Why Having a Crush Is Good for You
Embarrassing fantasy relationships play an important evolutionary role
We’ve all played the lead role in a teen drama laden with angst, sweaty palms, a racing heart, and an inability to concentrate on anything or anyone else but the object of our desire. And just as every Hollywood scenario depicts, crushes can be excruciatingly embarrassing in high school, but can also affect us in adulthood. So it might seem difficult to imagine that all this cringe-worthy behavior has a purpose and is actually good for us — at least most of the time.
Adults can also be taken unaware when cupid strikes, suddenly becoming self-conscious around someone attractive at work or swooning over a celebrity, even when they’re happily married. Why this happens is a bit of a mystery. “Crushes have more to do with fantasy than with reality,” psychologist and author Dr. Carl Pickhardt has written. “They tell much more about the admirer than the admired.”
In its purest sense, a crush is a form of parasocial relationship; a one-sided relationship where you have feelings for someone else but those feelings are not reciprocated, according to Dr. Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology. “The research into the brain isn’t there yet, so we still don’t know whether crushes generate the same [neural] patterns as when someone is genuinely in love,” she said. Despite this, she added, the feeling of infatuation or love that crushes produce is real.
What goes on in our heads?
It’s thought that when we’re in love or lust, the stress and reward systems in our brain are working overtime, and the same is possibly true of having a crush. Nerve cells in the brain release a chemical called norepinephrine that stimulates the production of adrenaline, and give us the feeling of arousal that causes our palms to sweat and our hearts to pound. The feel-good chemical dopamine is also released, making us excitable and talkative, and perhaps explains why we sometimes blurt out unimaginably embarrassing things. This is charmingly described as “word vomit” in the cult film Mean Girls, and exemplified by the mortifying line, “I carried a…