Psychology's Love-Hate Relationship with Love: Critiques and Affirmations

Psychologists’ modest contributions to our understanding of compassionate love may be attributed in substantial measure, I think, to psychologists’ ambivalence about love. We are drawn to love, but also tend to be deeply suspicious about love, concerned about its negative effects, and unclear about what method, if any, can be employed to understand it. And our customary methods, the language we employ, our sense of our history, and our aspirations all make it very difficult to talk about—and work through—our ambivalence.

In this paper, I want to analyze some of the reasons we psychologists have contributed as little as we have to an understanding of compassionate love, notwithstanding the scattered contributions summarized in Post, Johnson, McCullough, and Schloss’s (2003) recently released Research on Altruism and Love and the research recently funded by the Fetzer Institute and the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. Neither that compilation of research findings nor the new research will entirely eliminate the multiply determined critiques of love and the controversies over optimal methods to study it. Unless psychologists’ critiques of love are directly and effectively addressed, that emerging research is likely to be hotly contested by some psychologists, quietly snickered over by many others, and—worst of all—ignored by most.

We thus need to take seriously psychologists’ critiques of love, their “hate” of it, if you will. The critics make some valid points about love, I think. And so if we pay close attention to the hate of love, we can better understand love. Furthermore, some of their criticisms need to be challenged so emerging research can gain the hearing it deserves.

Permit me to situate myself: I’m a clinical psychologist by training, and I practiced for five years before becoming a full-time academic. I would now, however, characterize myself primarily as a theoretical psychologist, concerned about articulating and evaluating the assumptions underlying various psychological theories, findings, and practices. I am particularly interested in psychology’s ethical character, in the ways in which various psychological approaches draw upon, and are shaped by, various ethical assumptions.

I am also, by history and conviction, a Christian. And so love is central to my understanding of optimal human functioning. Love is not, however, central to the thinking of most psychologists. In writing my (1999) book, Ethics and Values in Psychotherapy, for instance, I found little evidence that love is central to the thinking of most therapists, although there are some notable exceptions and the concept implicitly informs much that psychotherapists do. The tension between my own ethical convictions and the ethical convictions generally present in psychology—even, or especially, in those psychologists who claim their views are based solely on science—has shaped who I am and is at the heart of the intellectual passions that motivate me as a scholar.

Let me now turn to the thorny issue of specifying just what compassionate love means. It is a little strange talking about the “psychology of compassionate love,” because a search for the phrase among the millions of references in PsycINFO, the major database in psychology produces precisely four results: Two are to Lynn Underwood’s (2002b) chapter in Post, Underwood, Schloss, and Hurlbut’s (2002a) Altruism and Altruistic Love, one is to a 1994 study of romantic love among Mexican university students, and the last is to a book on the psychotherapy of Jesus—in German, published in 1928.

Let me set out an approach to defining compassionate love that makes the challenges of developing the psychology of compassionate love clear, a definition that flushes the deep differences that exist among those trying to understand some dimension of compassionate love. Wyschogrod (2002) defines alterity-altruism as other-regarding behavior “relating to the other not as a content of one’s own consciousness—as a perception of or an emotional response to the other—but rather as an ethical datum that makes a claim on the self to engage in other-regarding acts” (p. 29). Underwood (2002b) suggests that compassionate love, which refers to a reality about which “there is something essentially ineffable” (p. 72), involves “an investment of self deeper than altruism suggests” (p. 72), and is a “free choice for the other” (p. 73). Jesus, according to the Fourth Gospel, stated, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NRSV). Post (2002) identifies a particular form of altruistic love, agape, which he defines as “altruistic love universalized to all humanity as informed by theistic commitments” (p. 53). And Browning (2002) notes that, in Aristotelian-Thomistic models, Christian love “finally founds itself on the sacred status of human personhood, the belief that all good (and all specific goods) comes from God, and that the ultimate meaning and direction of all finite loves is the overarching love for and enjoyment of God” (p. 343).

And so a variety of understandings of love are extant, emphasizing or including a variety of dimensions of love. Let me mention 32 (somewhat overlapping but arguably distinguishable) dimensions relevant to understanding compassionate (altruistic) love. Definitions of “love,” “altruistic love,” or “compassionate love” generally reflect the user’s underlying philosophical and/or theological assumptions, implicit or explicit psychological understandings of human beings, ethical perspective, and preferred method(s). And so these (diverse!) dimensions of love are emphasized by different authors:

  • Agentic* (“free will”)
  • Behavioral (observable)
  • Biological:
    • Genetic/Evulutionary
    • Neurochemical
    • Hormonal
  • Capacities (human capabilities)
  • Cognitive
  • Cultural
  • Developmental
  • Distortions of human potential:
    • Sin*
    • Psychopathulogy
    • Ignorance
    • Etc.
  • Emotional*
  • Empathy
  • Environmental (situational influences, past or present)
  • Ethical, understood from the perspective(s) of:
    • Consequentialism only
    • Deontulogy only*
    • Virtue ethics only*
    • Ethical pluralism* (more than one ethical approach is at least partly valid)
  • God (and other entities)*
  • Identity
  • Ineffability*
  • Intentional
  • Meaning*
  • Metaphysical*
  • Moral sense*
  • Motivational
    • Self-benefiting
    • Other-benefiting*
    • Both self- and other-benefiting*
  • Narratulogical* (stories, narratives)
  • Objective
  • Personulogical*
  • Philosophical*
  • Rational
  • Quantifiability
  • Self-deception
  • Social/relational/familial
  • Spiritual*
  • Subjective*
  • Teleulogical*
  • Virtues*

* = Traditional psychological science generally doesn’t do well with this dimension (with a few notable exceptions)

In this paper, I will focus on twelve of those dimensions (those italicized) because I think those twelve are especially helpful in getting at psychologists’ ambivalence. They thus pose significant challenges for developing a science of love, and especially one that takes seriously religious understandings of love.

Let me discuss the twelve briefly as a backdrop for discussing psychologists’ ambivalence about love. One need not, of course, choose only one of the twelve (or 32) in trying to understand love. Indeed, they may be combined in a dizzying variety of ways.

Much attention has been given in recent years to the biological, and especially the evolutionary, origins of altruistic behavior. The evidence is clear, I think, that evolution is part of the picture. The evidence is also clear, however, that there is much more to compassionate or altruistic love than that. Bouchard (1999) reports that about 40 percent of the variance in personality characteristics is genetically determined. Even if we ignore the possibility of allegiance effects (researchers’ scientific findings tending to support their theoretical bias; Hollon, 1999; Jacobson, 1999; Lambert, 1999; Luborsky et al.,1999, 2002), a substantial proportion of the variance in personality characteristics comes from non-genetic causes. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that behavior is only partly (and some say hardly at all) influenced by personality. Social psychologists contend that situations are primarily responsible for moral behavior (Darley & Batson, 1973; Doris, 2002; cf. Buss, 1989); behavioral psychologists provide ample evidence and argument that much (though not all) altruism is learned behavior (through experience) and “needs no special inherited mechanism” (Rachlin, 2002, p. 239). The evidence thus suggests genes are only partly related to altruistic behavior.

Darwinian blackmail, however, occasionally curtails discussions about the causes of altruism: Advocates of any non-evolutionary explanations of altruism (even those who acknowledge genetic factors, albeit in a secondary explanatory role) are greeted with the aggressive accusation, or dark hint, that they obviously doesn’t really believe in Darwin, or in Science, and must thus be—GASP!—Fundamentalists! The price to be paid to free oneself from those accusations is to extol the primacy of genes. The evidence, of course, for those who care to attend to it, suggests a more complex reality. One need not be a devotee of evolutionary scientism1 to believe in evolution. And those genuinely concerned about relevant evidence need to look to explanations of altruistic love that extend beyond the evolutionary.

Despite their differences, however, biologically-oriented psychologists, social psychologists, and behaviorists generally agree that the focus of attention in understanding love and other psychological topics should be on observable behavior, or otherwise scientifically measurable indices. As Korchin (1976) noted, “If you can’t measure it it doesn’t exist” (p. 355). They thus define compassionate love in ways that remove its subjective and emotional dimensions. That is, they depassionize love. Others, obviously, define love in ways that include emotions and subjective experience (Post, 2002; Sober, 2002; Wyschogrod, 2002).

In their efforts to be purely objective, psychologists often leave out the ethical dimensions of love as well. Understood in ethical terms, love is good, an obligation (“Love your neighbor as yourself”), a virtue, or all of the above. Whether it is fully possible to remove the ethical connotations from love is, I think, most doubtful (Putnam, 2002). If, for example, as Batson (2002) and Sober (2002) suggested, altruistic love is tied to motivation and, as Koch (1969) suggested, “any phrasing of phenomena called ‘motivational’ which does not blight them demands recognition of an utter interpenetration between what philosophers have been wont to call the ‘realms’ of ‘fact’ and of ‘value’” (p. 122), then any scientific investigation of altruism—whether conducted by biologists or psychologists—may commingle ethics and science.

Another dimension of love that some contend must be taken into account to understand compassionate love is its narrative (storied) dimension. Understanding the narrative context of love and other aspects of morality is critical (Vitz, 1990). And thus, the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, for example, has a three-fold mission. In addition to fostering scientific research and dialogue, it seeks to “disseminate the real story of unlimited love as it is manifested in the helping behaviors of those whose lives are devoted to giving to others” (, downloaded May 28, 2003, emphasis added). By telling stories, however, and assuming (correctly, I think) that we thereby better understand love, we have moved far from traditional understandings of the philosophy of science which hold that understanding comes from natural scientific methods alone. And this conference began with stories about those who helped after September 11th.

Still others contend that understanding compassionate love requires understanding the role of agency, defined by Rychlak (1988) as “the capacity for an organism to behave in compliance with, in addition to, in opposition to, or without regard for biological or sociocultural stimulations” (p. 84). Many philosophers (e.g., Kane, 1996, 2002), some psychologists (e.g., Jenkins, 1996; Rychlak, 1988), some evolutionists2 (Dennett, 2003), most ethicists, most legal systems, and most Christian ethicists (e.g., Birch & Rasmussen, 1989; Smedes, 1983) believe we are in some measure free; indeed, to be morally responsible requires freedom (Evans, 1977, 1987). Underwood (2002b) contends that “free choice for the other” (p. 73) is a central aspect of compassionate love, although Monroe’s (2002) altruistic research participants reported they didn’t feel they had a choice about the “heroic” deeds they had done. The relevance of agency to explanations of compassionate love is this: “Explanations, especially about morality, that omit this human capacity to choose are … different in kind from those that include it” (Tjeltveit, 1991, p. 105).

To add to the complexity of the compassionate love psychologists are now seeking to understand, some think spiritual and religious dimensions of love need to be addressed in any comprehensive understanding of it. And thus Post (2002) contends that “something is at work in love for all humanity that has connections with spirituality” (p. 57). To simplify the challenge the religious dimension produces, consider the Christian tradition (acknowledging that other traditions produce their own complexities). In his first letter, John makes the empirical claim that “We love because he first loved us” (v. 9; NRSV), the ethical claim that “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11; NRSV), and the metaphysical claims that “God is love” (v. 16; NRSV) and “love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (v. 7; NRSV). Developing a psychology that takes seriously all of these claims is quite complex indeed. Even more complexity arises when other religions and other religious perspectives are considered.

Finally, many psychologists think that we need to take very seriously the human capacity for self-deception in understanding compassionate and altruistic love. It is that dimension which leads d rectly to my discussion of psychology’s critiques of love.


Skepticism and Suspicion

Skepticism, contends clinical psychologist David Barlow (1996), is “one of the principal virtues of a good scientist” (p. 236). Scientific skepticism has been, and is, directed at both compassionate love itself and, especially, at the various explanations offered to account for altruistic behavior. Love and explanations of love must, scientists contend, pass through the refining fire of operationalization, quantification, and experimentation before we can accept them. As Ollendick (1999) avers, "clinical psychologists need to conduct their practice within the confines of scientific knowledge" (p. 2). Particular targets of this refining fire are claims about agency, morality, spirituality, and God, dimensions of compassionate love (on some understandings of it) which may not be fully amenable to such reductions. But as Frank (1988, as cited in Post et al., 2002b) noted, “‘the flint-eyed researcher fears no greater humiliation than to have called some action altruistic, only to have a more sophisticated colleague later demonstrate that it was self-serving’” (p. 5).

Science is not, however, the only source of psychologists’ reluctance to accept at face claims made about love. It was Freud (along with Nietzsche and Marx) who inspired Ricoeur (1970) to coin the phrase “hermeneutics of suspicion,” which Westphal (1993) defines as “the deliberate attempt to expose the self-deceptions involved in hiding our actual operative motives from ourselves, individually or collectively, in order not to notice how and how much our behavior and our beliefs are shaped by values we profess to disown” (p. 13). And so many who are inspired by Freud and Nietzsche (which includes many neo-Nietzscheans who dub themselves postmodernists; Taylor, 1989) will want to explore the hidden unconscious conflicts or desires to gain power over others underlying acts of so-called compassionate love. Nietzsche was particularly skeptical about compassion. Indeed, Sprigge (2000) notes, for the Nietzschean, compassion has loathsome connotations.

The skepticism and suspicion found in Freud, Nietzsche, and scientists is supported by contemporary philosophers who are pointing to what Putnam (2002) identifies as “the collapse of the fact/value dichotomy” (p. 5). Whether the collapse will result in, as naturalistic ethicists claim, putting ethics at last on a firm foundation, in so-called scientists unjustifiably claiming for their own ethical views the authority of science, or in some alternative outcome remains to be seen.

In any case, psychologists are, for multiple reasons, reluctant to accept at face value claims about many dimensions of compassionate love.


Critiques of Love Itself (or Some Understandings of Love)

Perhaps the central critique of “love,” at least by clinical psychologists, is that love harms people. This criticism can perhaps be seen most clearly in the battered woman who stays with her abuser out of “love” or the codependent woman who stays with an irresponsible, destructive alcoholic, shielding him from the consequences of his drinking and otherwise enabling his alcoholism—because she “loves” him. In both cases, the woman is harmed by her repeated, self-destructive sacrifices, by her caretaking and martyrdom (Cermak, 1986), by her “love”; her husband is harmed because he is protected, by her “love,” from the consequences of his actions. Many psychologists, unfortunately, do not recognize that such understandings of “love” can and should be distinguished from compassionate love. Although Post (2002a) agrees with Browning that “altruistic love requires the abrogation of selfishness, but it is a mistake to confuse the valid ideal of unselfishness with selflessness, its invalid exaggeration” (p. 376), love has not always been interpreted in that way. Browning (1987) notes that some Christians have overemphasized the sacrificial nature of love. And so some are told they have, and should show, unlimited love toward others, with the result that they are depleted, are harmed.

Psychologists’ ethical critiques of love are rarely overt, in substantial measure because the aspiration to be scientific, to be objective and value-free, precludes explicit acknowledgement of the ethical basis (e.g., “it is wrong to harm people”) of such critiques. Rather than eliminating such ethical critiques, however, the aspiration to be objective has simply forced psychologists’ ethical assumptions underground, where they implicitly affect both the knowledge production and the clinical practice of psychologists (Tjeltveit, 1999). Nevertheless, some have been more overt. Freud, for instance, a prominent critic of sacrificial love (Browning, 1987), was, in Wallace’s (1986) words, “positively acerbic toward the ‘golden rule’” (p. 110).

Another ethical critique of love opposes, not love itself, but love as central to the good life, or to human flourishing. Or, more modestly, the opposition is to love as the sole ethical standard, as monistic ethical ideal. Ideal human functioning has to do, on some of these accounts, with autonomy, self-fulfillment, or personal authenticity, not with loving others (and certainly not with the love of God). Although romantic and familial love is considered important by many (Fine, 1990), compassionate love appears on few psychologists’ lists of the attributes of the healthy or self-actualized person. Since mental health, self-actualization, and healthy functioning are of utmost importance for many psychologists, they see an emphasis on compassionate love obstructing what is most important: personal growth. As Nicholson (2003) notes, the language of personality replaced that of character in American psychology in the 1920s and 30s. “In the language of character,” he notes, “selfhood was achieved through surrender to a ‘higher’ moral standard. In the new discourse of personality, selfhood was achieved through the realization of the self’s own abilities. The true self of personality was not one of duty, honor, and self-sacrifice—terms that referred to a framework outside the self” (p. 37).

The criticisms of love by both Freud and Nietzsche can perhaps both be best understood in terms of this critique of love: The problem is not so much love per se, but love that conflicts with self-fulfillment. As Taylor (1989) notes, Nietzsche "declared benevolence the ultimate obstacle to self-affirmation" (p. 343). Nietzsche’s being an immoralist and his critique of compassion, then, was in the service of his particular moralist vision (Berkowitz, 1995).

The more modest version of this critique has to do with how love for others is balanced with other ethical ideals. Richardson (in press), drawing upon Woodruff, argues that “we simply cannot cultivate or practice virtues like … compassion … apart from membership and participation in the life of a community.” Love in the absence of other ideals is problematic because, Richardson continues, “you can’t practice altruism or compassion among cruel or narrowly self-seeking individuals because to do so would simply be to portray yourself as a sucker in their eyes, and to an extent be one!” Batson and colleagues (Batson, 2002; Batson, Klein, Highberger, & Shaw, 1995) likewise note that immorality can result from altruism when compassion is not properly balanced with justice.


Critiques of Efforts to Use Natural Scientific Methods to Understand Love

Another set of critiques have to do with the appropriateness of the methods to be used to understand love. Some critics of traditional psychology—inside and outside the discipline—hate the use of natural scientific methods to understand what they take to be the ethical, agentic, spiritual, and/or religious nature of love, dimensions of love that are, at least in part, not well-suited to the reductionism and quantification of natural science methods.

Some psychologists, by way of contrast, hate the topic of love because it is a soft topic in a field valiantly struggling to be a hard science, because its complexity seems to conflict with the parsimony to which scientists strive, and because traditional scientific methods don’t very effectively get at several dimensions of love, dimensions like agency, spirituality, and what is optimal in human life, dimensions that do seem psychological in nature and that seem vital for a deep and comprehensive understanding of love.

Psychologists, contends Leahey (2000), are afflicted with “physics envy” (p. 39), the desire to be a hard science. American psychologists, notes Nicholson (2003), tended to construct scientific psychology in decidedly masculine terms. Science, like the idealized male psyche, was considered objective, detached, rigorous, and hard-nosed” (p. 83). Love, by way of contrast, is a soft topic, tied to internal motivations, sentimentality, subjectivity, emotionality, and religion. And females. Accordingly, some psychologists avoid love as a topic for investigation (and surely think it a topic that will inhibit rather than advance psychologists’ careers) because love is too bound up with emotions, is too closely linked with religion, and slips too easily into sentimentality. Love, that is, is not well-suited for a discipline that is, and should be, striving mightily to be a “hard” science. Psychologists should, rather, devote their energies to topics that will contribute to the discipline’s hardness and rigor. Love doesn’t qualify. Indifference to love results.

Another reason for raising questions about the appropriateness of scientific methods to understand compassionate love is its ethical character, generally considered beyond the disciplinary competence of science. Although science can tell us some things about human nature (Batson, 2002) and about the consequences of alternatives—whether Intervention A produces more positive benefits than Intervention B—it has no disciplinary competence to make ethical judgments like telling us what is beneficial or good (Kendler, 2000; Tjeltveit, 1999; Waterman, 1988). Science, that is, can tell us about facts, but not about values. Emotivism, the ethical theory of logical positivism (Koch, 1969), which many consider still to be psychology’s de facto philosophy of science, held that making such ethical judgments is meaningless. Others would contend that making ethical judgments is a valid human endeavor; it is simply an end beyond the competence of psychological scientists qua scientists. Love, accordingly, is either not a fit topic for scientific investigation, or can only be partly explained by traditional scientific methods.

An alternative position, the most complex but, I think, most promising, is that scientific investigations of love will always intermingle the ethical and scientific. Both scientific and ethical analysis must occur, in tandem and in dialogue, rather than only science or only ethics. Rather than doing so implicitly, however, it may be better to do so publicly and explicitly. This means, of course, that the ethical diversity extant in the world will replicate itself to some measure in the results obtained.

Others think natural scientific methods ill-suited for investigations of love because those methods exclude the human agency thought essential to any adequate understanding of compassionate love. For those who believe in human agency, scientific methods thus make only partial contributions to our understanding of love. Very valuable contributions, to be sure, but partial. How troubling this shortcoming of science is considered to be depends on how central one thinks agency is to compassionate love. Many psychologists don’t believe human beings possess the genuine free will others think integral to genuine compassionate love.

For those who don’t believe in agency, scientific methods seem exemplary; their annoyance is with those who believe in agency.

Still others, however, think the scientific method can be adopted to include agency in explanations of human beings, using quantitative methods (Rychlak, 1994), qualitative methods, or a combination of both.

Still others hate that scientific methods might be applied to a “religious” topic like love, thinking religion an appropriate topic for theologians alone to investigate. Others are open in principle to the contributions empirical methods can make to religious understandings of love, but are very wary of the actual practices of those who use scientific methods to understand religious topics like agape: They think the epistemic humility among scientists for which Browning (2002) calls, the reluctance to take metaphysical stances, is—in fact—all too rare among scientists, whose methodological naturalism too often becomes a de facto dogmatic metaphysical naturalism which rejects the religion’s central claims about God or other spiritual entities.

Finally, some psychologists, who like simple problems and clearly testable hypotheses, or who consider parsimonious explanations to be of the utmost importance, don’t like love because it is simply too complicated. We can, they might argue, turn to addressing that topic once we have built a sturdier foundation of basic psychological science.

For all these reasons, then, some psychologists believe it a mistake for psychologists to investigate love; they hate the waste of time and energy required by that kind of fruitless effort. And others think it a mistake to use traditional empirical methods to understand love. Still others think that those methods have significant shortcomings and that adequate understandings of love can only be developed when those methods are supplemented with ethical, theological, and/or qualitative methods.


I have focused in this paper on the critiques of love, and of methods to investigate it because, in the context of this conference, affirmations of love and confidence about the methods available to investigate it are well-represented, indeed, far more than among the general population of psychologists. I do, however, want to discuss briefly some of the ways in which psychologists affirm (“love”) love.

At a fundamental love, beneficence, something like love, is at the heart of the profession of psychology (May, 1984; Tjeltveit, 1999). Pellegrino (1989) notes that “some degree of effacement of self-interest … is morally obligatory on health professionals” (p. 58). And Wallace (1991) contends that “By virtue of this professed vocation and the patient's suffering plea for help, a serious moral claim is made on the doctor, not merely for scientifically informed treatment, but for caring and compassion as well” (p. 112). This is reflected in the American Psychological Association’s statement of purpose, which includes this phrase, “to advance psychology as a science and profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare” (downloaded from on May 30, 2003) and its current (2002) ethics code: “Psychologists are committed to … the use of [psychological] knowledge to improve the condition of individuals, organizations, and society.” (p. 3; downloaded from http://

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