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Love or Massacre?

New studies look at the soul of Heart Day


Valentine's Day is quite an anomaly among holidays. On one hand, this former Roman fertility orgy-turned-Catholic martyr memorial is one of the most multicultural of holidays, being celebrated in more countries than both Mother's and Father's Day. On the other hand, the imagery of the holiday--hearts, gifts, the color red, romantic dinners--are all but immune to unique cultural interpretation. Shell out a quarter of your paycheck for posh cuisine and lacy unmentionables on February 14, and you'll be in the company of dupes in every hemisphere.

Yet despite its remarkable durability, Valentine's Day's specific rituals have received very little attention from writers, psychologists and cultural historians. Sure, naysayers abound who dismiss the holiday as a marketing ploy, but few have bothered to take the analysis deeper--until recently. In the last decade, three different universities in different nations undertook the task of explicating the holiday from the various perspectives of relationships, marketing and child psychology. What they found may jolt your heart.

Pluralistic Puppy Love

America's contribution to the study of Valentine's Day was an ominous report from Arizona State University in 2004 which posed the question, "Might Valentine's Day, despite its marketing as a holiday to enhance romantic relationships, paradoxically facilitate their demise?"

Authors Katherine Morse and Steven Neuberg's study, awkwardly titled Examining the Instigating and Catalytic Effects of Valentine's Day, was based on a year's worth of interviews with 269 unmarried couples together for an average of 18 months. Each pair faced a series of lengthy interviews analyzing the quality of their relationship, how it compared with other relationships and how appealing other sexual "alternatives" seemed at four different points in the year. The conclusion, much to the chagrin of the testees, was overwhelming: couples are over two and a half times more likely to break up in the weeks surrounding Valentine's Day than any other period.

Morse and Neuberg blame multiple factors for the casualty rate, not the least being a marketing culture whose portrayal of "pluralistic puppy love" sets unreachable emotional expectations on both men and women. Primarily, though, they point to the declining quality of the doomed relationships, inferring that the escalating pressure of Valentine's Day pushes couples into self-destruct mode in the same way that Thanksgiving and Christmas often correlate with high suicide rates.

"Perhaps," they write, "Valentine's Day saved these couples the psychological stress, wasted time and wasted resources that result from perpetuating a doomed relationship."

Volunteering to Oblige

Perhaps appropriately, the most incisive and comprehensive psychological study of Valentine's Day was not written by psychologists at all. Instead, it was a group of marketing researchers from Victoria and Newcastle Universities in Australia who, in 2002, undertook to definitively answer the timeless question: "What makes a man give crap to his lady on February 14?"

The goal of their study, bearing the decidedly unromantic title The Role of Social Power Relations in Gift Giving on Valentine's Day, was to uncover new ways for marketing execs to "market even more meaningful gift products to both givers and receivers." Toting a barrage of studies claiming that men overwhelmingly give their partners material gifts, while women overwhelmingly reciprocate in ... less tangible ways (wink, nudge, say no more), the authors interviewed a barrage of men aged 18 to 25 with steady girlfriends near Valentine's Day.

The conclusion: 100 percent of testees, across age and economic demographics, believe giving a gift is necessary only because a partner expects it. "Obligation," the authors wrote, is "the overwhelming motive for young males to give gifts." Self-interest (i.e., sex and avoiding conflict) and altruism also factored in some cases, but only in combination with their smothering sense of obligation.

"This intertwining [of obligation and self-interest]," the authors finally concluded, "presents a social power exchange relation, whereby ... a sense of volunteering to oblige by males appears to be aimed at creating a 'mutual exchange' scenario." In other words, we're all martyrs for Saint Valentine in one way or another. Look for a new holiday next year: "Wuh-psh! Wuh-psh! Day."

Heart of a Child

Elementary school is, for most of us, the one place where the uphill battle that is Valentine's Day in the American and Australian studies seems to not yet apply. All-inclusive safety guards such as sent-home class rosters ensure that nobody gets left out, and according to Sara Harder, a counselor in Boise Schools for the last 31 years, teachers always keep a stock of extra cards to fill the gaps.

"We're really careful to make it a total feel-good holiday," Harder says. "It's not a competitive thing yet, and every kid gets to feel special."

But is the message of inclusion getting through? According to the first and only study of the effects of Valentine's Day on schoolchildren, not really. In a 1997 report titled Be My Valentine: The Social Engineering of Children's Concepts of Love and Friendship, Canadian education professor Dr. Robin Bright videotaped extensive interviews with children ranging from kindergarten through sixth grade, and came to the unmistakable conclusion that "children ... demonstrate a far more complex and contradictory understanding of Valentine's Day and its school-related activities" than their well-meaning supervisors intend.

Half of the children Bright interviewed expressed dislike for Valentine's celebrations based on several factors. Boys, for instance, hated having to receive Valentines that seemed inappropriate for their gender--the villainous SpongeBob SquarePants notwithstanding. Girls, conversely, consistently disliked having to give boys Valentines at all. Both groups as well "reacted negatively to the idea of inclusion" at all and "would segregate themselves" by choice.

Valentine's Day does not by any means cause these predictable rifts. But according to Bright, for teachers not to address the budding attitudes represents an important opportunity wasted. "We need to encourage teachers to develop curriculum that increases students understanding of gender stereotyping in an attempt to develop awareness of its effects on all individuals," she says, adding that teachers need to be "more direct and critical" in their approaches to the imagery and cultural practices surrounding Valentine's Day.

So let's recap: initial research from America, Australia and Canada show that our relationships are ticking weapons of mass destruction, our mates are mindless wallabies ruled by herd mentality and our kids are on the fast track to being little sexist hosers. Happy Heart Day!