Romantic love, perceptions of responsibility, and attribution-self-representation biases.



I recently read this article by Alain de Botton on romantic love and why you’ll marry the wrong person, and it reminded me of Alain de Badiou’s book, ‘In Praise of Love.’ It struck me that romantic love, as describe by these philosophers, shares certain phenomenological qualities that conflict with dominant philosophical conceptions of responsibility: namely, romantic love, by it’s very nature, is ‘chancy,’ unpredictable, and out of our control. It emerges out of a “chance encounter,” and can’t be chosen on the basis of a rational decision procedure (Badiou & Truong 2012: 17). It’s a leap of faith that we make for another person who is, in effect, a stranger (de Botton). And it’s a transformative experience, one that changes us from a single person to an inherent duality (Badiou & Truong 2012: 17). Oddly, while falling in love on this picture has phenomenological features incompatible with ‘responsibility’ as a theoretical construct (loss of control and psychological continuity), it doesn’t challenge our felt sense of being responsible. Indeed, it seems to enhance it. We feel enriched and empowered in love, not undermined and violated. How is this possible? If we were kidnapped and brainwashed, we would feel less responsible as a result; but, while romantic love resembles these manipulation cases (see Mele 1985) in salient respects, it doesn’t disrupt our sense of being responsible in the least.

This got me thinking about the opposite of falling in love – breaking up with someone. Unwelcome break-ups – the kind that seemingly come out of nowhere – can have the same phenomenological features as falling in love. We might have no say in the break-up; it might be pre-empted by events beyond our control or by irreconcilable differences that we didn’t anticipate and couldn’t have foreseen. And then, whether we like it or not, we have to revert back to being a single entity. Break-ups, then, can be transformative in a distinctively unsettling way, and can impose on our free will. Why is there this discrepancy between the experiencing of falling in love and the experience of abruptly breaking up with someone, if both experiences have the same responsibility-undermining features? In the positive case these features are embraced as exhilarating and enhancing, while in the negative case they’re experienced as nefarious, alien impositions, similar to the brainwashing case.

Here’s one hypothesis. We tend to take more responsibility for positive events than negative events. At least, most people do. Since romantic love is subjectively positive, and abrupt break-ups are subjectively negative, we find it easier to ‘feel responsible’ in the former scenario than the latter, even if both events are antagonistic to theoretical conditions of responsibility (control and continuity). This hypothesis is consistent with attribution-self-representation theory, as described by Richard Bentall (2011). On our best evidence, ordinary people tend to attribute positive events to their own agency and negative events to external causes. That is, they exhibit a moderate optimistic attribution bias. In addition, ordinary people have moderately positive self-representation schemas, or beliefs about their worth and abilities. These attribution biases and self-representation schemas hang together in an “attribution-self-representation cycle,” or equilibrium, with each element supporting the others (Bentall 2011; 5294). An ordinary person’s attribution-self-representation system reliably gives rise to self-preserving biases – biases like the perception of being more responsible in a romantic relationship than in the aftermath of a break-up. These positive experiences also boost a person’s self-representation beliefs, reinforcing optimistic attribution bias in a positive feedback loop.

Now, not everyone has moderate self-serving biases. Depressed people have the opposite disposition: they tend to take less responsibility for positive events than negative events. Some people might also have excessive optimistic biases and self-representation schemas. These people are narcissists: they think they’re way better than they really are, and way better than other people. These different attribution styles (normal, depressive, narcissistic) might effect how people experience romantic love. Maybe depressed people are less capable of bonding with others, if they can’t ‘take responsibility’ for positive events like romantic relationships. Maybe they can’t assimilate romantic relationships into their self-conception. Narcissists might not be able to bond with anyone, inasmuch as they’re practical solipsists. They just can’t value another person. These biases come in degrees, of course, but we can see severe depression and severe narcissism as opposite ends of continuum. The ordinary attribution bias is the ‘healthy’ range: it promotes subjective happiness and social functioning. People on either extreme tend to be less happy and/or less functional. (This is somewhat speculative but I think it’s a reasonable conjecture about romantic bonding based on attribution-self-representation theory).

Can we draw any conclusions from this discussion about responsibility as a theoretical construct? Or is all this talk about subjective perceptions just descriptive? Another way of putting the question is, are subjective perceptions of responsibility relevant to how we should think about responsibility in objective terms?

I think they are. More specifically, I think that our attribution biases and self-representation schemas can be relevant to responsibility as a theoretical construct, on a certain picture. Here’s one that seems to fit. Let’s suppose that responsibility is an interpersonal practice in which we praise and blame people, à la P. F. Strawson (2003). And let’s suppose further that praise and blame function to enhance people’s moral agency, à la Manuel Vargas (2013). It seems to follow that, when praising and blaming people, we should tailor our reactive attitudes (praise and blame) to fit with the target agent’s attribution style. In other words, we should blame depressed people less than normal, and praise narcissists less than normal, as a way of ‘nudging’ their attribution-self-representation biases toward the normal range. This is because the normal amount of optimistic bias promotes social functioning, and social functioning enhances moral agency. (It’s hard to be a moral agent if you’re suffering from subjective distress and social and occupational dysfunction, and/or if you don’t care that much about other people). So, if we’re concerned with enhancing agency, we should praise and blame people differentially depending on their attribution-self-representation style. (Arguably, we implicitly do this already because we evolved to respond differentially to different attribution biases; but even if this isn’t the case, it’s reasonable to think that we should try to be sensitive to people’s attribution biases, since it’s good for the person and good for society).

Going back to romantic love, this approach implies that we shouldn’t praise or blame people for making moderately self-serving judgments of their role in romantic relationships and break-ups, since this attribution style has survival value, and may enable people to have functional romantic relationships and recover from break-ups, whereas other attribution styles may promote insecure attachment and isolation.

I’m not going to discuss how attribution theory fits with other accounts of responsibility. I suspect that it doesn’t fit quite as nicely, but I won’t go into that here.

Thanks for your time.


Badiou, A., & Truong, N. 2012. In praise of love. Profile Books.

Bentall, R. P. 2004. Madness explained: Psychosis and human nature. Penguin UK.

De Botton, A. 2016, May 28. Why you will marry the wrong person. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Mele, A. 1995. Autonomous agents. New York: Oxford University Press.

Strawson, P. F. 2008. Freedom and resentment and other essays. Routledge.

Vargas, M. 2013. Building better beings: A theory of moral responsibility. OUP Oxford.


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