'Faking it' — the things we do for love

We’ve all done it — faked admiration for a movie we haven’t seen, a book we haven’t read, an actor we’ve never even heard of. It’s not hard to envision: The girl who grits her teeth and goes to Nascar races to get closer to her crush, the guy who suffers through the opera to win over his beloved, or the online chatter frantically googling a band mid-conversation in order to impress that special someone with a knowledge of its lyrics. If you’re seeing yourself in any of these, that’s okay.

The tendency to “fake it” is a common human urge, not only present in human courtship, but a constant factor in our daily interactions. We are perpetually aware of how we present ourselves to the world — seeking to adjust that persona according to what we believe people want from us. According to Kathleen McGowan of Psychology Today, we spend up to three hours a day managing our self-presentations. The need to shape this persona into a pleasing form is intensified when we are romantically attracted to another person. In order to gain his or her approval, we modify our behavior in ways we couldn’t have imagined beforehand.

“People like those who are similar to them — on almost any characteristic, including attitudes, values, demographics, physical attractiveness, and behavior,” wrote Brooke Feeney, a professor in the psychology department, in an e-mail.

Feeney’s research interests lie in how intimacy functions in relationships and how relationships help us cope with stress. “It’s true that ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ And it’s not true that ‘opposites attract,’ ” she said. This may contradict what many people believe about compatibility, though it makes sense in the context of a typical first date. Here, commonalities are hunted for like prize trophies, and discrepancies in interest or taste are quickly smoothed over.

However, according to Feeney, we have a considerably greater effect on the course of interpersonal relations than what we might expect. Less important than “faking it,” or presenting ourselves in a certain way, is how we behave toward a person. Feeney said. “If you expect someone with whom you interact to be an attractive person, then you will behave towards him or her in ways that bring out those attractive qualities.”

The converse is true as well. “But if you expect the opposite, you will probably constrain the interaction partner to show those positive attributes, or you might even bring out negative attributes,” Feeny said, “So, we do tend to reap what we sow.”

With this in mind, perhaps we have less to worry about on dates than we think. The success of an interaction does not depend totally upon how we appear to a person in terms of our interests and personality, but on our general attitude toward that person and the experience of spending time with him or her.

The tendency to be on one’s best behavior — or at least one’s most charismatic — lessens with time. “Research shows that we usually go to less trouble to maintain favorable images for our intimate partners than we do for others,” Feeney said. “Although people behave charmingly to win the love of a romantic partner, many never work at being so charming to that person ever again.” On the contrary, she added, “[As soon as] a relationship develops, people often put forth effort to create desired images of their partners.”

We all know that love is a tricky business. The process of gaining and maintaining it leads us to desperate lengths of deception, or short-term “faking.” But in the long run, the personalities that people present are not far from the truth. Ultimately, lying isn’t necessary, Feeney explained, “because partners tend to idealize each other anyways.” However it happens, relationships usually wind up based on what’s real. “There generally isn’t gross misrepresentation in real face-to-face encounters that evolve[s] into real relationships,” she said. “This would be very difficult to do in practice.”