Why You Always Want the People You Can't Have, According to Science

Kelsey Clark

Dating the wrong people could be considered a rite of passage in your 20s. But pining for the people who are either emotionally unavailable or simply not interested is neither productive nor fun. So why is it so common to lust after the people we can't have? Or even worse, why is it so difficult to let go of the people who repeatedly reject us? 

According to Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, human behavior researcher, and author of Why We Love, the answer actually comes down to neurological responses in the brain. "The reason romantic rejection gets us hooked is that this sort of rejection stimulates parts of the brain associated with motivation, reward, addiction, and cravings," writes Berit Brogaard in a piece discussing Fisher's research

To come to this conclusion, Fisher and her colleagues looked at the brains of 15 college-age men and women who had been recently rejected by a romantic partner but still claimed to be very much in love. During the MRI scan, the participants were first shown a photo of the person who rejected them, then they completed a simple math exercise and ended by viewing a photo of a familiar person they had no romantic interest in. It was during the first exercise that the team noticed activity in areas of the brain associated with motivation, reward, craving, addiction, and so forth. In other words, this situation is neurologically similar to dealing with a drug addiction, and the emotionally unavailable person is the "drug."

So why do we still end up fixating on the people we can't have? "Another aspect of this anguish may have to do with the perceived value of the other person. If the other person doesn't want us or is not available for a relationship, their perceived value goes up," writes Brogaard. "[Or] in the case of a relationship that has ended, we may be addicted to ... thoughts of what could have been but never will be."

Head over to Psychology Today for more insight, and share your thoughts on the study below.

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