Friday, November 29, 2013

Newlyweds know on subconscious level whether marriage will be unhappy

Although newlyweds may not be completely aware of it, they may know whether their march down the aisle will result in wedded bliss or an unhappy marriage, according to new study led by a Florida State University researcher. Associate Professor of Psychology James K. McNulty and his colleagues studied 135 heterosexual couples who had been married for less than six months and then followed up with them every six months over a four-year period. They found that the feelings the study participants verbalized about their marriages were unrelated to changes in their marital happiness over time. Instead, it was the gut-level negative evaluations of their partners that they unknowingly revealed during a baseline experiment that predicted future happiness. "Although they may be largely unwilling or unable to verbalize them, people's automatic evaluations of their partners predict one of the most important outcomes of their lives — the trajectory of their marital satisfaction," the researchers wrote in a paper published in the Nov. 29 issue of the journal Science. The paper, "Though They May Be Unaware, Newlyweds Implicitly Know Whether Their Marriages Will Be Satisfying," outlined two important findings. First, people's conscious attitudes, or how they said they felt, did not always reflect their gut-level or automatic feelings about their marriage. Second, it was the gut-level feelings, not their conscious ones, that actually predicted how happy they remained over time. "Everyone wants to be in a good marriage," McNulty said. "And in the beginning, many people are able to convince themselves of that at a conscious level. But these automatic, gut-level responses are less influenced by what people want to think. You can't make yourself have a positive response through a lot of wishful thinking." To conduct the experiment, the researchers asked the individuals to report their relationship satisfaction and the severity of their specific relationship problems. The participants also were asked to provide their conscious evaluations by describing their marriage according to 15 pairs of opposing adjectives, such as "good" or "bad," "satisfied" or "unsatisfied." Most interesting to the researchers, though, were the findings regarding another measure designed to test their automatic attitudes, or gut-level responses. The experiment involved flashing a photo of the study participant's spouse on a computer screen for just one-third of a second followed by a positive word like "awesome" or "terrific" or a negative word like "awful" or "terrible." The individuals simply had to press a key on the keyboard to indicate whether the word was positive or negative. The researchers used special software to measure reaction time. "It's generally an easy task, but flashing a picture of their spouse makes people faster or slower depending on their automatic attitude toward the spouse," McNulty said. "People who have really positive feelings about their partners are very quick to indicate that words like 'awesome' are positive words and very slow to indicate that words like 'awful' are negative words." That's because positive gut-level attitudes facilitate congruent cognitive processes and interfere with incongruent cognitive processes. In other words, McNulty explained, people with positive gut-level attitudes were really good at processing positive words but bad at processing negative words when those automatic attitudes were activated. The opposite was also true. When a spouse had negative feelings about their partner that were activated by the brief exposure to the photo, they had a harder time switching gears to process the positive words. Both the explicit and implicit experiments were performed only once, at the baseline, but the researchers checked in with the couples every six months and asked them to report relationship satisfaction. The researchers found that the respondents who unwittingly revealed negative or lukewarm attitudes during the implicit measure reported the most marital dissatisfaction four years later. The conscious attitudes were unrelated to changes in marital satisfaction. "I think the findings suggest that people may want to attend a little bit to their gut," McNulty said. "If they can sense that their gut is telling them that there is a problem, then they might benefit from exploring that, maybe even with a professional marriage counselor."

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Sexual Regret

In the largest, most in-depth study to date on regret surrounding sexual activity, a team of psychology researchers found a stark contrast in remorse between men and women, potentially shedding light on the evolutionary history of human nature.

Researchers for the peer-reviewed study included University of Texas at Austin evolutionary psychologist David Buss. The study was led by Andrew Galperin, a former social psychology doctoral student at the University of California-Los Angeles; and Martie Haselton, a UCLA social psychology professor. It is published in the current issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior.

The findings show how human emotions such as regret can play an important role in survival and reproduction. They suggest that men are more likely to regret not taking action on a potential liaison, and women are more remorseful for engaging in one-time liaisons.

"Prior sex researchers have focused primarily on the emotion of sexual attraction in sexual decisions," Buss says. "These studies point to the importance of a neglected mating emotion —sexual regret — which feels experientially negative but in fact can be highly functional in guiding adaptive sexual decisions."

Evolutionary pressures probably explain the gender difference in sexual regret, says Haselton, who earned her Ph.D. in psychology at UT Austin.

"For men throughout evolutionary history, every missed opportunity to have sex with a new partner is potentially a missed reproduce opportunity — a costly loss from an evolutionary perspective." Haselton says. "But for women, reproduction required much more investment in each offspring, including nine months of pregnancy and potentially two additional years of breastfeeding. The consequences of casual sex were so much higher for women than for men, and this is likely to have shaped emotional reactions to sexual liaisons even today."

In three studies the researchers asked participants about their sexual regrets. In the first study, 200 respondents evaluated hypothetical scenarios in which someone regretted pursuing or failing to pursue an opportunity to have sex. They were then asked to rate their remorse on a five-point scale. In the second study, 395 participants were given a list of common sexual regrets and were asked to indicate which ones they have personally experienced. The last study replicated the second one with a larger sample of 24,230 individuals that included gay, lesbian and bisexual respondents.

According to the findings:

  • The top three most common regrets for women are: losing virginity to the wrong partner (24 percent), cheating on a present or past partner (23 percent) and moving too fast sexually (20 percent).
  • For men, the top three regrets are: being too shy to make a move on a prospective sexual partner (27 percent), not being more sexually adventurous when young (23 percent) and not being more sexually adventurous during their single days (19 percent).
  • More women (17 percent) than men (10 percent) included "having sex with a physically unattractive partner" as a top regret.
  • Although rates of actually engaging in casual sex were similar overall among participants (56 percent), women reported more frequent and more intense regrets about it.
  • Comparing gay men and lesbian women, and bisexual men and bisexual women, a similar pattern held — women tended to regret casual sexual activity more than men did.

Regret comes after the fact, so it's not protective, Haselton notes. But it might help women avoid a potentially costly action again.

"One thing that is fascinating about these emotional reactions in the present is that they might be far removed from the reproductive consequences of the ancestral past," Haselton says. "For example, we have reliable methods of contraception. But that doesn't seem to have erased the sex differences in women's and men's responses, which might have a deep evolutionary history."

Monday, November 4, 2013

Race and romance online

Usually, research findings on the state of U.S. race relations are pretty bleak. But a study of online dating by UC San Diego sociologist Kevin Lewis suggests that racial barriers to romance are not as insurmountable as we might suppose. Published Nov. 4 in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "The Limits of Racial Prejudice" analyzes, over a two-and-a-half month period, the interaction patterns of 126,134 users in the United States of the popular dating site OkCupid.com. The study results in a nutshell: Race still matters online. People still self-segregate as much as they do in face-to-face interactions; most, that is, still reach out to members of their own racial background. But people are more likely to reciprocate a cross-race overture than previous research would lead to us to expect. And – once they have replied to a suitor from a different race – people are then themselves more likely to cross racial lines and initiate interracial contact in the future. Lewis's study of romantic social networks considered only heterosexual interactions, for apples-to-apples comparison with the majority of previous findings, and only those individuals, for the sake of simplicity, who self-identify with one and only one of the top five most populous of OkCupid's racial categories: Black, White, Asian (East Asian), Hispanic/Latino and Indian (South Asian). He analyzed only the first message sent and the first reply. All messages were stripped of content. Only data on the sender, receiver and timestamp of the message were available. The tendency to initiate contact within one's own race, the study observes, is strongest among Asians and Indians and weakest among whites. And the biggest "reversals" are observed among groups that display the greatest tendency towards in-group bias, and also when a person is being contacted by someone from a different racial background for the first time. Lewis unites his varied findings with an explanation he calls "pre-emptive discrimination." "Based on a lifetime of experiences in a racist and racially segregated society, people anticipate discrimination on the part of a potential recipient and are largely unwilling to reach out in the first place. But if a person of another race expresses interest in them first, their assumptions are falsified—and they are more willing to take a chance on people of that race in the future," he said. The effect is short-lived, however: People go back to habitual patterns in about a week. Why? "The new-found optimism is quickly overwhelmed by the status quo, by the normal state of affairs," Lewis said. "Racial bias in assortative mating is a robust and ubiquitous social phenomenon, and one that is difficult to surmount even with small steps in the right direction. We still have a long way to go." Earlier work on racial bias in assortative mating (or the non-random pairings of people with similar traits) had trouble disentangling how much was due to prejudice and how much to geography or meeting opportunities. Lewis was able to control for these factors in his analysis, and this is one reason he is a champion of additional projects of the sort his paper describes. "Online dating is providing new insights into the timeless social process of finding a romantic partner," said Lewis, assistant professor of sociology in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences. Not only does dating on the internet have more and more social impact, he said – the most rigorous estimates suggest that nowadays over 20 percent of heterosexual and nearly 70 percent of same-sex relationships begin online – but it is also a novel and rich source of data. Previous work on mate selection has often been based on marriage records, which don't contain any information about a romance's early days, or on self-report surveys, when people are more likely to present themselves in the best, least-prejudiced light. These "digital footprints" of online interactions can give us a glimpse of interpersonal dynamics at the very start of romantic relationships. And Lewis takes heart from his analysis of interactions on OkCupid. We can, he believes, begin to change our ingrained patterns of choosing partners –because they are often based on false premises. The sociologist's cautiously optimistic conclusion is that "racial boundaries are more fragile than we think." When, against the odds, A writes B of another race and B replies, B becomes more open him- or herself in the near term. The "consequences of this action are self-reinforcing," Lewis writes in PNAS, "and might potentially set in motion a chain of future interracial contact among others."