Fabolous rapped about it. Urban Dictionary defined it. Everyone from MTV to Glamour has written guides for surviving it, and a hashtag in its name spawned a slew of funny memes on Tumblr. 'Tis the season for "cuffing."
Not familiar with the phenomenon? “Cuffing” describes the apparent biological urge men and women feel to bind themselves to a sexual partner as soon as the leaves turn, and remain together through the cooler months. I mean, why wouldn’t plunging temps inspire mass monogamy?
True, the concept is bolstered by seeming evidence that we’re programmed to seek love in colder months. The rate of conception increases in winter, for example, and the most popular time of year to sign up for online dating is in January. More people change their relationship status on Facebook during the chilly months, too, and spring – the unofficial end of cuffing season – usually sees a peak in breakups.
But is there any real science behind the urge to find a winter mate – are we biologically built to settle down in the winter the same way bears hibernate or, say, white girls crave pumpkin spice lattes?
Not really, turns out.
“It’s all good fun, and a nice new urban legend, but based on what I’ve seen, cuffing season isn’t biological,” said Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. “There’s no reason to believe that such a thing exists.”
Bloom wasn’t alone in doubting its scientific roots: Nearly all the professors, psychologists, and experts Fusion spoke with said there was no evolutionary or biological foundation for winter “cuffing.” In fact, humans – unlike many other primates – actually evolved to not have a mating season, said Dan Kruger, who has a Ph.D. is social psychology and is currently a research assistant professor in the School of Public Health at University of Michigan.
“In other mammalian species there is a peak breeding season,” Kruger explained. “For example, in the fall, deer antlers get sharp and the males fight over both territory and females. Humans are not like that – and while we are not completely monogamous, we have high paternal investment on average.”
In other words: Human babies require so much care that, over the millennia, having a father around boosted kids’ odds of survival, regardless of the weather. Humans have also evolved to be fertile all year long, Kruger pointed out.
To be sure, the cold does bring with it an innate desire to get warm, and according to a 2011 study in the journal Emotion, humans associate cold temps with actual loneliness. So it’s possible some of us seek close relationships during rain and snow in an attempt to warm up, emotionally and physically – but even that doesn’t mean we’re somehow hardwired for monogamy during this time.
The desire for a winter boyfriend or girlfriend has more to do with the social pressures of the holiday season than evolution, experts told Fusion.
“I don’t believe 21st century humans are programmed for a ‘cuffing season,’ said Frank Farley, an educational psychology professor at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association. “However, ‘feeling the need’ might be a factor due to loneliness, coupled with a fear of being alone during the holidays.”
We’re bombarded over the holidays with plus-one invites, gift guides for significant others, and joyous ads urging us to deck the halls with our partners, so (as many single people can attest), not having someone feels lonelier than it did during the warmer months.
“For those who don’t have someone special, the holidays are a particularly hard and lonely time,” said Dana Julian, a marriage, family, and sex therapist based in Los Angeles. And they invoke a sense of “If I am not partnered, I am not worthy” or “There must be something wrong with me.”
Julian says she sees a similar desire to couple up among her Jewish clients around the Jewish New Year (which fell in September this year) – backing up the theory that “cuffing season” is more about feeling lonely at a time of celebration.
And what about other seeming correlations, such as spikes in online dating? They probably have more to do with cultural traditions than a sudden urge to enter into a relationship. As Gary Lewandowski, a psychology professor at Monmouth University, suggested: Match.com signups peaking in January are more about New Years resolutions than freezing temperatures.
Our verdict? “Cuffing season” isn’t so much science as it is psyche. So for everyone not in a romantic relationship: Don’t let the season get to your head. Spring is right around the corner.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.