Love Blooms

Flowers have been given as gifts for a very, very long time. They’re given as romantic gestures, commemoration, celebration, and more.

Why?

If you think about it, they hardly make sense. They’re almost always cut from their plant, which makes them a very temporary gift as well as being, technically, useless outside of a brief burst of color and perhaps scent. Logically, they’d be given as part of the plant that grew them, which would allow for longer enjoyment and also more of them as it produces more. But of course this is thinking about it all wrong – or else that would be the way it’s usually done.

Now, sometimes a flowering plant is in fact given, and I don’t want to ignore that. Tulips tend to fall apart shortly after cutting, and poppies absolutely will, making them good candidates for potted flowers. And some people prefer having a plant, at least sometimes. Still, one must admit that cut stems allow for a more lush and dense collection of blooms, and that is very nice. Yet the previous objections hold.

In a 2011 issue of Social Influence, an article called “‘Say it with flowers’: The effect of flowers on mating attractiveness and behavior” has some scientific light to shed on the question. (Personally, I’m amused at the title, which can’t decide whether to be cutesy or clinical.) Applying the rigor of empirical research to the vagaries of perception, they discovered this:

In two experiments we show that women’s perception of male attractiveness and their potential mating behavior are positively affected by simple exposure to flowers. In Study 1 women who were exposed to flowers while they watched a video of a man perceived the man to be more attractive and sexier. They also reported being more inclined to accept a date from him. In Study 2 women who were exposed to flowers responded more favorably to an explicit solicitation from a male confederate in a subsequent interaction. The results show that the simple exposure to flowers had a significant effect on women’s perception of mating attractiveness and behavior.

A few obvious questions come to mind:

  1. Does this work for men’s perceptions as well? Quite possibly, if apparently in a lesser degree. I rather like certain flowers, myself, though their influence on me is no greater than that of any other gift or indication of thoughtfulness.
  2. Is this a cultural thing, especially in light of the previous point? Considering the world-wide and millenia-long occurrence, I’d say it’s built in, or so universal as makes no difference.
  3. Similarly, is the positive reaction due to some inherent trait of flowers, or the meaning imbued by them by societal programming? Now that’s an interesting question. My sense is that it’s probably both.

We’ve grown up thinking of flowers as romantic (or at least thoughtful and meaningful), and apparently so has everyone else, but why? Is it the throwing money at something temporary? I doubt it: wildflowers gathered for free have at least the impact of bought blooms. It could be an inborn understanding of what they are, a sign of beautiful days and healthy surroundings, which encourage growth and bounty. After all, their specific purpose is to attract pollinators or (depending on the plant) spreaders of seeds. It’s hardly surprising we too find them lovely to be around.

Considering the second experiment described above, we may have a hardwired response in us that signs of spring mean it’s time to consider some propagation of our own, and are thus more likely to respond favorably to potential mates. Like the song says, we ain’t nothin’ but mammals. It’s a distinct possibility.

Something which occurred to me recently is that the temporary nature of cut flowers might give them more meaning in a way subtle enough that I’ve never heard nor read it; yet it rings true. In watching people’s reactions to and enjoyment of flowers, I think it has less to do with a carefree wastefulness (an arguably unkind yet arguably valid point) than with an at-the-moment kind of thoughtfulness: They must, of necessity, have been harvested recently, and therefore the giver must have had generous thoughts toward the recipient recently. Flowers say, “I’m thinking about you now.” Since most people’s thoughts center around the immediate, this gives a very positive reaction.

How does all this relate to the experiments described above, in which flowers are present yet intentionally not seen as a gift? Well, people associate things as much by proximity as by reason. Humans aren’t exactly paragons of rationality, and the subconscious connects dots apparently for the fun of it. The mere presence of flowers allowed the subjects’ minds to make the association where rationally there wasn’t one. Or, it’s the flat-out influence of springtime beauty that lends itself to thoughts of love.

I take two lessons from all this. Firstly, flowers seem to be a good way to tell someone that you’re thinking of them, with an immediacy, a now-ness, if you will, that lasts as long as the blooms do. Secondly, surrounding yourself with beautiful things will help you react positively to other people, and increase their good impression of you.

If you’ll pardon me, I’m going to wander the garden to gather a handful of stems.

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Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.