A Behavior Analysis of “The 5 Love Languages”

Originally posted on abalearninglab.com

“What is love except another name for the use of positive reinforcement?” – B.F. Skinner, Walden Two

My wife and I celebrated our one year wedding anniversary this fall.

As I was looking through photo albums of our memorable day, I came across a book given to us by a friend during our engagement. His instructions were simple at the time, “Read this. You will thank me later.”

The book was “The 5 Love Languages” by Dr. Gary Chapman, which to date has sold over 10 million copies and has been translated into 49 different languages.

At the time, I remember finding the content insightful and applicable.  However, I also read it at a time when I was not yet enrolled in graduate school and immersed in behavior analytic literature.  As I skimmed back through the pages, I was skeptical of still finding relevancy within the text – presumably chalked full of mentalistic and hypothetical constructs which would not provide an adequate account of behavior.

I wanted to see if the book still held up through a behavior analytic lens.

What I found upon further analysis was that several core assertions were thoroughly behavioral.

I now offer a brief, Skinnerian translation and commentary of Dr. Chapman’s book “The 5 Love Languages:”

Dr. Chapman’s “5 Love Languages”

1) “Words of Affirmation” = Social Praise

“Verbal compliments are far greater motivators than nagging words.”

Former Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis editor Dr. Pat Friman advocates for the use of a 5:1 ratio for delivery of attention: for every behavior that yields negative attention, find at least five behaviors to reinforce with positive attention.

During a keynote presentation, Friman revealed that the source of this “5:1” ratio was derived from the research of marriage counselor Dr. John Gotten.

In his extensive analysis of thousands of couples in vivo, Gotman found that when a couple exhibited a 5:1 or greater ratio of pleasant to unpleasant interactions, their marriage was considerably more resistant to every known cause of divorce, including infidelity.

2) “Quality Time” = Attention

“It isn’t enough to just be in the same room as someone.  A key ingredient in giving your spouse quality time is giving them focused attention…”

Behavior analysts often educate parents of children who exhibit problematic attention-seeking behavior to deliver focused, noncontingent reinforcement as an antecedent strategy.  The same principle applies to your spouse or significant other – a little “QT” might be the additional reinforcement contingency your relationship needs.

3) “Receiving Gifts” = Access to Tangibles

“Visual symbols of love are more important to some people than others.”

Tangible items, or “gifts,” may be physical objects, activities, or privileges that serve as reinforcers.  Whether that be a surprise bouquet of flowers, tickets to a concert, or a night free of laundry, each can adequately enhance behavior.

A candid piece of advice – you may want to conduct a preference assessment before you make that surprise purchase for your loved one (especially if your inferential gift selections are as poor as mine).  I’ve learned that a trip to the mall, followed by a free operant preference assessment of, “Honey, what would you like?” may yield the greatest outcomes!

4) “Acts of Service” = Escape/Avoidance

“By acts of service, I mean doing things you know your spouse would like you to do … expressing your love for [them] by doing things for [them].”

Reflecting on my own marriage, the tasks which I am most appreciative of my wife doing are those which I find to be the most aversive (folding laundry among many others).

A couple 3-term contingencies that may illustrate this point:

Before Behavior After
The kitchen is a mess Husband washes the dishes The kitchen is not a mess


Before Behavior After
The kids will be late for school Wife drops kids off at bus stop The kids will not be late for school

Acts of service must be freely given in order for a partner to receive its reinforcing effects.  Acts of service which are not free, but are under coercive control, yield what Dr. Dick Malott might describe as a “sick social cycle” or “victim’s escape model” – the aversive behavior of another causes you to emit an escape response, which in turn reinforces their aversive behavior.

A husband complying to the nagging complaints of his wife to cut the grass will more likely reinforce future nagging complaints instead of more appropriate dialogue.

In Dr. Chapman’s words, “Love is always freely given. Love cannot be demanded. We can request things of each other, but we must never demand anything. Requests give direction to love, but demands stop the flow of love.”

Behavioral translation: Demands serve as punishers and decrease the future frequency of desired behaviors.

5) “Physical touch” = Sensory 

“We have long known that physical touch is a way of communicating emotional love … For some individuals, physical touch is their primary love language.  Without it, they feel unloved.  With it … they feel secure in the love of their spouse.”

Physical touch can take many forms and includes sexual and nonsexual behavior.  Physical touch is also under heavy stimulus control – your spouse may appreciate PDA at the movies, but not necessarily in front of your in-laws.

Concluding Points

1) “Discovering the primary ‘love language’ of your spouse is essential if you are to keep their emotional ‘love tank’ full.” – Chapman

=  “Discovering the most preferred form of reinforcement of your spouse is essential if you are to prevent extinction.”

2) Your spouse’s (and your own) “love language” can change.

Under the influence of particular motivating operations, the reinforcing effectiveness of a stimulus, object, or event can change.

Quality time with your spouse is more valuable than flowers when they have been away on business for a week.

Cleaning the house may be more valuable to your wife than new shoes right before company is coming over (okay, maybe not).

3) Challenge your own biases.

By my own admission, I was reluctant to reexamine Chapman’s book due to my own personal biases.  However, as scientists and practitioners, behavior analysts must maintain an attitude of philosophic doubt, in which all scientific knowledge and theory is continually questioned – even if that knowledge falls outside of traditional behavioral paradigms.  In my case, initial hesitancy led way to parsimonious explanations which further enhanced my behavior analytic worldview.


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