The ‘90s are back in one very specific and somewhat unlikely way: the popularity of a book called The 5 Love Languages. The little book with the corny purple cover was written by an evangelical Christian pastor and originally published in 1992; since then, more than ten million copies have been sold, enough to keep it on the New York Times’ list of best-selling self-help books for 167 weeks, and counting. (A new edition was published last year, and the title currently sits at a comfortable number four, just under Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.)
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that, in a culture captivated by things like BuzzFeed personality quizzes and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, this book would find a new audience. Its author, Gary Chapman (who, among his other pastoral duties, is a marriage counselor), holds that there are five main ways that people show their affection; this also tends to be the way they prefer to receive affection, too. So, according to Chapman’s theory, some people may express their feelings for their significant other through heartfelt words, for example, while others might show their love through their actions. If you are the former, and your partner is the latter, this can lead to all manner of communication problems. You might whine, “She never says, ‘I love you!’ when — so goes the argument of the book — your partner is in fact trying to say exactly that when she quietly takes your old and busted laptop in for a tune-up.
The five languages are something like love personalities, in other words. (For the uninitiated, they are: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch.) But instead of a personality framework for understanding only yourself, this one is unique in that it also encourages you to understand your significant other, to try and “read” their thoughts and feelings as best you can. “I think people are drawn to it — at least I’m drawn to it — because it really does seem to capture a way in which people are truly different from each other,” author Gretchen Rubin, who today devoted an entire episode of the podcast she hosts with her sister to discussing the love-languages concept, told me in an email. The concept of the “love languages,” then, is a gentle reminder of something that is at once obvious and easy to forget: Not everyone experiences the world in the exact same way that you do. Not even your partner.
On average, people are okay at reading each other, as University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley details in his illuminating 2014 book, Mindwise. Not great, but okay: In one study Epley describes in his book, strangers were able to discern each other’s thoughts and feelings with an accuracy rate of about 20 percent. And yet when the human capacity for mind-reading is compared to that of other species, it appears to be among our better stupid human tricks. There are precious few things that make us “uniquely human,” but the ability to guess with reasonable accuracy at what’s going on in someone else’s mind is thought to be one of them. Human social intelligence is at least partially why our brains are so much bigger than even chimpanzees’, our closest DNA match. Social and emotional skills vary from person to person, of course, but generally speaking, people are decent at reading each other — better than chance, anyway, which is in itself rather remarkable.
The trouble, however, is that people are not nearly as good at this as they believe they are. This gap grows startlingly wide when it comes to romantic partners, and, surprisingly, this becomes especially true for couples who have been together for many years. To reiterate: The longer you are with someone, the larger the space grows between what you think he or she is thinking and what he or she is actually thinking. To return to Chapman’s analogy, you’re communicating in entirely different languages, and as the years fly by, you grow less aware that you are reading each other totally wrong.
It’s true that couples are better at knowing each other’s minds than are strangers, but it’s not by very much. Strangers, remember, were able to guess what each other might be thinking and feeling at an accuracy rate of 20 percent. Couples, in comparison, did only a little better, guessing right an underwhelming 35 percent of the time. In his book, Epley describes a similar experiment, one that worked something like a nerdy Newlywed Game: One half of a couple took a series of surveys, while at the same time in a separate room, the other half of that couple was taking the same set of surveys — only they were instructed to predict the way their significant other would likely answer. One question, for example, asked participants questions about their sense of self-worth, ranking how much they agreed on a scale of one to five with statements like “I tend to devalue myself.” (These were not exactly lighthearted questions.) On average, people were pretty good at predicting their partners’ answers, getting them right about 44 percent of the time. But they were not nearly as good as they thought they’d be: When asked to predict their own accuracy, they assumed they were getting these questions right 82 percent of the time. “These couples hit a double,” as Epley explains it, “but they thought they’d hit a home run.”
What’s even more disheartening, though, is that “this overconfidence increased in proportion to how long two people had been together,” he continues. The couples in this study had been dating for up to six years, and the “longer they had been together, the more they thougth they knew about their partner … More time together did not make the couples any more accurate; it just gave them the illusion that they were more accurate.”
That is at once surprising and not surprising at all. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship that outlasts the honeymoon stage has likely said, either to themselves or to their friends over alcohol, something to the tune of “What was she/he thinking?” The ability to read someone else’s mind is a superpower many people long for. (Seriously. In a poll of 1,000 Americans, the Marist Institute for Public Opinion found that mind-reading was the most-desired supernatural ability, tied for the number-one answer with time travel.) In his book, Epley recounts an experiment he did with his colleague Mary Steffel: The pair asked 500 people to imagine that they’d been given access to a “brainoscope,” a nifty little gadget that actually would allow them access to other minds. Whose minds would they want to read first? As it turned out, the respondents weren’t all that interested in spying on the thoughts of celebrities or politicians or intellectual giants. “Instead, the vast majority wanted to peer into the minds of those closest to them, particularly spouses and dating partners … Interestingly, they wanted to get a look at the minds of those they presumably knew the best,” Epley writes.
So: People are simultaneously totally overconfident and totally insecure about their ability to read the minds of their partners. People are complicated. And so it is little wonder that a straightforward concept like “love languages” has caught on the way it has: It’s comforting to think that there are “types” of people, “who behave in stable and predictable ways, and you can classify them as one type or another,” Epley explained to me in an email. Perhaps the best current example of this is the MBTI, which was itself inspired by Carl Jung’s theory of personality archetypes. “Jung’s basic theory has clearly been discredited, as personality is much more fluid than simple type-based theories would predict, and the MBTI therefore has a host of problems that would take too long to detail,” Epley told me. “But any book that claims there are X types of people easily resonates with people’s intuitions about each other. We prefer categories, not continuums.”
Frameworks like these are an incredibly helpful place to start, a foggy window through which you can begin to see at least the shadows of thoughts and feelings within another mind. “It gave people a vocabulary that they didn’t have before,” said Nicole Egbert, a communications professor at Kent State University who has published two scholarly papers examining the love languages from an academic perspective. In these papers, she argues that Chapman’s model is like a plain-English version of something researchers call relational maintenance — that is, the things couples do to stay happy over the long-term. “This is so important, but it’s really hard to explain,” she said. “And I think Chapman found a very sort of intuitive framework … and all of a sudden people could talk about it. People felt like, ‘Okay, I can use this to explain why it is I’m frustrated even though you feel like you’re trying so hard.’” (Egbert said her papers are rarely cited by other academics, but they’re far and away her most-viewed work on ResearchGate, a sort of social-networking site for scientists.)
Understanding the obvious, yet the too-easily overlooked, revelation that different people experience the world differently from you is a wonderful first step. And yet, given what the research shows about how overconfident people tend to be when they are guessing at the content of their partner’s minds, there is likely an even better way of knowing what they are thinking: Just ask. “My wife and I just celebrated our 20th anniversary on August 10th. As you know from the end of my book, I don’t try to understand what her love language is or guess what she’s thinking anymore,” Epley told me. “When I want to know, I ask. And when I want her to know what I’m thinking, I tell her. That ensures we’re using the same language.”