Would You Take the Honeymoon Pill?
by Dan Haggard
A few years ago a study by researchers (Acevedo, Aron, Fisher, Brown) from Stony Brook university made the claim that a small percentage of mated couples (10%) indefinitely maintain a brain state similar to that found in most couples during the early ‘honeymoon’ stage of their relationship. Consequently these “swan” couples displayed a passion and devotion to one another that is uncommon in long term relationships generally. Unfortunately, for most of us the love chemicals fade – and if our relationship survives at all, then at best we learn to settle for an unexciting, yet comfortable rut.
So then – here’s the question: what if you and your partner could take a honeymoon pill that would allow you both to maintain the swan-like brain state permanently? Would you take it?
I’ve been shopping this hypothetical question around to as many people as I can find recently – and if this sample is anything to go by, then almost all of you are going to answer this question with a emphatic no (about 90%). Despite this near universal agreement, I’m going to argue that we shouldn’t be so sure of our intuitions. The honeymoon pill may not be so heinous a concept as many of you will suppose.
The Honeymoon Phase – Some Facts and Assumptions
The honeymoon phase of a relationship will be familiar to most adult readers. It typically lasts from 12-15 months, involves a high degree of intensity, passion and euphoria, engagement and sexual activity. It also often involves what psychologists refer to as ‘limerance’ – the sometimes obsessive and disruptive nature of the relationship. After this period, the passion typically fades and the relationship at best achieves more of a friendship kind of relationship.
There is strong evidence that we aren’t just imagining this kind of relationship progression. A 2005 studyby the Stony Brook research group used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify the activation of reward centres in the brain when subjects in the honeymoon phase viewed images of their beloved. Those reporting a high degree of romantic passion for their partners displayed group activation “dopamine-rich areas associated with mammalian reward and motivation, namely the right ventral tegmental area and the right postero-dorsal body and medial caudate nucleus.” What the Stony Brook group hypothesised is that these longer term couples reporting the same high degree of passion for the partners would also display group activation in the same reward centres of the brain. This turned out to be true.
There are a couple of questions we have to settle about the honeymoon pill one way or another for the purposes of the thought experiment. First of all, would the kind of brain state produced by the pill be exactly like those couple in the early phase of their relationship? Would they also display the negative limerance like qualities as well? It turns out that despite displaying the same kind of passion for the partners as the short term couple, longer term couples typically did not suffer from obsessive or intrusive thoughts about their partner. So we should assume that our pill won’t cause these negative effects either.
We will also want to know a bit more about what causes these brain states in longer term swan couples. Are they just genetically blessed? Was it behaviourally instilled in them as children? Or has it something to do with the choices they made as a couple – are they somehow ‘better’ people than the rest of us? If the latter is true, then we are probably going to want to adopt behavioural therapies before we start swallowing pills. As far as I am aware there is not a huge literature on what causes the honeymoon state in short or long term couples (although I’m not an expert in the field). Aron from the Stony Brook group suggests a model called expansion theory where the high degree of passion is caused by an expansion of self when getting to know a new partner. By continually learning new things and engaging in challenging activities together a couple can maintain this sense of expansion indefinitely. If this account is true then I think we shouldn’t be taking the honeymoon pill. But I won’t be challenging this view directly – instead I’ll be exploring a darker path into the nature of romantic attachment. But readers should bear in mind that alternative points of view are out there.
I’ll also be assuming that the pill has no other adverse side effects – that it doesn’t cause addiction or that sort of thing. In our scenario it can’t be forced on the subject. It can’t be given to them surreptitiously. In real life – it’s rare that a drug that messes around with the reward centres in our brain doesn’t cause some kind of side effects. But for our purposes we can leave these sorts of issues aside. There will be a few more assumptions that will be made about the use of this pill – but I’ll make these clear as we progress.
Why No Love for the Honeymoon Pill?
The first thing we need to understand is why it is we are so intuitively repulsed by the idea of a honeymoon pill? The main concern that people cite is that the authenticity of the relationship is somehow threatened by the pill. It turns your love into a lie. There is something compelling and deeply intuitive about this reaction. We naturally recoil from the idea of artificial love. But in what way is the authenticity of a relationship actually threatened? And why does this really bother us? What we need to explain here is why the vast majority of people have this negative reaction to the idea of the honeymoon pill. Citing a concern about authenticity isn’t actually enough to explain it. After all, there are plenty of contexts in life where a significant number of people will accept some form of in-authenticity or another. And some of those contexts make it hard to discern sometimes just what the value of authenticity in a relationship is supposed to be.
For instance, consider courtship as it is commonly practised in western cultures. Many of us are happy to ply ourselves with alcohol in order to make it easier to get laid – yet baulk at the prospect of taking chemical aids later on in the relationship. We wear beautiful masks for superficial introductions, then let it all hang out, warts and all in front of the people we love. Our authenticity – that which we would so cheaply trade for a night with a drunken stranger proves more valuable than those in which we invest the best years of our lives. Think about this for a while and then ask: – what then it’s value? Might it make more sense to be as honest as possible to those with whom we have weak ties – so that we have better information about possible longer term compatibility? And then later engage in selective forms of in-authenticity in order to protect the investments in people that we’ve made? The honeymoon pill scenario respects the intuition that authenticity is more important to the selection process than the already committed relationship. It’s not like the traditional love potion that causes people to fall in love. It assumes that selection has already taken place – and presumably with as little artificial interference as possible. So if the love made possible by a honeymoon pill is a lie, then it’s a lie in a different sense.
Considerations like these suggest to me that we need to think harder about our instinctive reaction to the honeymoon pill. Presumably there are some features we value in authentic long term relationships and that we think that they are jeopardised by the honeymoon pill. Going forward I will refer to this as the Principle of Lovage:
The Principle of Lovage: There are desirable features possessed by authentic, long-term relationships which are threatened by the ingestion of a honeymoon pill.
The difficult thing is in understanding just what these desirable features are. To see if this principle is valid, we’re going to need to explore some candidates to see if any can be deployed in defence of our original intuition.
Often a claim about a lack of authenticity is made because of a compromise of the agency of the people involved. At first sight this looks like a good candidate. Agency is something that often recognised as something desirable. And it is also something that you could argue is threatened by taking the honeymoon pill.
For sake of argument lets assume having agency is a good thing in itself. We want to avoid any deep discussions about the value of free-will and all that sort of thing. Let’s just say that if the case can be made that our agency is significantly compromised then we have a good argument for not taking the pill.
Is our agency significantly compromised? As mentioned previously – it’s not as though anyone is made to fall in love on account of the pill. Furthermore, no one is being forced to take it. The decision to do so is a mutually agreed upon choice by both partners. Once medicated, we can assume that there is nothing chemical stopping them from choosing to not re-administer the drug. We assume there are no withdrawal symptoms or anything like that. If they continue to re-administer, all we can say is that they prefer being in the swan state to being out of it.
But hang on, you might reply, their preferences have been altered by the pill. Once they take the pill, their preferences are no longer their own. They are no longer free to change back. So their agency has been still be compromised in this sense. Except – they chose to change their preferences in this way. What sense are we to make of this?
There is another way to frame the same question. We assume that if a non-swan couple never opted to take the honeymoon pill then their relationship would face certain tests it otherwise wouldn’t. When facing such tests we assume that people would be forced to make a choice one way or another: to persist with the relationship, or to end it. But if you take the pill, then you no longer have to face these tests. You might argue that you haven’t really made the choice unless you face the test for real. Is this argument valid?
Consider the following analogy. A subject is placed in a test chamber. At some point he is presented with a bowl of nutritious, yet mediocre tasting cereal and a bowl of tasty, yet unhealthy candy and is asked to choose between the two (with full knowledge of the qualities of each). The subject is tempted toward eating the candy but knows he should probably eat the cereal for the sake of his health. He is compelled to consume one of the items. He makes his choice in whatever way he does.
Next he is moved to a second test chamber. Before he enters he is told that he will face a similar choice between something desirable yet bad and something undesirable, yet good. He is not told exactly what he will be choosing between. He is also told that before entering the chamber he can indicate a preference for the good yet undesirable option ahead of time (he isn’t given the option to indicate a preference for the bad yet desirable option). If he does indicate this preference – then when he enters the chamber that will the only option with which he is presented. He will never learn what exactly he gave up. If he doesn’t indicate a preference for the good yet undesirable option, then he will face both options when he enters the chamber. At which point he will then have to make his choice. As per the first test chamber he has to consume at most one of the items by the end of the exercise.
To sharpen your intuitions a little bit – imagine he is told that his information deficit might be significant. Maybe the good item is massively good in the sense that it grants everlasting life – but only tastes as bad as a cap of Listerine; or maybe it is incredibly foul tasting but only increases one’s life span by one minute. Maybe the bad item grants ecstatic pleasure beyond imagining but only reduces the lifespan of the subject by one minute; maybe the pleasure granted is mild but reduces his lifespan by several years. The subject could be facing any number of possible combinations of these choices – with varying cost-benefits in each. The point being that the information deficit that he will have if he chooses to indicate a preference prior to entering the box might be significant. It might not. He might get a test chamber exactly like the first – where nothing life changing is presented to him. This is what he is told. But the reality is that he is going to be subjected to a very costly, yet very tempting option if he indicates no preference for the good (yet undesirable) option. So the benefit of providing an indication prior to entering the chamber is that you can choose to avoid the possibility of temptation entirely if you like.
The question I want you to ask about the analogy is whether or not you think he has greater agency in the first test chamber or the second? It seems clear by any measure he has more agency in the second scenario. In the second scenario he actually gets to choose whether or not to subject himself to temptation – he doesn’t in the first. You can’t argue that his agency is reduced in the second test chamber on account of having his information restricted about the choice he is making in the first instance – because he can choose not to indicate a preference and thereby gain full information once he steps into the chamber.
You might be able to argue that he has less agency in the second test chamber once he indicates a preference since he has made a choice on reduced information and doesn’t know what he is now going to miss out on. But even here it’s hard to argue the case definitively – because while you can argue that knowledge increases in some sense the degree of your agency, it can also be argued that temptation in some sense decreases your agency. And it’s part of the second test chamber that he will in fact be subjected to a very costly, yet very powerful temptation.
My claim is that the analogy is much like our honeymoon pill situation. Being given the choice to take the pill is like taking the option to indicate a preference before you know exactly what it is you will likely face in the future. As far as you know you might face some great challenge to your relationship, you might not. Before we face this challenge we make the assumption that the relationship is a good that we currently wish to maintain – but recognise that in the future it might cease to be as pleasurable on account of the challenges it might face (some disagreement, lack of passion or whatever), while still retaining its essential good. By taking the pill you make the choice ahead of time to maintain the relationship – this good thing – by preventing the relationship from being subjected to any of these sorts of challenges. The challenge itself is like the costly temptation in the test chambers. The temptation is to give up the relationship for a more pleasurable existence devoid of conflict or the passionless routine your relationship has become. The temptation is costly because if you succumb to it, you lose the relationship. By taking the pill you avoid ever having to face this temptation to end the relationship. Many people, I think would relate to this – while on the one hand their current experience of the relationship is miserable and they are tempted to end it – nevertheless, they fight to hold on to it because of the value they still attach to the relationship overall. It’s exactly for this reason that ‘breaking up is hard to do’.
The analogy between the two holds quite well. If decisions made with full knowledge have a higher agency than those made without it, and if facing temptation reduces agency - then at worst by taking the pill you are just trading one form of freedom for another.
Nozick and the Experience Machine
So I don’t feel we can cite agency as one of the desirable qualities of authentic relationships that are threatened by the honeymoon pill – as per the Principle of Lovage. So what other candidates are there? Well, an authentic relationship is not just one which involves the agency of the participants. Their experiences of one another have to be real as well. For instance, if I believe a large number of things about my partner which are not true – then the love I bear is also false in some sense. So an authentic relationship has a veridical component as well. This could be the candidate quality for which we are looking. For you might think that the experiences we have of the relationship are made unreal in some sense on account of taking the pill.
To get clearer one why we might value this veridical component, it’s useful to compare the honeymoon pill scenaro to another thought experiment – ‘The Experience Machine‘ by the famous philosopher Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia. In this thought experiment, psychologists invent a machine that can perfectly simulate experience in the mind of anyone who enters it – and this machine produces for us all the pleasurable and desirable experiences that we could want. The question Nozick then asks is whether or not we would prefer to live out our lives in an unreal, but otherwise perfect existence.
In reaction to this thought experiment most of us intuitively recoil from the idea of living out our lives in the experience machine – just as most of us do with respect to the possibility of taking the honeymoon pill. Nozick used this intuitive reaction as an argument against a philosophical view known as utilitarianism, which advocated that we should judge our behaviours on the basis of how much pleasure they collectively bring. The fact that most of us would choose a comparatively miserable, yet real existence over a perfectively pleasurable, yet unreal one was evidence for Nozick that pleasure is not the only thing that is important to us, and thus shouldn’t be the only component of our moral foundations.
Many will see a clear analogy between the Experience Machine and the honeymoon pill. The most obvious motivation for taking the pill is the pleasurable relationship that will result – as opposed to the passionless and ordinary sort of relationship that most of us must endure. We also intuitively feel that by taking the pill we are running away from reality in some way. And since we believe that a pleasurable existence has no value if not real, as demonstrated by the idea of the experience machine, so to do we feel that a pleasurable relationship has no value if it is not real.
But in fact we still aren’t any closer to understanding what is meant by ‘unreal’ when mentioned in the context of the honeymoon pill. In Nozick’s thought experiment it IS clear what is meant by an experience being unreal. It exists only in the mind of the person plugged into the machine. This is not the case in the honeymoon pill hypothetical. Both of you are in the swan like brain state. Your romance continues in the real world. Everyone else around you can observe your happiness. It is not a merely subjective reality that you experience. So when we claim that the love made possible by the honeymoon pill is ‘unreal’ – we can’t mean it in the same way. So what do we mean?
It could be that the honeymoon pill causes us to straight up perceive our partners in ways that are false. But for the purpose of this thought experiment, we’re just going to assume that this is not the case. The honeymoon pill doesn’t alter your perceptions in anyway – it just alters your preferences. You still notice all the hair he leaves in the shower – you just don’t mind it like you once did. You don’t feel the need to nag him as you would have in the past.
Maybe it has more to do with what is causing those brain states. We have an intuition that there should be a certain set of real-world events and experiences that can cause the sorts of feelings people have in romantic relationships – just as there should be a certain set of real world experiences that cause feelings of accomplishment and pleasure as per Nozick’s thought experiment. And we clearly should not include experience machines and honeymoon pills in that set of real world things that should legitimately cause these brain states. A feeling of accomplishment should be caused by a real accomplishment; just as a deep, romantic attachment should be the product of a long process of getting to know one another and learning to resolve the natural conflicts that arise.
If the argument in favour of the honeymoon pill is ultimately to be defeated – I think this is the argument that has the best shot at doing it. In fact, I think that it must be at least partly correct. It’s difficult to deny that only through suffering setbacks and facing challenges in life do we learn and grow to be better people. For example, it’s not an accident that only children are known to be self-absorbed. It’s because they never had to learn to negotiate with a sibling. They miss out on crucial opportunities to learn conflict resolution techniques. So it’s reasonable to believe that by taking the honeymoon pill you might be retarding your growth in the same way.
And yet, there is an assumption behind this belief that I think may well turn out to be wrong. The assumption has to do with what people commonly assume spousal conflict is all about. New ideas in the field of evolutionary psychology may some day prove these assumptions false.
Most people opposed to the honeymoon pill would likely see spousal conflict along the lines I just described – something which we must all go through in order to become better human beings. The assumption is that the conflict in romantic contexts is about the sorts of things that cause conflict in other forms of human relationships. Typically we assume some kind of character flaw is in play which must be overcome in some way for the conflict to be resolved. Maybe one person is selfish and needs to learn how to care more about the needs of their partner. Maybe they have a temper and need to learn to control it. They could be prone to deception and need to learn the value of honesty. The list goes on…
There is no doubt that all of these sorts of things cause conflicts in romantic relationships just as they do in other kinds of relationships. But there is reason to think that romance faces challenges over and above the previously listed conflicts. In evolutionary psychology there is a theory proposed by David Buss known as strategic interference. The basic idea is as follows. Because of their different roles in reproduction, men and women have faced different adaptive problems in the quest to successfully reproduce. This has led to the evolution of different reproductive strategies employed by the sexes. Strategic interference theory predicts that conflict will likely occur in a relationship where these varying reproductive strategies interfere with one another.
The different problems that men and women would have faced in the past are fairly well understood. One faced by women would have been ensuring that the resources required to carry an expensive nine month pregnancy, whereas men would have been able to just get up and leave during the pregnancy if it suited them. Hence women would likely have sought to solve this problem by selecting high status men with access to resources, who are also willing to commit these resources over the longer term. Men, on the other hand are not so constrained. It’s far cheaper for them to have multiple partners and so they have often adopted the strategy of spreading their seed as widely as possible. Here is a natural point at which male and female reproductive strategies conflict with one another. If a man feigns long term interest in a female, only to discard her once he has knocked her up, he would be directly interfering with her strategy of securing a long term supportive partner.
Here is another example. It happens to be the case that the trait of being high status and economically powerful often don’t cohere with being supportive and loyal. High status likely means that you have more options and more temptation. So there is less incentive to stick with just one woman. As such, there is an incentive for women to obtain a fitness benefit for her offspring by selecting the most powerful male she can with whom to mate – while at the same time securing another male as a partner to help raise and support the child during its development. Because of this threat of cuckoldry men developed various mitigation strategies in order to minimise this risk. The main strategy employed is simply psychological, behavioural and physical control to prevent women from successfully mating with other men. Women don’t have this problem since they know intimately whether or not they are the mother of their child. But they do have to worry about men diverting economic resources to other mates.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection predicts that those who successfully evolved mechanisms to deal with strategic interference were more likely to successfully reproduce than those who didn’t. Buss offered the hypothesis that we evolved various negative emotional reactions (jealousy, anxiety, anger etc) primarily as a defence against strategic interference. This subjective distress is proposed to solve four functions:
(a) drawing attention to interfering events, (b) marking those events for storage in memory, (c) motivating actions that reduce or eliminate the source of strategic interference, and (d) motivating memorial retrieval and hence subsequent avoidance of contexts producing future interference. From Buss et al 2004.
Buss tested the hypothesis by measuring the differences in the reported negative affect between the sexes as caused by various forms of strategic interference. For instance, the theory predicted that women overall would report a greater degree of negative affect when sexual interest was signalled by the other when not desired by the subject. It makes this prediction because early displays of sexual interest signal short term mating strategies. The empirical results of Buss’ study confirmed this prediction.
The fact that humans also evolved a honeymoon period in a relationship fits neatly with this picture (although I’m not sure if Buss talks about it). The selection and courtship phase of a relationship would naturally involve a high degree of strategic interference mitigation in order to ensure that adequate selections are made in the first instance – hence the high degree of negative emotional affect associated with this phase. That’s why women so often get upset if you hit on them sooner than they want it. That’s why men get so upset when a woman flirts but then withholds sex. But once the selection is made, then it would have been important for couples to keep it together long enough for gestation. Twelve months – the average length of the honeymoon phase – is just long enough to get a girl pregnant and keep the male around long enough while the female is at her most vulnerable during the pregnancy. The honeymoon period serves to put strategic interference mitigation strategies out of play to ensure the key act of gestation is not threatened by couple dis-union. But after that – it’s game on once again. Some forms of strategic interference occur only during the courtship phase (like deceptive signalling about long term intentions) – but other forms remain a risk throughout the entire duration of a relationship, like cuckoldry and cheating. So it makes sense that the honeymoon period should end. Individuals who exited the honeymoon phase did better reproductively than those who didn’t. And that’s probably why swan like couples are a relatively rare phenomenon today.
The upshot of all this is that we evolved to be miserable in our relationships. We are hard wired to be on the look out for signs of strategic interference by the people with whom we have chosen to be most intimate. And when we detect them we get upset. This loss in subjective well-being in turn creates stress on the relationship as a whole. This story contradicts our intuition that we suffer through our relationships to learn a lesson about life and become better partners and better people. Rather, a large proportion of spousal conflict is caused by an evolutionary arms race that’s been going on for million of years. You’re not supposed to overcome these aspects of your nature. You’re not supposed to grow as a person. If your ancestors had overcome these instincts – then they would likely not had the success in reproduction that they did.
Dumping the Evolutionary Ball and Chain
Now – obviously these traits evolved for good reason. They proved essential in the continual reproductive arms race. And if it were the case that these evolved traits were as relevant today as they were back in the day when our ancestors first developed them then I’d argue that they should be left well alone. But I think there are good reasons to suppose that these traits are no longer relevant.
It is a common belief that modern society is changing the environment around us faster than evolution can keep up. As a result we are not ideally adapted to our environment and this is having a lot of negative consequences. An obvious example concerns the way we evolved to cope with an environment where access to caloric energy was difficult. Access to calories is now much easier for most of us. But we haven’t evolved to deal with this environment. Hence you could argue that this is the primary reason why many western societies are facing an obesity epidemic today.
Similarly, with respect to sexual selection it is clear that we no longer face the same selective pressures as we once did. In many western societies a male is legally compelled to economically support his offspring – reducing his incentive to engage in short term relationships. Another disincentive for men to engage in short term mating strategies comes from laws surrounding marriage and de facto relationships which ensure economic assets are distributed fairly upon separation. Furthermore, women have greater access to education and economic power. Consequently there is less incentive for women to worry about men diverting their resources to other partners and there is less incentive for them to engage in cuckoldry. Men have less reason to worry about cuckoldry since DNA related technology has made it possible to determine male paternity beyond any doubt. In general, as the wealth and technological capabilities of our society increase we should expect our naturally evolved tendencies to become less and less relevant since evolution in humans does not keep pace with the rate of societal and technological change.
Interestingly, evidence for this thesis comes from the fact that we probably began drinking alcohol at around the same time that we made a massive economic leap from a hunter gather society to an agrarian one. Alcohol, as we noted earlier, interferes with normal mate selection procedures and typically makes people less discerning. Drinking alcohol would ordinarily have been too much of a risk in hunter gatherer society since the risks of choosing bad partners would have been too high (as well as the other bad effects it causes). Hunter gatherers lived too close to the economic edge for this to be an acceptable risk. Ethnographic evidence suggests that alcohol was not a significant component of the daily caloric intake of our Palaeolithic ancestors, as compared to the 7 to 10 percent that it contributes to the average American’s intake. But as we got richer those risks decreased – presumably to the point where drinking alcohol actually became a selective advantage.
Further – it seems to me that it’s no accident that alcohol would be so commonly associated with religious ritual since religious institutions served to further decrease selection risks. The blood of Christ was wine. You imbibed his blood as a symbol of your allegiance to the institution which insisted that you pair bonded for life. This meant you could afford to be less rigorous in your mate selection, because the church existed as an institution to provide an external constraint on infidelity. But you can’t just simply choose to be less selective. It’s hard wired into us. You needed chemical assistance. You needed the blood of Christ – alcohol – to interrupt the natural chemical processes in the brain. A neat example of how our traditions have developed through a combination of our evolutionary and economic heritage.
Note that the ways in which alcohol reduce inhibition may be subtle and complex. For instance – women under the influence of alcohol show decreased inhibition with respect to mate selection only toward high value, yet risky males. That is – alcohol only causes them to drop their guard toward men that signal high fitness characteristics – but also short term mating strategies (see this paper). If this is true then alcohol may not act so much to disrupt selection strategies entirely – but simply cause individuals to favour some strategies over others. As a vehicle for cuckoldry this would partly undermine the story I told about alcohol being a means to more easily establish long term pair bonds. But insofar as the affair becomes public, the religious institution would have provided some mechanism to enforce marriage and therefore mitigate risk.
Also – arguments have been made to suggest that the dis-inhibiting effects of alcohol are not chemically produced – but culturally. This isn’t as bad for the story I’ve just told as you might think. It doesn’t matter whether it is alcohol as such which disrupts selection strategies in a causal sense or the cultural institutions that surround its use. It just means that our brain states are more susceptible to being changed by cultural contexts than we thought. It doesn’t change the fact that we are still hard wired in some sense to pursue our various selection strategies. It just means that this wiring itself is sensitive to environmental changes and those changes didn’t occur until we were rich enough to develop religion and brew beer.
In any case – all this suggests that we have already begun the process of dismantling the evolutionary defences bequeathed to us by our ancestors. Given this, it makes it harder to suppose that there is any reason to halt the progression of this disarmament short of societal collapse. Where alcohol or surrounding cultural practice interrupts selection related strategic interference processes at the early, courtship phase of a relationship, then a honeymoon pill would serve to perform the same role for strategic interference strategies that occur during late stage, mature relationships. If we’re not yet at a point where society is rich and well organised enough to allow for further dismantling of our evolutionary defences, then it doesn’t look far off. There may in fact be plenty of fitness benefits to be gained from taking the honeymoon pill that wouldn’t have existed in a pre-industrial society. People in happy, healthy relationships live longer. The offspring of such unions do better as well. Children that suffer the divorce of their parents, for instance, are more likely suffer from many psychological impairments later in life.
Some Unanswered Questions
As I see it – we haven’t been able to find a good candidate quality to underpin the lovage principle as I outlined it above. But we’ve only looked at two of the most obvious candidates. What’s more, I think there are plenty of questions that still need to be answered. For instance, how do we ensure that any real life honeymoon pill doesn’t trap us in what we would otherwise measure as a bad relationship? I’ve been assuming hitherto that if the relationship was abusive, then at least one partner would never assent to taking the pill. People in the honeymoon phase are more willing to tolerate flaws in their partners. Would the pill then cause a sufferer of abuse to simply become more amenable to abuse? Or would it cause the abuser to cease their abusive behaviour? Or both?
Even if you knew that it would eliminate the abusive behaviour would you ever want to take the honeymoon pill with such a person? You might not feel the pain of the previous abuse any more – but you would probably still remember it. The cognitive dissonance caused by the intellectual understanding that the abuse has occurred versus the emotional ambivalence resulting from the pill might be extreme and uncomfortable. Does the pill erase the uncomfortable memories as well? Now we’re on a slippery slope toward the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind. None of the arguments I’ve put forward here for the honeymoon pill will transfer over easily to memory erasure and control. At least, I have no intention of trying to make such a case.
What’s more, the pill itself doesn’t change our underlying genetic code. If we have partnered with someone who has bad features that we would ordinarily not select for, then presumably there is a chance that these traits will be passed on to your offspring. That’s fine if your offspring also will have access to honeymoon pills – but you’re taking a risk that the societal superstructure will remain as it is in the very long run. And unfortunately, in the very long run, societal collapse does happen and will probably happen again.
Another concern is that we want the honeymoon pill to only to inhibit negative emotional affect in cases where sexual strategic interference is at play. We still want to get upset when people are selfish, dishonest, irascible, irrational etc. And we still want people to get upset with us when we behave that way. We want this because we still want to learn all the important life lessons about how not to be bad in these ways – and we don’t want to be walked all over by people who haven’t yet learnt these lessons. But how do we ensure that the honeymoon pill selects correctly? You might just think that it’s a matter of accurate enough brain imaging. But I doubt very much that this will prove to be the case. The problem is that you’re probably not always empirically going to be able to tell whether a given case of negative emotional affect is caused by strategic interference or just normal a-sexual human conflict. So this will complicate the mapping from brain states to behaviour that will be necessary to ensure the pill is properly targeted.
And finally – I think it’s important to ask yourself the following question before swallowing the honeymoon pill. What if you discover one day that your happy, perfect relationship was a result of your partner secretly slipping you the pill in your food? Would you choose to keep taking it? Would you even be bothered by it? For you see, the act of slipping the pill would be an act of strategic interference by your partner of the highest order. Yet the whole point of the honeymoon pill is to disable your strategic interference defence systems. In this case your preferences would have been changed externally – and we have to wonder whether you would have the ability to change them back. The potential for abuse seems high.
I don’t think anyone should be claiming they can make a definitive case for or against such the honeymoon pill. But what we should realise is that our default intuitions aren’t equipped to properly respond to choice should it ever be presented to us. I offer the above as a start on the development of better tools for thinking about these sorts of issues.