The Top: UCR Professors Answer Nine of Your Burning Valentine’s Day Questions

UCR professors use their expertise in science, business, gender studies, media and cultural studies and foreign languages to explain Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine’s Day from UCR Strategic Communications! Photo courtesy of Heather Cowper (Flickr)

Welcome to The Top!

Each issue, we present a list of UCR staff and faculty favorites — from walking spots to gardens to events. This week, we are featuring all things related to the most romantic holiday of the year. From the chemistry of chocolate to the business of Valentine’s Day, UCR professors share what they know about Feb. 14.

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1. How Much do People Spend on Valentine’s Day?

Photo courtesy of Heather Cowper (Flickr)

Photo courtesy of Heather Cowper (Flickr)

Barry Mishra, professor of accounting, answers:

“Valentine’s Day as the first major consumer holiday of the New Year has become a boon for the retailers and others. According to National Retail Foundation’s (NRF) survey, 54.8 percent of consumers will celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, spending on average $146.84, compared to $142.32 last year, marking an all-time high of a total of $19.7 billion this year.

“Nearly half of these consumers will buy candy, making it the top gift. About 40 percent of them will spend money on experiential goods, such as a night out at a restaurant or tickets to a show. About $4.4 billion will be spent on jewelry and $1.9 billion on flowers. Half of the consumers also will buy a greeting card, while an estimated $2 billion will be spent on apparel.

“Americans will [also] spend $681 million to spoil their beloved pets with Valentine’s day delights. Of course, all this spending is likely to provide a fillip to our declining GDP, which is good news for the economy and the stock market.”

2. Why is Chocolate Associated with Love?

Photo courtesy of Stewart Butterfield (Flickr)

Photo courtesy of Stewart Butterfield (Flickr)

Cindy Larive, professor of chemistry and divisional dean for physical sciences and mathematics, says:

“What do you picture when you think about Valentine’s Day? How about a heart-shaped box of chocolates? The connection between love and chocolate has been around for decades and can be traced in part to the book ‘The Chemistry of Love’ by Dr. Michael Liebowitz.

“The aphrodisiac properties of chocolate have been suggested to be linked to the chemical phenylethylamine (PEA), a chemical produced naturally in the brain and also present in relatively high concentrations in chocolate. In the brain, PEA leads to an elevated mood and feelings of pleasure. Therefore Liebowitz and others have suggested that PEA could have an aphrodisiac effect on the brain. However, when chocolate is eaten, the PEA it contains is rapidly metabolized or broken down, meaning that very little (if any) of the PEA consumed in chocolate reaches the brain. As a result, it is unlikely that the PEA in chocolate has a significant aphrodisiac effect.

“PEA is not be the only potential source of chocolate’s mood enhancing properties. Caffeine and theobromine, well known stimulants present in chocolate, are just two of the more than 300 chemicals chocolate is known to contain.

“Whatever the cause of chocolate’s mood enhancing effects, it is still a great choice as a Valentine’s Day gift – with or without the heart-shaped box.”

Want to know more about the chemistry of chocolate? Read more here.

3.What’s a Same-Sex Couple’s Perspective on Valentine’s Day?

Alicia Arrizón, professor of gender and sexuality studies, responds:

Alicia Arrizón

Alicia Arrizón

“I have been in a relationship with my partner, Gina, for almost 21 years. For political reasons we were one of the 18,000 same-sex couples married in 2008 before Proposition 8 was passed. As a couple, we do recognize Valentine’s Day as a special occasion but don’t buy into its commercialism. We see Valentine’s Day as another day in our life: we may watch a movie or enjoy the company of friends or family but we don’t believe in the commercialization of romance. Generally, we do try not to take for granted our commitment and love to each other. We sustain that everyday should embody the spirit of Valentine’s Day.”

Michelle Bloom, associate professor of French and comparative literature, adds:

“Despite the major headway in gay rights as seen through gay marriage in France, dining out for same-sex couples may still pose a challenge. One lesbian couple mentioned in my anecdotal survey has a romantic dinner at home (that’s an option other couples exercise versus a restaurant outing) because it’s more comfortable for them than going to a ‘regular restaurant’ – so it’s home or a ‘gay friendly’ restaurant.”

4. What Happens to Our Brain and Our Heart When We’re in Love?

Dr. Gerald A. Maguire

Dr. Gerald A. Maguire

Gerald Maguire, chair and professor of psychiatry, answers:

“There’s different phases of what can happen with the brain and the whole chemistry system of the body.

“There’s the initial attraction and often times there will be an epinephrine or adrenaline rush. That is when we feel excitement or we can get a racing heart or sweaty palms.

“Then, if there is a sense of love and joy, that can be manifested through serotonin. This gives us a general sense of well-being and happiness.

“And then, if the interaction with the two individuals are positive, that can lead to a change in the reward system through the chemical of dopamine.

“All of this can be interplay with each other throughout the course of attachment, and if you pair that attachment with hugging or kissing or even sexual interaction, there could be a release of oxytocin, another chemical that is involved with bonding and attachment. It is with intimacy that oxytocin is released and that can lead to a further enhancement of bonding.”

5. How does France, a Country Known for Romance, Celebrate Valentine’s Day?


Michelle Bloom, associate professor of French and comparative literature, answers:

“Living up to their reputation for romance, the French do indeed pay their respects to Saint Valentine. The people I’ve talked to say that the French do so in traditional ways. The tête-à-tête or one-on-one restaurant outing for couples is definitely the norm. Married or unmarried couples also gift chocolate and flowers. There are themed Valentine’s day events for singles as well.

“The prestigious French Tea Salon, ‘Mariage Frères,’ founded in 1854, features Valentine’s-specific or oriented teas and gifts, for instance ‘Fall in Love’ and ‘Love Song’ teas sold in red and pink canisters, unlike the establishment’s signature black canisters.

“One might say the French are generally romantic, so Valentine’s Day only heightens the typical.”

6. Does Valentine’s Day Mean Different Things for Men and Women?


Alicia Arrizón, professor of gender and sexuality studies, answers:

“For some heterosexual women, Valentine’s Day is essentially a holiday. Traditionalists may expect flowers and chocolates and even an engagement ring. Some are expecting to hear for the first time the ‘I love you’ declaration. While some women may just want respect and to be loved and desired not only in Valentine’s Day, there is a general perception that men — a boyfriend or husband — are more reserved about expressing their feelings and often have problems when searching for the ‘perfect’ gift. I read recently that Valentine’s Day is for women what the Super Bowl is for men. Although this may sound sexist in essence, the analogy may help to differentiate how most heterosexual men and women approach Valentine’s Day. In this frame of reference, most heterosexual men and women comply with the commercialization of romance and the rules of heteronormativity.”

7. What is the History of Valentine’s Day?

Alicia Arrizón, professor of gender and sexuality studies, answers:

“Saint Valentine’s Day was first linked to romance and love when courtly love flourished in the Middle Ages. In Western cultures, it has become a celebration in which lovers must express their romantic love for each others.

“I love one of the most popular stories associated with Valentine’s Day: the story of a priest named Valentine who in the name of love continued to perform wedding ceremonies during the Roman Empire when soldiers were not allowed to marry because the state alleged that marriage would affect the soldier’s ability to function in the army.

“A different legend about Valentine’s Day is more violent and misogynistic. Historians have traced it to the ancient Pagan mid-February festival, Lupercalia, when Romans used to sacrifice their livestock and publicly whip women, believing it would increase a woman’s fertility.”

8. Is There a Physiological Reason the Heart is Associated with Love?


Gerald Maguire, chair and professor of psychiatry, responds:

“I really think it can be related to the norepinephrine in the effects that one feels with the initial attraction with the racing heart and the feeling of the heart beating.

“That’s why in old cartoons (I used to watch a lot of Bugs Bunny as a kid), when Pepé Le Pew, the skunk, sees the attractive cat with the white stripe on her back, you can see his heart beating out of his chest.

“So it’s almost like the physiological reaction of the heart racing is associated with the initial sensation of attraction. I think the heart is the easiest body part to measure the physiologic response of love.”

9. What Are Some Fun Movies to Watch for Valentine’s Day?

Derek Burrill, associate professor of media and cultural studies, shares his Valentine’s Day Hot Movie List:

  • “The Notebook” (2004) – Skip the rest of the Sparks adaptations, this is the best
  • Love Actually” (2003) – …is all around
  • “In the Mood for Love” (2001)
  • “War of the Roses” (1989) – This will make your divorce look like a picnic
  • “Belle Époque” (1992) – For those who like a plethora of choices
  • “Like Water for Chocolate” (1992)
  • “Dirty Dancing” (1987) – Nobody puts this movie in a corner!
  • “Amélie” (2001) – Maybe the most French film ever?
  • “Ghost” (1990)
  • “The Lunchbox” (2013) – Romantic and you get to see the fascinating dabbawala system in Mumbai
  • “The Best Man” (1999)
  • “Fatal Attraction” (1987) – For the happily single folks
  • “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok” (2006)
  • “Looking” (2014-16)- The HBO series; shows how difficult it can be to find Mr. Right, but also how easy it is to settle for Mr. Right Now.
  • “Shall We Dance” (1996) – The Japanese film — or the 1937 Astaire-Rogers film. Heck, even the Richard Gere/J-Lo remake. They’re all sweet and fun.
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