Volume 2, Issue 8: August 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
“At the core, there’s this image that you have—this interior image—of something that is absolutely perfect. And that’s your signpost and your guide. You’ll never get there, but without it, you won’t get anywhere."
Five things I'm thinking about this month
1. Check out this wonderful new whiteboard animation video explaining the concept of “bids for connection” in romantic relationships. The delightfully woke video, which was written and produced by my friend and colleague Logan Ury and conveys profound insights from the legendary folks at the Gottman Institute, helps us appreciate the little day-to-day experiences that, collectively, make or break a relationship. The video is only two minutes long, and heeding its wisdom holds real promise for strengthening one’s own relationship—a rather good return on investment.
2. The economist Marina Adshade published, in a scholarly book called Robot Sex, a chapter carrying this title: “Sexbot-Induced Social Change: An Economic Perspective.” In that chapter—and in a Slate article in which she adapts it for the public—Adshade argues that the increasingly widespread availability of sex robots may well strengthen marriage. She recognizes that this hypothesis is counterintuitive, but she also reminds us that the effects of technology on social change are often unintuitive—as when the birth control pill ultimately increased rates of out-of-wedlock births (by loosening sexual norms). I agree with Adshade’s argument, although I only partially agree with the psychological analysis underlying it. Her analysis is that marriages are likely to get stronger if we “disentangle the association between sexual intimacy and marriage.” Although there’s no logical flaw in that argument, my sense is that most people will want to retain a strong sexual element in their marriage. My own view is that sex robots can strengthen the relationship among that subset of marriages in which some level of sexual incompatibility—as when one partner wants sex much more frequently than the other—becomes a significant source of anger, disappointment, or guilt. As I discuss in my book, one of the ways in which couples can strengthen their marriage is by identifying areas of chronic disappointment, and then working to lower expectations in those areas. My sense is that couples who can sustain sexual intimacy while incorporating sex robots as needed will experience a significant reduction in sex-related negativity in their marriage, which in turn is likely to strengthen the marriage.
3. In a perhaps-inevitable development, this was the month when the #MeToo movement targeted female perpetrators in a high-profile way. In two high profile examples, the women were highly influential feminist activists. In the first case, a Title IX investigation found that Avital Ronell, a luminary of philosophy and comparative literature at NYU, had repeatedly sexually harassed her (male) PhD student for several years. In the second case, Asia Argento, the Italian actress and director (and girlfriend of Anthony Bourdain at the time of his recent suicide)—one of the first women to go public with rape allegations against Harvey Weinstein—paid $380,000 to a young actor and rock musician who claims she sexually assaulted him when she was 37 and he was 17. I agree with Tarana Burke, the founder for the #MeToo movement, who argues that these cases point to the strength of the movement. These cases also help sensitize us to the perils of spinning essentialist narratives about men and women rather than attending to the role that situations play in influencing human psychology regardless of gender. For example, research demonstrates that being in a position of power is linked to greater sexual greater sexual assertiveness, and this effect is equally strong for men and women.
4. In a major new study, Elizabeth Bruch and Mark Newman leveraged data from 200,000 online daters, discovering, among other things, that both men and women tend to pursue partners who are, on average, 25% more desirable than they are. Alas, as often happens, the media reports suggested that the findings revealed something other than what they actually showed. My beloved New York Times, for example, published a widely circulated article carrying this title: “For Online Daters, Women Peak at 18 While Men Peak at 50, Study Finds. Oy.” Technically, that title is accurate (and I do love titles that end with “oy”), but the article characterizes this sex difference in when people “peak” as if it’s meaningful for actual, flesh-and-blood relationships; it discusses Picasso’s rakish behavior and includes a photo of an older man holding hands with a younger woman. The study shows no such thing. The reality is that messaging behavior in online dating isn’t particularly informative about what happens when people meet potential partners face to face. Indeed, a decade-long research program that I have pursued with Paul Eastwick reveals that what people think want in a partner (which influences their messaging behavior in online dating) doesn’t tell us much about which partners people actually pursue, or how happy they are with those partners, in real life. Or, in other words, let’s stop using messaging behavior on online dating sites for stories that imply that 20-year-old women are over the hill.
5. As readers of this newsletter are probably aware, many of the empirical sciences, including psychology, have endured serious concerns about the replicability of some key findings. For example, scholars have questioned the groundbreaking research suggesting that our current physical experiences of warmth versus coolness influence how we experience our social interactions. A forthcoming series of studies using gold-standard procedures for scientific rigor suggest that social thermoregulation is indeed a real, consequential phenomenon. Specifically, this new research reveals that people who have been randomly assigned to experience physical coldness (by holding a cup of cold water) rather than to experience physical warmth (by holding a cup of warm water) tend to think more about close relationship partners when their prior experiences with those partners have been positive, but they tend to think less about close relationships partners when past experiences with those partners have been negative. In other words, feeling physically cold brings our loved ones to mind, but only insofar as our relationships with those loved ones are warm.
A dispatch from the mascot of the Relationships And Motivation Lab (RAMLAB)
August has been a blast. The RAMLAB welcomed Catherine Faherty, a new postdoctoral fellow who studies trust dynamics in families businesses.
In other news, “Hidden Brain,” the terrific NPR podcast, rebroadcast their episode dedicated to Eli’s book, and NPR also featured it on the radio. Well, it turns out that NPR has a weekly newsletter called “Best of NPR,” which featured this episode alongside four other pieces, including this one on Aretha Franklin (“America’s truest voice”) and this one on a military veteran who’s using proceeds from his debut novel to reimburse the banks he robbed. Some impressive company.
As for me, I met a pretty enticing ewe (female sheep) the other day. She was giving me sultry eyes from her side of the pasture, and I’ve started grazing near her. I’m not sure how it’ll all play out, but I’m excited!