Friday Weird Science: The evolutionary psychology of the romance novel

Dec 21 2012 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

The handsome stranger clutched her shoulders, supporting her as she swooned. The suddenness and violence of the robbery and her rescue disoriented Beverlee, and for a few moments she did not know where she was. But as she began to be conscious of her surroundings, she was increasingly aware of the tall, firm man she leaned against, of his  big hands clasped around her shoulders, warm through the thin linen of her chemise.

She looked up hesitantly through her lashes, and into the dark, deep eyes of her rescuer. As their eyes met, a shock seemed to pass through them both. He leapt backward, and for an instant Beverlee felt the loss of his touch, the coldness where his hands had touched her.  But the moment passed, and gathering himself, her rescuer spoke.

"Christmas" he said, flatly. "Bride baby cowboy doctor secret lady." And each word sang deep in Beverlee's spirit, tapping something deep in her she hadn't known existed: the desire to find a long term mate that would provide food and shelter while she had loads of babies.

-from the romance novel I will someday write.

Ahh, romance novels. Can't live with 'em, don't want to live without 'em.The genre of romance, of bodice-bustin' babes and their brawny bonafide boytoys, has been around, well, for at least as long as the written word, and most likely long before that. Tristan and Isolde, Guinevere and Arthur/Lancelot (I hope there was middle ages slash-fic of that, btw), Scarlett and Rhett, and the many improbably named men (my personal favorite was "Devilyn") and women (I bet there really IS a "Beverlee" already) of 18th century style bodice rippers.

Romance novels are incredibly popular, despite their often hilarious covers (and heck, if you've got a Kindle, no one ever needs to know!).  If you go by the definition of a romance novel as "a romantic relationship is driving the story forward", then everything from 50 Shades of Grey to Twilight to Jane Austen counts.

And boy do we love them all. So much so that in 2007 we spent 1.3 BILLION US dollars on them (other genres didn't even crack a billion). Lots of people read them, estimates are that at least 1/3 of US women have read at least one (even if a good number of us, myself included, mostly do it to point and laugh). .

But why DO we like them so much? Why do people crave cheesy serial romance? Some have suggested that it's because the stories reflect our desire to nurture. Some have suggested it's an acceptance of patriarchal bondage.  Some have suggested outlets of female resentment. No one has yet suggested the appeal of cheesy stories combined with nice dresses and soft-core porn. The authors of this paper, however, think it's because these book "address evolved, sex-specific mating interests". In other words, it's evolution, baby.  Evolutionary Psychology.

Cox and Fisher. "THE TEXAS BILLIONAIRE’S PREGNANT BRIDE:  AN EVOLUTIONARY INTERPRETATION OF   ROMANCE FICTION TITLES" Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2009.

According to evolutionary psychology, men and women possess sex-specific needs.

That is, due to biological sex differences, women conceive children
whereas men do not. Across cultures, women tend to be the primary caregivers, although  men often provide paternal support (Bribiescas, 2006). Furthermore, women have notably  lower limits on the number of children that they can have, as compared to men. These  differences have led evolutionary psychologists to propose that women tend to seek commitment from their mates, and prefer mates who have a propensity to accrue resources (e.g., Buss, 1989) since they will need these resources while they tend to the
children. Therefore, we propose that a better interpretation  for the success of Harlequin romance novels is that the books are addressing women’s sex-specific, evolved, mating  interests. To test this hypothesis, we analyzed the titles of Harlequin romance novels.

So basically, women want stable baby-daddies, and therefore we should find this in the titles of the romance novels. After all, you have to assume that romance novel publishers do a ton of market research, they want to develop titles that will sell. And if women are indeed seeking male providers, the titles that sell will predict this. Since potential purchasers only look at the front of a romance novel for about 7 seconds before they decide whether or not to buy it, the authors figure it has to be the title they are basing their decision on (though the hilarity of the usually shirtless man and fainting, scantily-clad woman on the cover might also be additional factors).

But these authors think it's the titles, and that words in romance novel titles will reflect a desire for stability, babies, etc. So for example, women should feel more of a desire for reproduction, and words referencing pregnancy and babies should be frequent. Women should also be seeking out male providers who will support them, so there should be a lot of themes of wealth in the titles as well. Thirdly, according to evolutionary psychology, women should be seeking long-term relationships specifically, so there should also be references to things like marriage. Finally, women should prefer there should be a lot of references to male hotness.

The authors analyzed over 15 THOUSAND Harlequin romance titles, from 1949 to 2009.  From these, they got the top 20 words used in the romance novel titles:

They note that some of the words they anticipated ("husband", "child", "doctor", "bride", etc) did appear in the top 20, especially those relating to things like babies and husbands. But they did NOT see any references to wealth (unless, I guess, you count "octor"), or to physical attractiveness. And I don't think anyone has ANY idea why "Texas" and "nurse" are in there.

The authors try to relate some of the professions listed to things like resources (doctor for example), and others to physical hotness (um..."cowboy"). And if you look at the top 20 professions listed, there are also many relating to traditional female roles (nurse, midwife) and males bringing home to bacon (doctors, princes, knights, and...pirates. Pirates were definitely in there).

Finally, the authors analyzed the data from the titles to show two particular themes. The first was a theme of commitment, references to weddings, brides, husbands, fiancees, etc. The second theme was reproduction, with lots of reference to children, pregnancy, sons, daughters, etc. After that, themes got a little less relevant, with things like Texas (wtf is UP with Texas and romance novels? I guess Massachusetts is just too prosaic?), resources (references to money), medical, Christmas (?), royalty, and professionals (like CEOs. Because we ALL want to read "A CEO takes loins".

The authors conclude that romance novel titles indicate what women are after, and that they vote with their money to show what they want. And what they want is the long term security of a well-endowed (with MONEY, obviously) man to father their children. Doctors are big because they are secure and provide money. Cowboys are big because of their physical prowess.

So ladies, if you're reading romance novels, you are clearly doing it for the doctor, babies, princes, and cowboys. These words speak deeply to your very DNA and require you to pursue all that really matters in life: financial security and a good father to your children.

The big issue I have with...well with the very hypothesis this paper is based on, is this: WHY would people, who the authors acknowledge are already in stable relationships, be unconsciously seeking out, um, other stable relationships? After all, other studies have shown that women who read romance novels are actually MORE likely to be in a long-term romantic relationship than those who don't read them. They already have their stable (possibly providing), man. And according all the OTHER evolutionary psychology I've read, women seek out these nice stable providers, and then they seek racy boytoys on the side who will provide them with dominant high-impulsivity children. IF this is true (and that is a rather big "if", I would make it bigger but WordPress won't let me), then why would we be spending zillions on romance novels which focus entirely on...the stable things we probably already have?  Shouldn't we be focusing on love'em and leave'em?

The second issue relates to professions. If you break it down by profession...well of COURSE some of them will be lucrative, and of COURSE some of them will be traditional female roles. You will also notice that most of the professions referenced are either money-making, highly respectable, or, you know, cowboys. But not all money making professions are on there. Where is "financial analyst"? Where is "drug lord"? Additionally, they authors did not take into account whether the profession referenced in the title belonged to a male or a female (there are, after all, female doctors, CEOs, and consultants).

Third issue: the analysis of the data to reveal different themes, which the authors assume all reflect a woman's desire to find financial security and a long-term father to her children. While some of them may reveal that, the words they chose are not always indicative. For example, they talk about the word "son" as being reference to reproduction, but is that REALLY the case? Most romance novel titles with "'son" in them will not be things like "for the sake of my son". Rather they will be things like "the son of a cowboy", "The duke's wayward son", etc. References to "baby" are just as like to be "Be my baby" as they are to be "father my baby". Not exactly a reproductive message. And in their references to resources (things like wealth and heirs)...well romance novel titles are often things like "the wayward heiress", "the wealth of a duchess", etc. Sure, they refer to resources, but not in the sense of seeking them from a man.

Fourth, if women really are voting with their money for romance novel titles of specific types...why did this study analyze ALL the romance novels from the last 60 years?! Why not look at the top ten sellers from each year? Wouldn't that give a better perspective on how, exactly, women are voting with their money? Market research is all well and good, but if "The texas billionaire's pregnant bride" doesn't sell, then it doesn't mean much for evo psych. The theme of Christmas, for example, came out as extremely significant, because each year Harlequin releases a pile of Christmas novels.  Not because people BOUGHT them, but because they were produced. It says nothing about why, or even if, women are exceptionally attracted to Christmas.

Finally, there is  no escaping the fact that all of these romance novels are designed around very strict cultural lines. The women are always traditionally beautiful (or if not, there is always something that is mysteriously sexy about them). The men are always, ALWAYS handsome. Everyone is successful and everyone gets married. Are these things we seek because our evolutionary psychology tells us we need them? Or are they things we seek because society tells us that that is what is good, what is right, and what is required to make someone a good person? I think this study can't possibly separate that out. You can't pull romance novels out of their cultural context, which means you can't get down to the evo psych. You can only get down to what the culture we are in expects us to want: doctors, babies, and cowboys (not necessarily in that order).

So maybe it should go like this:

"Christmas" he said, flatly. "Bride baby cowboy doctor secret lady." And each word sang deep in Beverlee's spirit, tapping something deep in her she hadn't known existed: the cultural trappings of her entire life, telling her that we all need babies, all want a wedding, and all need a doctor to provide for us.  And, of course, that Christmas is irresistibly sexy. Beverlee smiled. She always had wanted a cowboy for Christmas.

-from the romance novel I will someday write.

23 responses so far

  • PB says:

    So I should focus on writing about Cowboy Doctors. I'm going to go way out on a limb here (because I am not a woman, have never read a "bodice ripper", am not an evolutionary psychologist) : I think women who are in stable relationships turn to these books because they present the best of both worlds where they can have the nice stable relationship with the racy toy boys.

    In a 100 years if there aren't anymore drug lords, then drug loads will have the appeal of pirates. I'm sure the pirates in these novels aren't modern day somali pirates, but romanticized pirates from a few hundred years ago.

    Finally your post reminds me of one I read about a book that analyzed all the reasons women have sex. The reviewer, a woman, seemed surprised that out of all the reasons listed, "because its fun" was left out.

  • Pascale says:

    I enjoy a good romance novel, especially those that come with an additional component of action/espionage or mystery (Tammi Hoag started out in the romance genre and crossed over to mystery). In my own case, I love reading about these women who generally fall for "the wrong guy" who turns out to be Mr. Perfect, along with all the sexual tension along the way.
    Why? I'm a married woman who is never planning to act this out again. Yes, I can have my own fantasies about such things, but sometimes its fun to have a good author spin the tale and go along for the ride, even if it is riding a cowboy.
    If we want to put some psych spin on this, I think men like porn and women like romance because the boys are hard-wired to seek out sex while we girls look for relationships. Sex and relationships can go together, but the primary driver for each gender may be different, at least when pursuing entertainment.
    And I'm still giggling about McMullet.

  • I've just heard from Harlequin Mills&Boon about a short 3-chapter submission I sent after entering their contest last year, in which they suggested some work required on it, and said they look forward to hearing from me again - not your usual rejection, very encouraging...

    Here's the thing though - not only is my regular genre satire, zombie parody and the subject of psychosis, I've never had a relationship to do any *cough* romantic research in. So a 'formula' as analysed above is the only way I'd succeed in writing something focused enough for one of their imprints.

    It is fairly clear that the 'romance' language and setting (as I described it on my blog as being like a Bridget Jones theme park) works - and succeeds - with NLP-type triggers that are also used in real life, by folks wanting short-cuts into a woman's, umm, heart? 🙂 But I don't know if I've got the heart to add to the delusions already out there. Maybe I'll stick with the psychosis and zombies...

    • John says:

      With your background in genre satire, zombie parody and psychosis, it seems to me you should write a romance novel parody. Harlequin might not like it, but I'm sure lots of other publishers will. Readers do love humor.

  • Andreas Johansson says:

    And I don't think anyone has ANY idea why "Texas" and "nurse" are in there.

    Becaus Texan men are, stereotypically, manly men and the sexiness of (female) nurses is something of a cultural idée fixe? Seems like considerably less than a stretch than a lot else in that study.

    • scicurious says:

      Oh yes, but when they tried to relate it to evo-psych...why Texas? Why not Montana? Are Montana men statistically less cowboyish than those of Texas?

      • John says:

        While both Montana and Texas have cowboys, Montana is mainly known for it's mountains and broad beautiful vistas, while Texas is known for its oil. Perhaps the wealth theme does play a role here. Or perhaps it's the rebellious, independent nature of the Texans, like pirates. The Texans set up their own country before becoming part of the U.S., only to secede a few years later during the Civil War. Their independence has been emphasized in Western novels and movies ever since. Although I suspect if you analyze the titles of Western novels, you'll find "Montana" more often than "Texas".

        But overall, my guess as to why Texas is in the top twenty is because of the success of the TV serial "Dallas". There were probably tons of "Dallas"-influenced romance novels in the '70s and '80s. Perhaps you were too young to remember, but it seemed to me like Texas was considered romance central for all the years that series was on.

        While I do believe that evolutionary psychology plays a role here, I think its effects are much more subtle. I agree with you that this was a very poorly designed study, but it is an interesting topic. Perhaps someone can come up with a better study.

  • IW says:

    My next novel is going to be titled "The Lady Love Bride's Secret Christmas Cowboy Marriage to the Husband of the Texas Doctor's Wife's Night Nurse where the Family Baby Child Wedding made a Woman's Heart Manly". I fully expect it to win a RITA.

  • Mona Karel says:

    Mocking Romance is pretty easy to do. People love to poke fun at this huge enterprise. Most all the Romance authors I know work hard to produce a readable story. And, sorry, ALL Romance books are NOT built around: "all of these romance novels are designed around very strict cultural lines. The women are always traditionally beautiful (or if not, there is always something that is mysteriously sexy about them). The men are always, ALWAYS handsome. Everyone is successful and everyone gets married. "
    Your research is behind the times.

    • Scicurious says:

      Actually, Mona, as I mentioned in the post, I LOVE me a good romance novel. Often I point and laugh, but I also really do enjoy them. I know the authors work very hard, because it is HARD to come up with a lot of original stories, especially because many are on horribly tight deadlines and have to produce a large volume of work. I by no means intend to mock the romance genre, what I am mocking is the idea that the titles have anything to do with evolutionary psychology. I think the vast majority of the tropes in romance novels are cultural in nature. That doesn't make them BAD. It's just saying they do exist.

  • hornblower says:

    You said you read them mostly to point & laugh which is mocking, isn't it?

    Frankly, what would interest me more is a study seeking to understand why mocking romance is the cultural norm. Why is reading about 2 (or 3 LOL - romance novels are much more interesting than you give them credit for) people falling in love something to be looked at with scorn?

    As far as this study is concerned, the big problem is the assumption that only women read them. I've seen studies from HQN that 1/5 readers were men and that was before the explosion of e-readers which, as you point out, lessen the exposure and possible stigma.

    And also, I agree with Mona - there's huge diversity in romance; and while Harlequin is a romance behemoth, it is by no means entirely representative of the breadth of this genre. Heroes and heroines can be very different from the stereotypes you listed & marriage is not the end of all romance books.

    • Scicurious says:

      Well, I do read them to laugh, but you'll note I still READ them. 🙂 And continue to read them, so I must still enjoy them. And I think there's nothing wrong with enjoying a good romance novel. I'm sorry to convey that I was mocking them. I WOULD actually like to write one someday.

      The authors cited 90% of romance novels being read by women, though you're right, that may have changed with e-readers, I know that there's also been an increase in sales from self-published romance since the advent of e-readers as well.

      As far as marriage not being the end of all romance books, I am justly rebuked. All the ones I've read have ended in marriage (I've read a good number of the Victorian-style ones, some medieval, one or two Roman, and a couple of modern ones), but I probably don't have a very good sample.

  • I see some of my fellow romance writers on here (hi Mona) taking what seems to be a frequent position (even on NPR) lately--defending the genre. I've been doing it too, and I know that for me, it's because I am asking myself about gender roles in love and sex, and why, even with so many brilliant authors turning the tropes on their head, those billionaire books sell like hotcakes, and why as a feminist, I still like to read them.

    Scicurious, I appreciate your article, and your solid critique of the study's flaws. I agree with you that much of this stuff is cultural even when we feel it as *biology,* but I am still intrigued by the idea that women might be wired for this particular kind of titillation. If our brains co-evolved with narrative (the way Brian Boyd suggests in On the Origin of Stories), then there may be something about the romance formula itself that engages us innately, body and mind, even if the titles don't offer evidence of that connection. Maybe we can figure out how to design that study!

    • Scicurious says:

      Hi Amber! Thanks! When I realized there were actual romance AUTHORS on here I kind of squeed. 🙂

      I think there might be ways to study this in terms of evo psych. I think you would have to do a survey of some kind, across many different cultures (to get in different types of reproductive and cultural systems). I would first want to see whether every culture HAS romance stories, and whether these stories all follow a similar formula. For example, there are Cinderella stories in many cultures, but is there one in every culture? What about hunter gatherer societies?

      And then I might also put different elements and combinations of elements into a questionnaire (something like "Which story would you most like to read", and give options of one containing reproductive elements, commitment elements, resource elements, or combinations of the above), and see what people end up picking. It would be important to do that one across culture, too. I definitely think it's possible to do (though much harder than just analyzing titles!), but even that might not really be able to get at the evo psych.

      • That sounds like a life's work--whoever did that survey would be the Joseph Campbell of romance. I'd be especially be very curious if some of the tropes like "enemy to lover" are universal across cultures. Wish I had time to write that dissertation 🙂

        Thanks again for this great post--I rarely get the chance to geek out about this stuff.

  • Texas Nurse says:

    "WHY would people, who the authors acknowledge are already in stable relationships, be unconsciously seeking out, um, other stable relationships?"


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  • ryandake says:

    sci! i sooooo want to read your romance novel! stop that silly science sh** and go write the book!

    but really... did you laugh yourself silly while you wrote this post? i laughed a lot reading it 🙂 thanks for adding happy to my day!

  • Wyomin Cowboy says:

    To put an end to this geography squabble, I'm headed out to Wyoming cause that's where the Grand Tetons are. Follow the Snake River.

  • [...] Click Here to Read:  Friday Weird Science: The evolutionary psychology of the romance novel by scicurious  on the Neurotic Physiology website on December 22, 2012. [...]

  • MJ in Milan says:

    Perhaps you should read a few romance novels and get rid of the stereotypes ("The women are always traditionally beautiful (or if not, there is always something that is mysteriously sexy about them). The men are always, ALWAYS handsome. Everyone is successful and everyone gets married.)" You could also check out the list of sub-genres on the Romance Writers of America site. Or just try a few books by Jennifer Crusie.

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