Sabrina Xie / Sun Design Editor

February 13, 2020

The Science of Human Bonding

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Whether you decide to actually meet your Perfect Match, go out with your significant other or stay in for a night of Netflix with friends, Valentine’s Day can be an opportunity to appreciate the bonds and love we have for each other as humans.

But the bonds we’ve formed over the course of our lives don’t just start with us — human bonding is as old as humanity itself.

“We’re social animals because we need other people to survive,” said Prof. Vivian Zayas, psychology.

According to Zayas, human bonding is an outcome of evolution.

“If a behavior is adaptive, one way of ensuring that that behavior occurs is that it’s rewarding,” Zayas said. “It’s important for us to eat, so eating is pleasurable. It’s important to procreate, so sex is pleasurable. It’s important to maintain these relationships, so interactions are pleasurable.”

But it’s not just pleasure that pushes us to form bonds — it’s biology. Individual life begins in utero, living in relation to its mother, according to Zayas. This biological relationship carries over to infancy, as infants look to form secure attachments with their caregivers.

Human bonding is, as a result, deeply rooted in an individual’s development, and forming secure attachments early on can have lasting impacts throughout one’s life.

After developing a relationship with primary caregivers, it’s an important milestone to learn to have a relationship with peers. As people grow, the “attachment system” will transfer again from peers to romantic partners, Zayas said.

Whether or not one forms close bonds with peers can also have consequences on mental health.

“Part of self-esteem is not just how you view yourself in the abstract, but how you think other people value you.” Zayas said. “If you do not feel valued by your peers, that undermines feelings of self-worth.”

However, although the quality of some bonds differ, everyone forms them.

“Most people form these bonds because they do grow up with someone who takes care of them,” Zayas said. “They are very extreme conditions [where people don’t form that bond],”.

This predisposition to form bonds also manifests within groups, through synchronous body movements, autonomic responses or emotional reactions that can spread among individuals in a group setting.

For example, applause in concert halls can unintentionally become rhythmically coordinated, and choir members unconsciously exhibit breathing synchrony while singing together even without the explicit awareness of who’s involved — or that this phenomenon is even occurring.

“We are wired to be social and be attuned to another person.” Zayas said. “These types of activities then lead us to be more cooperative, more prosocial, and the assumption is that has some benefits.”

When looking to form bonds — whether platonic or romantic — we are drawn towards some people and not others. How similar and familiar you are with someone has a big impact on how you view them according to Zayas. Close proximity can be a predictor of attractiveness.

“People are more likely to find their partner at Cornell, because you’re at Cornell,” Zayas said.

So, this Valentine’s Day, understand the totality of all the bonds that you have developed over the course of your life — not just your romantic connections.

“The simplest way of viewing it is — having relationships is like gravity. We are born to be connected with other people,” Zayas said.