Volume 2, Issue 6: June 2018
Are you interested in how marriage has changed over time, why those changes have made some marriages better and others worse, and how we can improve our own marriage? Check out my bestselling new book!
Quote of the Month
Timeless insights from scientists, philosophers, novelists, and other wise souls
“ Sometimes the only way to understand our humanness is to consider solely humans, because the things we do are unique. While a few other species have regular nonreproductive sex, we’re the only ones to talk afterward about how it was .” (Behave, 2017)
Five things I'm thinking about this month
1. “There lives within the very flame of love,” says Claudius to Laertes in Hamlet, “A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it.” Even as we take this opportunity to revel yet again in Shakespeare’s genius, let’s stop for a moment to evaluate Claudius’ claim. Is he correct? Is passion decline inevitable? Or is it possible to sustain passion over time—or to recover it after it has started to wane? It turns out that your answer to this question matters for much more than trenchant literary analysis. In new research spearheaded by RAMLAB postdoc Katie Carswell (forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology), we developed a self-report measure assessing people’s beliefs about passion decay—about whether passion decline is irreversible. The scale taps agreement with items like, “If the initial ‘spark’ has gone out in a relationship, it is rarely reignited.” A series of studies demonstrated that passion decay beliefs are linked to lower relationship commitment, especially among people whose passion has waned. Stated more optimistically, if we eschew passion decay beliefs in favor of beliefs about passion’s resilience, we can sustain high levels of commitment even when passion for our partner has waned a bit.
2. Getting married is, for most of us, one of life’s great milestones. It’s hard to imagine that the transition from being single to being married would leave us unchanged, and new research from Justin Lavner and colleagues investigates the nature of this change. This research followed newlyweds across the first 18 months of marriage to assess changes in their Big Five personality traits. These traits are (1) openness to experience (assessed with items like, “I have a vivid imagination”), (2) conscientiousness (“I pay attention to details”), (3) extraversion (“I am the life of the party”), (4) agreeableness (“I sympathize with others’ feelings”), and (5) neuroticism (“I get stressed out easily”). The results were fascinating—and, in some cases, hilarious. The most robust effect is that both men and women become less agreeable as the newlywed period progresses, an effect that is especially strong for women. Some other highlights: (1) men (but not women) become more conscientious, (2) women (but not men) become less neurotic, and (3) both men and women become much less likely to be “the life of the party.”
3. Of course, not all relationships last, and virtually all of us endure heartbreak at some point. How can we maximize the odds that a breakup can ultimately become a positive experience? I was pleased to see the New York Times address this issue in an insightful, practical manner. In my view, a central issue in recovering from a breakup is the extent to which we tweak our sense of self in a way that incorporates the new, single self into a coherent and positive identity. Indeed, RAMLAB research spearheaded by Erica Slotter in 2010 suggests that breakup undermines our self-concept clarity—our sense of who we are. In addition to grappling with the heartbreak, we must reconstruct (or at least tweak) our self-concept. The Times article has useful suggestions for doing so. Of course, breakups aren’t always heartbreaking, and other RAMLAB research, spearheaded by Paul Eastwick in 2008, tracked people over time and discovered that, on average, people significantly overestimate how devastated they would be if they were to break up in the near future (see here for Washington Post coverage of this work). And who overestimated their heartbreak the most? Those who were most in love when they made their forecast. (Side note: This research made me a punchline on NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” still the crowning achievement of my career. Speaking of which, congratulations, Peter Sagal, on your recent marriage!)
4. In “This Week in Crazy,” we learn about a Canadian woman who is, as best we can tell, so scared of losing her boyfriend that she fakes a rejection letter from his dream school in Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Washington Post: “Eric Abramovitz was 7 years old when he first learned to play the clarinet. By the time he was 20, the Montreal native had become an award-winning clarinetist, studying with some of Canada’s most elite teachers and performing a solo with Quebec’s finest symphony orchestra. During his second year studying at McGill University, he decided to apply to the world-class Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, which offers every student a scholarship covering tuition, room and board, and living expenses.” He was distraught to receive a rejection letter, but he went on with his life. Two years, later, in 2016, he applied again, and the professor said: “What are you doing here? You rejected me.” Some sleuthing revealed his girlfriend’s elaborate subterfuge. Even as we greet this incident with shock and dismay, it’s worth considering the relevant research. Although experiencing high levels of commitment to our partner (as this girlfriend apparently did) usually makes us more willing to make sacrifices for our partner, RAMLAB research spearheaded by Chin Ming Hui in 2014 suggests that it can also make us undermine our partner’s goal pursuits if those pursuits pose an existential threat to our relationship. Still, given how much gloating my Canadian friends have been doing lately about the contrast between Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump contrast, I’m uninclined to let this particular Canadian off the hook.
5. Here’s an ethical-discussion-in-waiting: In India, Tinder charges 33-year-old women twice as much as 25-year-olds to join its premium service; 36-year-old men pay three times as much. Is such a policy morally acceptable? HuffPost has weighed in: “Tinder’s surcharge for the unforgivable sin of being in your thirties, privacy experts say, is the most visible instance of how companies are harnessing personal user data to discriminate against users on the basis of completely arbitrary indicators.” The article quotes experts who assert that regulation is required. I haven’t developed a firm perspective on this issue, but it’s clear that it warrants attention, especially as algorithms play an ever-larger role in our lives. Should we conceptualize charging people in their 30s more money than people in their 20s for the same service in terms of acceptable capitalistic practice, or in terms of morally suspect, and potentially illegal, discrimination? I don’t have the answer, but hell, I’m 43 years old—I’m horrified to consider how much online dating sites would charge me!
A dispatch from the mascot of the Relationships And Motivation Lab (RAMLAB)
Two beloved long-term RAMSTERS are leaving us this summer. Grace Larson is heading to Cologne for a postdoc position with Will Hofmann, and Katie Carswell is heading to Toronto for a postdoc with Emily Impett. Bravo, Grace and Katie—and bon voyage!
Fun lab news: Eli and his co-authors (Gráinne Fitzsimons and Michelle vanDellen) were just awarded the George A. Miller Award for an Outstanding Recent Article on General Psychology.
For those of you who feel compelled to learn about the psychology and neuroscience relevant to the devastation wrought by forcibly separating children from their parents, please listen to Jim Coan’s podcast or read his Op-Ed.