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What psychology says about crushes?

Having a crush on someone is an exciting experience that many people go through, especially during adolescence and young adulthood. Psychologists have conducted research to better understand the science behind crushes, including why we get them, how they impact us, and how to cope when a crush is unrequited.

What is a crush?

A crush refers to feelings of romantic or sexual attraction to another person. Crushes are characterized by:

  • Thinking and fantasizing about the person frequently
  • Looking forward to seeing them and feeling excited in their presence
  • Having physical reactions when seeing them, like blushing, butterflies in the stomach, or heart racing
  • Wanting to impress them and experience intimacy with them

Crushes are an early stage of romantic interest before deeper feelings develop. They are usually time-limited and focused on interest, infatuation, and physical attraction more than long-term compatibility.

Why do we get crushes?

Psychologists have proposed several theories for why humans experience crushes:

Biological theories

Some evolutionary psychologists propose that crushes serve our natural drive to find a mate and pass on our genes. Developing intense feelings for someone alerts us to their mate potential. Crushes may serve an adaptive purpose by focusing our mating energy on someone specific.

Biological processes may also contribute to crushes. The neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine are associated with intense romantic feelings. Puberty hormones fuel libido and the sex drive.

Social theories

Alternatively, some psychologists focus on the social purposes of crushes. Crushes allow us to practice intimate skills like flirting, conversing, and sharing feelings. Having crushes is a normative experience in adolescence and young adulthood. Peers bond over discussing crushes.

We may get crushes on people who represent ideals, like popularity, success, or talent. Being attracted to them allows us to affirm our values and identity.

Attachment theories

According to attachment theory, we form crushes on people we hope to share a secure, close bond with. We project our dreams and desires onto them. Crushes allow us to emotionally and physically practice attachment processes like proximity-seeking, safe haven, and separation anxiety.

If we have an anxious attachment style, we may form intense, insecure crushes. If we have an avoidant attachment style, we may deny or suppress crushes.

Cognitive theories

Cognitive theories propose we develop crushes when we over-attribute positive qualities to someone without really knowing them. We fill in gaps in our knowledge with fantasies and projections. We also ignore or downplay conflicting, negative information about them.

Our judgment is biased by the halo effect – letting one positive trait influence our overall impression of the person. Cognitive errors like emotional reasoning and personalization also contribute to forming crushes based on limited information.

Stages of a crush

Crushes often develop through a series of stages, though the course may vary depending on the situation and people involved.

1. Initiation

This is when first impressions occur. You notice the person and find them appealing. Curiosity, intrigue, and basic physical attraction draw you in. Conversations may be awkward but exciting as you are energized by interacting with them.

2. Infatuation

As you interact more, infatuation intensifies. You obsessively think about the person. Fantasizing about romantic scenarios dominates mental energy. You want to be around them constantly. Dopamine and norepinephrine activity peak during this phase, creating euphoric feelings when with your crush.

3. Destabilization

As the crush continues, anxiety may emerge. You desperately crave their affection but question if they like you back. Feelings fluctuate between hope and doubt. Mood may dip when apart from them. You feel jealous when they interact with romantic rivals. Tactics like flirting or playing hard to get emerge as you try luring them in.

4. Integration

Eventually the crush fades or transitions into a deeper relationship. If unrequited, you mourn the fantasy of being with them. But acceptance emerges too. You realize it is possible to live without their affection. If the crush is reciprocated, your relationship progresses beyond the fantasy phase into realistic intimacy. The delirium of infatuation gives way to a stable partnership.

How common are crushes?

Experiencing occasional crushes is extremely common. In one survey of adolescents ages 13-19 in the United States:

  • 61% of males and 76% of females admitted having a current crush.
  • 98% of males and 95% of females had at some point experienced a crush.

Most people have multiple crush experiences before settling into long-term romantic relationships. The average duration of a crush is around 3-5 months.

Gender differences

Research consistently finds gender differences in how males and females experience crushes:

Males Females
More focused on physical attraction and sexual behavior More focused on emotional connection
Brief, intense passions Longer, less intense attachments
More willing to initiate relationship More passive and cautious in initiating

However, psychologists caution against overgeneralizing. Not all men and women fit these stereotypes. Culture, sexual orientation, and individual differences also impact crush experiences.

Why do crushes feel so intense?

The ecstatic highs and desperate lows of an intense crush can be baffling. Why do our emotions go so crazy over someone we hardly know?

Several psychological factors are at play:

  • Idealization – We magnify positive traits and ignore flaws in the person
  • Projection – We transfer our desires and fantasies onto them
  • Interpretation biases – We re-interpret even neutral things they do as signs of interest and attraction
  • Physiological arousal – Any interaction with them lights up our limbic system and gets our hormones pumping
  • Addiction – Interacting with them becomes our drug; we crave more and more
  • Uncertainty – Doubts about whether our feelings are reciprocated keep us on an emotional rollercoaster

In essence, crushes exist more in our own imagination than in reality. We are addicted to how we feel, rather than the real person. This is why crushes feel so all-consuming – they are projections of our inner world.

Impacts of crushes

Crushes have predictable impacts on emotions, cognition, and behavior. Understanding these effects can help us manage them.

On emotions

  • Excitement, euphoria, intoxication when thinking about the person or interacting with them
  • Longing, craving and urgency to see them again
  • Replaying conversations and interactions to savor each moment
  • Joy at any signs of reciprocated interest
  • Anxiety when doubtful about their feelings
  • Jealousy when they talk to romantic rivals
  • Mood swings based on uncertain progress

On cognition

  • Difficulty concentrating on anything else
  • Obsessive thinking about the person and analyzing interactions
  • Idealizing and fantasizing about the person
  • altered judgment, perspective, and priorities

On behavior

  • Spending more time primping and preening
  • Changing habits, interests or styles to attract them
  • Engineering ways to interact with them more
  • Rehearsing and replaying hypothetical conversations
  • Testing boundaries through flirting or discussions of relationships

Managing unrequited crushes

Coping with unrequited feelings can be challenging. Here is some psychology-backed advice:

  • Allow yourself to feel – Crushes are normal; don’t criticize yourself for having them. But also don’t shame or blame the other person for not reciprocating.
  • Gain perspective – Recognize projections. Look for flaws as well as strengths to see them realistically.
  • Focus outward – Immerse yourself in hobbies, friends, and goals unrelated to the person. Don’t make them the center of your universe.
  • Limit contact – If possible, reduce time spent interacting to ease attachment. Avoid them on social media.
  • Meet new people – Developing other connections reminds you there are many paths to love.
  • Be patient – Accept that limerence fades with time. The intensity cannot stay at peak forever.

If intrusive thoughts persist beyond a few months, counseling may help gain insight into why this person captivated you. Exploring your attachment and relating patterns can set you up for healthier relationships.


Crushes are a nearly universal human experience, especially in adolescence and young adulthood. Psychological research has revealed much about the causes, stages, impacts, and management of crushes. While crushes feel all-consuming due to projection and other cognitive biases, most are time-limited. Gaining self-insight is key to emerging with wisdom to carry into future healthy relationships.