How Lust Works

Lust or Love?

How do you know when it's love?
How do you know when it's love?
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Casually characterized as emotions, love and lust are, more accurately, motivational states. A Venn diagram of the two would certainly show overlap in terms of attraction and the neurological fireworks that burst in the brain when spying the apple of one's eye, but outside of that shared space, what distinguishes the two? The evolved emotional system of lust is a stepping stone and contributor to love, so how to do they function independently? Advice columns might offer signs to watch out for, such as the amount of time a couple spends in the bedroom together versus the amount of time they spend together elsewhere. And of course, there are those three pivotal words -- "I love you" -- that can clue a partner in to the other's intentions.

A team of psychologists at the University of Amsterdam published a trio of studies in 2009 and 2011 that illuminate how love and lust uniquely influence people's thinking patterns. Comparing how sentiments of love and lust foster creativity, lead author Jens Forster and fellow psychologists found that participants primed with feelings of love exhibited broader, long-term thinking processes, lending credence to the romanticized connection between love and artistic expression [source: Jacobs]. Lust, an immediate impulse for sexual satisfaction, inspired more analytic, short-term outlooks. That kind of love-induced global thinking versus lust-fueled local thinking can be applied to how people perceive their sexual partners [source: Forster, Ozelstel and Epstude]. In other words, when thoughts about another person stray from the immediate quandary of Friday night plans to how he or she might fair as a father or mother, a seedling of love may be sprouting.

The love-lust line is also reiterated in the scientifically established phases of long-term mating. By definition, sexual desire -- aka lust -- casts a wider net, seeking satisfaction based largely on physical attributes. The segue into genuine affection is marked by specificity, i.e., craving an emotional union with a special someone rather than just anyone [source: Fisher et al]. And for men especially, crossing that border from lust to shared love can come with a statistically higher risk of failure.