Brian D. Earp: "If We Use Medicines to Cure the Flu, Why Not Use Them to Cure Infidelity?"

20 Apr 2016

La Vanguardia interviewed Brian D. Earp following his participation as an expert in STI's "Technology and the Good Society". At the meeting Earp discussed love drugs and why scientists should study their effects on romantic relationships.

STI Experts

Brian D. Earp, researcher into 'love drugs' at the Hastings Center Bioethics Research Institute and Oxfords’ Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.


Love drugs exist:  Let’s learn to use them.  The dogmas of the right are absurd; so are the dogmas of the left.  Plastic surgery and sex-change operations should not be decided by parents. Routine male circumcision can be just as problematic as female circumcision.  I collaborate with the Social Trends Institute in Barcelona.


It’s a question of chemistry

Six years:  That’s how long our primate ancestors needed from birth to become independent enough to join the group.  Until that age, offspring that had a mother and father bonded together in order to feed and care for them had a better chance of growing up, reproducing and passing their genes on to their children:  those of someone who also once sought a mate… and it’s been that way ever since.  That six year (or so) relationship was guaranteed by a brain-generated chemical storm of drugs that still make us fall in love and stay together… until they run out. Today, Earp defends pharmaceutical crutches to help some romantic partnerships last longer, better.  No one who doesn’t want to take them need do so, but knowing what they can do could enrich our human experience and help us to better share it. 


What’s the most used love drug?

Alcohol has always been used – and abused – to disinhibit emotions.

And a less known example?

MDMA, or ecstasy, was prescribed by marriage counselors in the 80s to reinforce floundering marital relationships.

Why did it fall out of use?

Precisely because it was often so effective.  When people discovered what it could do, many took it recreationally to the point of turning it into a party drug that was then banned by the public health authorities and included on lists of non-therapeutic substances. 

So what?

Well, it lost research funds, so we still don’t know its potential, its appropriate dosages, potential side-effects…

Knowledge never hurt anyone.

The good news is that the US health authorities are unfreezing the taboo against researching that list of banned substances.

Well, that’s something to rejoice.

Psilocybin, the hallucinogen in so-called magic mushrooms, is another substance on that list.  It can apparently revive buried memories for some people and trigger personal insights. And LSD is being studied today at Harvard.

Will they help improve life as a couple?

What I proposed in my papers with my colleagues at Oxford is that we do the research:  if we use drugs to cure the flu, why not investigate their use to ‘cure’ infidelity?  Why not see if it is possible to restrain with new biotechnologies the tendency to infidelity that makes so many couples unhappy?

Because no one dies from falling out of love or from being cheated on:  It hurts, but you learn from it.

That’s what the moralists who opposed the use of drugs for treating pain said: they thought that suffering built virtue, and, like you said, that the pain of falling out of love made us better people. Sometimes it does. Other times, the pain is just pain.

Some relationships are better off broken up.

Of course, and those should end. But how many truly unnecessary and yet traumatic separations and how much suffering for children and families could be avoided?  Why not strengthen the bond between partners, if the relationship is worth saving -- and if that is what they choose together – if that could prevent their giving up too easily?

What other drugs could help couples improve their relationship?

Oxytocin - to name one of the most widely known - is released by the brain in response to caresses and to orgasm, and also when a mother breastfeeds her young. Among other things, it can apparently reinforce emotional bonds under certain conditions.

I imagine it would be complicated to administer.

In animal tests, it has been shown to strengthen bonds of affection, but in humans it’s not as straightforward.  Each person responds to synthetic oxytocin differently.

What is the most studied love drug?

That’s the problem: we haven’t studied them enough, though they might improve our lives greatly.  Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that’s crucial to relationships.

You wouldn’t want to further medicalize our lives so pharmaceutical companies can profit?

That is a serious risk, and we should take steps to regulate any harmful profiteering. But if we had these types of drugs in the pharmacy, we could decide whether or not to take them. For some couples, they might be beneficial enough to be worth having available. These are exactly the kinds of ethical dilemmas that need to be thought through.

Considering them can only make us better,

That’s right. And there are many others to consider as well. For example, there are already drugs that can help people get over post-traumatic stress disorder after a terrible accident involving oneself or a loved one.  Do you think people are always better off for suffering more?

I think reducing suffering with drugs would impede our developing creative resilience.

Well, that’s one thing for those who are able to develop it.  But others find their lives ruined by a tragedy and are helpless to get over it.  Why deny them relief?

But we are talking about love drugs.

Right – and with love, like other important aspects of life, there can be fruitful suffering as well as suffering that is intolerable. Each individual has to decide which one. There are already many ways we try to alleviate heartbreak that don’t involve drugs, and the question is whether there could sometimes be a role for drugs as well.

Suffering for love wasn’t a concept before Petrarch:  Can a marriage be good without love?

It depends on each culture.  Many people don’t accept a biochemical basis for love because they consider it to be a spiritual feeling that is entirely separate from the mere flow of neurotransmitters. 

Is infidelity in our genes too?

It’s surely part of some evolutionary strategies. But in some ways it’s a losing strategy.  The arguable winner in our most advanced cultures is the stable couple.  That’s why it may be worthwhile to study the substances that could bolster couples’ stability.  Medicine is often one technique among many to serve particular cultural ends.

Medicine is the science of healing.

Illness and disease are culturally-informed concepts.  I have studied male circumcision in the United States, for example, where it became a majority practice - unlike in Europe – because of a 19th century puritanical prejudice.  Those who suggest that it is motivated strictly by health and hygiene don’t know their history, and of course the same justifications are given for female circumcision in societies where that is the cultural norm.

And we consider that barbaric.

Medical reasoning is often culture-bound. There are still religious communities – I have written about them – that promote the use of drugs to “cure” homosexuality.

More nonsense.

And then there are children and adolescents who decide to change their sex.  But notions of “male” and “female” are also variable from culture to culture. It is only ethical to wait until children reach adulthood. Then they can decide whether they want to change sex, be circumcised or have plastic surgery.  Not before. 

They should decide for themselves, but not as children.

Some would accuse me of having conservative views on this issue -- for advising parents not to choose a sex change for their young children, but rather letting them decide for themselves when they reach an age of understanding. It’s a complicated issue.


Mr. Earp was interviewed in Spain's La Vanguardia newspaper on April 19, 2016. This text is a translated adaptation of that interview with Lluís Amiguet. Photo by Xavier Cervera - La Vanguardia

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