

    WARNING–MIXED SPORTS METAPHORS AHEAD

    Hey Joey! Great post, and I’ve been on the other side of more SL debates over this very issue than I care to remember. While I can appreciate the notion that it is the initial fire that burns too brightly to last, and that the warm glow of a mature, well-tended stove can both keep the house warm and feed the family, I am left unconvinced that this need be the case. As far as I can see, if you are after a marathon instead of a sprint, the best strategy is to know your own body and how it can be pushed to perform amazing tasks. I actually suspect we are on the same side of this topic–and you laid out a well written, evidenced, and compelling case. What I think is missing, however, is the wow of love’s round two, three and four. Sure, it is dangerous to try for a knock-out with every swing, but there are delicious occasions when that is exactly what needs to happen–and if you forget to punch hard, as hard as you did when that first bell rang, then you are destined to live in nostalgia, wait for the bell, and wonder who the next opponent might be.

    Give me one worthy opponent…one who can knock me on my butt, absorb my best punch, and take advantage of the break between rounds. Give me a dirty fighter, a rabbit puncher, a rope-a-doper, a dancer who can size me up and lay me out. I think infatuation ends when people get tired, not when lust becomes human. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun, but she knows how to floor me.

    Thanks for picking up the mantle,
    Ero

  2. Joey Svenska said,

    Wow Ero! Thanks for the insightful and metaphor-laden response. I sense that someone may have had some extra helpings of ESPN SportsCenter as of late!

    I tend to agree that we’re on the same side of this theory, and in particular I like your assertion that the infatuation ends when one of the players gets tired. I’d add bored to that characterization as well.

    To expand on that, I think it is helpful when the energy levels, playing style, and pace of the players are well-matched; otherwise, the game can become one-sided, and we all know how boring one-sided games can be.

    Altogether, it takes a purposeful effort to sustain a relationship beyond the initial attraction phases: an effort that requires both physical and creative energy as well as a commitment of time, attention, and affection by both parties.

    Thanks for bringing your A-game to the tourney, Ero!

  3. Benson Schmooz said,

    As usual Cin – spot on for me.

    What makes SL so interesting and special (and also dangerous) for me are the lasting relationships that I have made here.

    While it’s true that there seems to always be an initial halo effect, We (my friends and I) were either quick to connect …. or not at all. Once connected, my experiences is that we develop an enduring friendship that evolves with genuine interest and comfort.

    That’s not to say that the drop dead gorgeous AVI’s don’t turn my head, however… It’s the relationships that keeps me coming back (just like RL).

    Perhaps is the maturing process, as I learn about what makes me tick.

    B/G

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