Thursday, November 11, 2010


Things are changing quickly. If you consider history, the past 30 years would be just a blink, but it’s hard to fathom a period in which more changes have happened that affect how families form. The really big changes include the growing disconnection between marriage and childbirth and the growing acceptance of cohabitation as something before or instead of marriage.

I recently read a paper by one of a group of sociologists on one of the trends in cohabitation. Those researchers are Daniel Lichter, Richard Turner, and Sharon Sassler of Cornell University. That paper is entitled “National Estimates of the Rise in Serial Cohabitation” and it’s in the journal Social Science Research. These sociologists were looking at changes that are occurring in cohabitation in a very large, national data set here in the U. S. Their key focus is on the growing rise in serial cohabitation. Serial cohabitation is living with more than one partner prior to marriage (or, ever, even if one does not marry). Let me summarize the points they make that stood out to me (some points from other research they review and some from their new findings).

• More cohabiting unions now break up than end in marriage. It used to be that most cohabiting unions would end up as marriages. As the authors noted, “Cohabitation is much less tied to marriage than it was in the past – even the recent past.”

• Serial cohabitation is rapidly increasing.

• Serial cohabitation has been, and still is, more common among those at lower income levels, but it is taking off for all groups.

• Serial cohabitation is a form of “intense dating” that will lead to marriage, eventually, for many, but only after living together with a number of partners.

• Serial cohabitation is associated with a much greater risk of divorce than single instance cohabitation.

They summarize what they see in the data this way: “Cohabitation is often viewed as a stepping stone to marriage, but this view is rapidly becoming out of date.”

This is new and it is different. Things are changing again. So much so, that Lichter , Turner and Sassler think that current estimates on these types of changes lag how fast the changes really are occurring. Serial cohabitation is hot. Unfortunately, it’s also associated with things not turning out too well for people. I have to use one more quote from their paper because, to me, the statement is stunningly succinct about the implications.

On page 755, they note: “Changing patterns of mate selection – serial cohabitation, in this case – raise the specter of a growing population at risk of unintended childbearing (including multiple-partner fertility), heightened family instability, increasingly complex kin relationships, and potentially deleterious short- and long-term economic and develop- mental consequences for growing children.”

Now to be clear, good scientists (and this team of sociologists is very good) do not believe that things like serial cohabitation are causing all of what is downstream. In many ways, there are disadvantages that are there early on, such as poverty or not having parents who remain together, that cascade through life, making risks down the line greater. As just one example, if your parents never married or divorced, you are more likely to cohabit before marriage or engagement (maybe more than one time), and you are also somewhat more likely to struggle in marriage. Think of it as a series of risks that cascade through the lives of some people rather than the result of just one thing that leads to problems down the line.

Oh, did you notice the title of this post? You might have read right by it, thinking you read “cohabitating.” What I wrote is cohabiDATING. That’s my word for what these researchers are describing. Cohabitation is moving toward becoming something that’s part of the dating scene—intense dating, to be sure—and away from something that leads to marriage. Put another way, it’s becoming more part of the dating part of life than the marrying part of life.

The tricky part to me in this is always this question. What about children? I’m going to share a secret with you. Couples who are cohabiting are around each other more. Couples who are around each other more, and who do not otherwise have some beliefs that lead them to do otherwise, have more sex. And, you know what? Wait for it. I’ll say it in the most scientifically jargony way I can come up with at the moment: Net of all other variables, including selection effects, sex has a causal relationship with having babies. Put simply, sex and babies are still pretty linked even if marriage and babies are increasingly not. That makes this all matter.

Cohabitation always has been a relationship form that is more fragile than marriage. While this is true, there is a growing number of cohabiting couples having children who are functionally like married couples—they have commitment to the future and they intend and desire to raise their children together. Yet, the larger trend in things like cohabidating suggests to me that ever greater numbers of children are going to be born to couples who have not clarified a commitment (marriage or not) to a future and raising a family. Children are amazingly resilient, and many children not raised by both their parents do fine and many raised by their two parents don’t. But, on balance, it’s not a good trend when changes in family development keep trending in the direction of children being disconnected from the chance to be raised by their two parents, because that is associated with the greatest chance of the best outcomes.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Decoding Commitment: When Sally met Harry

Commitment can be thought of in many ways. As I’ve mentioned before, a basic breakdown can be made between commitment that means dedication to something and commitment that means constraints to follow through with something. They are linked. Today’s dedication becomes tomorrow’s constraint. You decide something today—as in really decide to commit yourself to it—and things you do today (and tomorrow) because of that decision-based dedication will increase your constraint to continue on that path. This does not mean that commitments cannot be broken. They are broken everyday. Where would the news industry be without broken promises and commitments? Next time, when you watch the news or television talk shows, think about how many of the stories you are watching involve some type of failed commitment or broken trust. Onward.

Without a decision being forced by someone or something, it’s hard to say a commitment has happened. Even when a commitment has happened within an individual, it may not be as obvious to others. Sometimes that does not matter much and sometimes it matters a lot because you want to know how committed another person is—to you, for example. This is especially true in romance where there can be a desire for a future in one person that is not reciprocated; and even if the desire is there, when it’s unclear that it’s there, it can be pretty unpleasant for the more clearly committed partner. As I noted in my earlier postings about men and women, and my theory of average differences in how commitment develops, I think it’s pretty critical for people in developing romantic relationships to accurately assess or decode the commitment level of their partners. Not super early on, but certainly as things develop. If you agree that it’s important to be able to correctly read the commitment level in another, what signals commitment these days? I mean, what signals commitment in a romantic relationship that might have long-term potential (like in marriage)? Does cohabitation? Does having a baby? (Note, that 40 years ago, I’d not have had much reason to list having a baby as a potential signal about commitment before a couple is married. Things have been changing, as you no doubt know.)

Check back to my last post for a moment. I wrote about all sorts of things that are associated with a dating or cohabiting couples remaining together a year after we asked them to answer questions about their relationships. In that study that will come out in print soon, by Galena Rhoades, myself, and Howard, Markman, things like having a cell phone plan or a gym membership or a shared lease were more associated with staying together than having a baby together. I speculated that the reason for this is that some of these things that seem so small compared to having a baby seem to have a defining feature that having a baby does not require: they are decisions you have to make, on some level, together. Since decisions are fundamental to commitments, there is some type of commitment reflected in those small investments. Hence, the irony. These relatively minor decisions seem to reflect more about commitment than the major transition of having a child together. One of my favorite lines is coming up just about now: You can have transitions without decisions and those transitions won’t necessarily reflect commitment. I said “won’t necessarily” because they might reflect commitment and they might not. My point is that transitions without decisions don’t tell you much about commitment.

So, you cannot slide into a shared cell phone contract but you can slide into having a baby. We live in a crazy world. Does that mean you could trust that a person is growing in commitment to you if they will join you in a cell phone plan? It may be. Of course, the child would benefit from having two parents who decided to build a family together as a matter of commitment. The cell phone plan is made to expire, parenthood is not.

Think with me about a common romantic scenario. Let’s suppose Harry met Sally; I’m not sure when they met, but they met. Sally loves Harry and Harry loves Sally. That part is easy enough. They are young and in love. However, as things continue, Sally is clear in her mind that she wants a future with Harry; Harry isn’t so sure. Sally wants the commitment nailed down. Harry is not actively looking around, but he’s not sure he’s found what he’s looking for—his soul mate. Sally has a pretty critical job to do. If she doesn’t do it well, she’s at risk of becoming a character in the second edition of the book “He’s Just Not That Into You.” Sally needs to decode, over time, how committed Harry can be to her. Her job would have been easier 40 years ago but it’s not 40 years ago. I’ll write about that another time.

What things can Sally look for in Harry to figure out how committed, or potentially committed, he is to her? I’d argue that many things could inform Sally about Harry’s commitment potential. I’d also argue (and will) that there are two very common transitions that are experienced by couples that are not informative about commitment. Of course, I already mentioned them. One is cohabitation. Two is having a baby before marriage. Yes, these are huge relationship transitions. However, in the context of our current culture, I don’t think either contains much information about commitment. (There is a possible exception here when you are talking about people in disadvantaged communities. Some things do work differently in some segments of our society for a wide range of complex reasons having to do with both economics and perceptions of marriage—especially the perceived probability of success in marriage.)

Chew on two things between now and next time. Do you think cohabitation contains information about commitment (at least, in American culture at this point?). Why or why not? What provides information about commitment? What can Sally look for in order to decode Harry’s commitment potential? What made it easier to clarify or decode commitment in growing relationships in the past?

I’ll get back to you on these things.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

First Comes Love, Then Comes . . . What?

There has been a growing awareness among social scientists that marriage and childbearing have become increasingly disconnected in U. S. society. In fact, from all the things I read, the old nursery rhyme that implies a sequence from love to marriage to a baby carriage is increasingly true mostly for those with college degrees and less and less true for great numbers of women and couples in the U. S. This is a huge change. It could easily be the largest change in family demography over the past 40 years. Social scientists and policy analysts endlessly debate if this trend portends something ominous or if it is just some kind of normal societal evolution. Whatever you think on that matter, it’s certainly true that fewer children than ever before will be raised throughout their childhood by their own two parents. Further, many studies suggest that a child has some advantages (on average) in life when raised by his or her own two parents. There are many complex (and likely less complex) reasons why that would be so. (And, it’s always worth pointing out—seriously—that there are many couples raising their own children together where it’s not exactly a wonderful thing for those children to have their parents together and there are vast numbers of single parents doing an amazing job of raising their children.)

The delinking of marriage and child bearing/rearing is not as simple as it sounds. Marriage has become unlinked to childbearing but that does not exactly translate directly into unmarried parents not raising their own children. Increasingly, cohabiting couples are giving birth and remaining together as they raise their children, at least for some period of time. But, while we all know married couples have a hefty risk of divorce, this does not mean that the math looks identical for cohabiting couples. Most social scientists understand cohabitation as something that represents a much wider range of variability than marriage. By this I mean something quite simple. If a couple tells you they are cohabiting, you don’t know a lot about that couple from only that little bit of information. They could be more like a dating couple than anything else or they could be quite a bit like a married couple—and anything in between. Cohabitation as a form of relationship is far less informative about a relationship than marriage. If a couple tells you they are married, you’d have higher confidence in thinking you knew certain things about them as a couple. Broadly speaking, marriage often but not always reflects greater levels and clarity about commitment. That is why the average married couple who gives birth is far more likely to still be together when that child is two (or pick any other age) than the average cohabiting couple who gives birth. On average, cohabitation is a more tenuous context for children because there is greater vulnerability about commitment. So, the great increase in the number of children born out of wedlock, even when born to cohabiting couples, does translate into ever fewer children being raised by their own two parents.

My colleagues Galena Rhoades, Howard Markman have been studying what types of factors make it more likely a non-married couple will be together one year later. (We’re actually very interested in who is together many years later, but what we’ve analyzed so far is the one year point.) Obviously, the level of dedication one has to their partner is a factor in who will still be together in a year; those who want a future with their partner are more likely to stick to the path of having that future.

But there are other things that make it likely that a couple will remain together. In two separate studies in our lab that Galena Rhoades headed up, we find other interesting factors that predict who will remain together. For example, having a lease together, a joint gym membership, a pet, making payments on each other’s credit cards, making home improvements together—and many other such behaviors—are all associated with it being more likely a couple will be together in the future. That makes tons of sense, right? Those things reflect an increasingly intertwined life together. These types of things are part of a broader view that I and other has suggested: that there are a lot of reasons couples remain together, and some of those things are about how intertwined two partner’s lives become, and how that can make it harder to leave no matter what your level of interest is in staying. I call all such things that make it harder to leave—should you want to leave—constraints. Couples stay together because of both dedication to remain together and constraints that make it harder to part. Constraints are things that make it costly or more challenging to leave. In those two studies we have coming out, we show that all sorts of simple things—various other constraints we measure and simple behaviors like those listed above—make it more likely that non-married couples will remain together regardless of their level of dedication to remain together. (This is all true for married couples, too.)

Back to babies and couples. In one of these studies we have in the pipeline (accepted for publication) we found that all sorts of things make it more likely that a non-married couple will remain together. Things as serious as signing a lease together or sharing finance as well as less serious things like having vacation plans or a gym membership. But do you know what didn’t predict which couples would remain together? (Um, I just gave you a pretty huge clue, right?) Yes, having a baby together didn’t affect the odds of the relationships continuing. By the way, were talking about a very large national data set here of non-married people in serious romantic relationships who are generally in their 20s and early 30s. Yes, having a baby together is not one of the things that is associated with being together a year later (and we’ll be checking in the future out to two and three and four years later).

What’s that mean? It seems to me that it means things are tilting toward the place where not only is childbearing and rearing increasingly disconnected from marriage, they are becoming increasingly disconnected from remaining together as a couple who has any kind of future together, except maybe as co-parents. That makes it seems like (a whole lot like) some of these things we are measuring (like sharing finances or a pet) are decisions that reflect more about the future of the relationship than conceiving and bearing a child together. Think about that one a bit and I’ll pick up more about these issues next time.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010


In my last post (read it first), I noted new research that suggests that oxytocin does induce trust in another (as my other posts here have made clear) but that it does not make one gullible as long as there are cues about if another person is trustworthy.

If you’ve read other posts I’ve written, you have likely figured out that I think there are good reasons to be concerned about how fast people hook up and become sexually involved with others. (In addressing these things, I’m not really focusing on big questions of how long one waits for sex—including all the way to marriage. I have views on that, but I’m working on the other end of the whole deal about just how fast things happen for so many these days.)

To recap other posts, oxytocin gets rolling with all sorts of things happening in a relationship, including touching, hugging, kissing, touching, sexual contact, etc. Hence, if oxytocin induces trust, one will be chemically nudged toward trusting a new partner one is physically intimate with as soon as things get touchy. I’ve expressed concerns that all the chemistry going on can make some people misread the situation, seeing something more meaningful than what is real or misreading cues about a partner who is not such a great choice.

Quick Illustration (otherwise known as a short bunny trail): Have you ever been in a serious chemistry area, such as a chem classroom in high school or college, or a real chem lab in some work or health setting? I’m thinking of chem labs in college. Have you noticed the overhead showers with the chain to pull and the eye washing stations? You may never have seen such in action, but you’ve likely seen what I’m talking about. Those devices are for emergencies; they are for unfortunate chemists who have gotten the wrong chemicals all over their bodies or into their eyes. In such cases, the key is rapidly flushing away the chemical before too much damage is done. Back to love. It’s blind, you know, or can be—chemically blind, that is. I don’t really mean love, of course. I mean lust and desire. (I’m not down on desire, btw; it’s a “handle with care thing,” though.) Ever known someone who needs to run to the eyewash station and flush away the chemical blindness they have going in some relationship before it’s too late? Perhaps that’s been you. Some wouldn’t do too badly to quickly use the eyewash station and then also pull the chain for the giant cold shower that’s right next door to it. Whoosh. Reset. Handle chemistry more carefully next time.

The research I wrote about last post suggests that all is not hopeless in terms of chemical blindness. Oxytocin (and, doubtless, other chemicals of coursing love—of course) are not all powerful. They can be countered with a little information that helps a person go more slowly on the path ahead. They key thing about this experiment I described last time is that the trust-relevant information was clearly received by the participants who were, thereafter, less blindly affected by the extra jolt of oxytocin.

What does that mean in the real world, the one not being carefully controlled by an experimenter? It means going slow, having boundaries, and getting useful information that can inform decisions about what one will do rather than sliding into situations that are risky and unwise. It used to be that people got information or cautions from family and friends. I’m sure some of the former and a lot of the latter still give useful advice and caution to people. But I also bet that there is a lot less of both than years ago. And it’s an easy bet that these things go sooo must faster now than in the past. Speed is an enemy of seeing warning signs. A driver going so fast down a mountain has little chance of staying in the lines or reacting to warning signs, even if she wants to do so.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Gullible or Just Extra Nice?

A study just came out today that adds some potential insights to my earlier posts about oxytocin. (See my earlier posts where I describe what oxytocin seems to be related to and how that may affect relationships.) Moïra Mikolajczak, James J. Gross, Anthony Lane,
Olivier Corneille, Philippe de Timary, and Olivier Luminet just published a paper in the Journal Psychological Science where they tested if oxytocin beefs up both trust AND gullibility or just trust. This is another of those ingenious experiments where experimenters use a game theory, exchange scenario called “The Trust” game. (Sounds like a fun game for Saturday night at a party, right?). Two participants at a time (who could not see each other) would play the game, presumably online, meaning they would not see the other participant.

The experimenters manipulated two variables: people’s exposure to oxytocin (given nasally) and cues about reliability of trustworthiness of the person they were playing the game with. Imagine you are playing this Trust game. You are going to try to maximize what you can earn which will be based on how much you decide to trust the other person. (I’ll spare you further details on that part.) You might wonder how they manipulated trustworthiness. They described, for participants, the person they were playing with in terms that implied trustworthiness or not. These descriptions of high trustworthiness or low trustworthiness given randomly, meaning, the descriptions would affect the participant’s sense of who they were playing with, but the descriptions were not really true of who they were playing with. By the way, in such experiments where any kind deception is used, participants are told immediately afterwards about it as the experiment is explained to them.

You might wonder what they told people to make the person they were playing with seem to be trustworthy or not. Here is where I might quibble a bit with their strategy, but to be trustworthy, you were described as having a major like philosophy; but you’d be tipped in the direction of thinking the other person was untrustworthy by being told he or she was in marketing. (If I were a marketing major, I would take offense. Then I’d think carefully about how to give people a better impression.) Or, you might be told the other person was active in practicing to give first aid (trusty) or loved to play violent sports (not as trusty). Note: It’s not that the less trustworthy folks were described as scum or something vile. The experimenters were simply going for less versus more trustworthy in the seeds that were planted.

What did they find? Oxytocin produced increases in trust UNLESS participants were given cues that who they were playing with was not so trustworthy. That’s pretty cool. They showed that oxytocin is not a blanket producer of blind trust. If one gets cues that another person could be someone to be leery of, oxytocin will not completely override that.

Okay, think about that some. I’ll write more in the next post about implications for love and romance. Before I do, think about what you might tell someone you know who is looking for love based on this study and other things I’ve written about oxytocin and commitment.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Coasting: Drive by Opportunities

As you can tell, there is something about Sliding vs. Deciding that I think a lot about. In the briefest version of the concept, our team refers to sliding as situations where a person could be thinking about what is going on and making a decision, but instead, things are just happening to that person. The idea of all here is that there are important times in relationships (or work, or projects, or whatever you are into) where we might not notice that a pretty big transition is happening that we probably should be making a decision about; instead, we are is sliding into wherever we will end up. There is a lot of sliding in romantic relationships, these days, when it comes to sex or living together or having a child—times when something pretty big and life altering is happening but many times people are not making a decision about it. I’ll say a lot more about this in the future.

Here, I want to introduce a concept that is subtly different from Sliding but that has some overlap—Coasting. Coasting is what I call it when one is moving along through life, and not really sliding into anything risky but just not noticing important choice points are whizzing by. Coasting is not noticing when were at a place where a decision could make all the difference between drifting away from one’s life goals and reaching those goals.

Metaphor time:

The risk of Sliding is somewhat like turning accidentally down a dead-end alley that has no turn offs, and as you get all the way in, you find out your reverse gear does not work. You end up in a riskier place because you slid into a place that is hard to get out of and now there are more limits on your future options.

The risk of Coasting is more like rolling on down a big highway, just cruising along, and missing a crucial turn off that was a more direct path to what you really wanted to have happen in your life. It’s sort of like being on auto-pilot. If the direction you are headed is already where you meant to go, there’s no problem with coasting along because you are already on the right road. But if you need to turn off to reach your goals, Coasting won’t do.

Think of all the places we can coast in life: Career goals. Education goals. Marriage or parenting (family) are big areas where there are opportunities you may, in the future, wish you took in terms of time and attention with those you love, but life is Coasting by.

Why it is so easy to Coast? Because it takes energy and concentration to notice when you need to make a decision or do something other than what is just happening to you. It is harder work, anytime in life, when we are making decisions. It’s especially easy to coast by important moments or opportunities when we are tired and busy. There’s just not a lot of energy left to do anything different. Doing something different requires a decision and energy to pursue it.

I hope I’m not sounding, in any way, preachy here. If I am, I’m preaching to myself as much as anyone else. I can’t imagine the person in this day and age who cannot relate to the problem of coasting. The antidote, of course, is to think about where you really want your life to be or head, and make the right turn-offs to get there. And even if one makes the right turns pretty frequently, there will still be coasting. I think the reasonable goal is to just try to make as many of the right turns (or left) as we can while accepting that we will miss some of them. Life seems to me to be more like a compass than a GPS device.

In his wonderful book, Stumbling on Happiness, researcher Daniel Gilbert makes the point that later in life, people tend to have more regrets about good things not done than bad things done. Coasting is the engine of future regrets.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Oxytocin: I Feel Your Pain

It’s hard for me to get tired of Oxytocin stories. I’m quite attached to them. Here’s the latest, which you can read about in a story by the BBC (here). Professor Keith Kendrick, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University, conducted a pretty straightforward laboratory study of people’s reactions to different, emotionally evocative pictures (child crying, grieving older man, etc.). He found that the emotional response of men to these types of pictures was as strong as the reactions women typically have when the men had a dose of oxytocin (nasally). Usually, women have stronger “empathic” responses to such pictures than men, which could be for scads of reasons of the sort I’ve written about recently. But men closed the gap if they had the spray of oxytocin and didn’t if they has a placebo. I find this next part extra interesting and conscientious on the part of the researchers. While the men behaved differently based on oxytocin, they could not accurately guess whether they had gotten the oxytocin spray or something inert. That’s compelling.

In a second laboratory experiment, the researchers showed that those who got a little jolt of oxytocin were more reactive to, or responsive to, smiling faces that reward learning. That’s just that much more evidence of the role oxytocin might play in sociability, bonding, and caring for others.

I remember when I first read about oxytocin spray; it was in a report of a study by economist Paul Zak. He was showing that people made more trusting bargains in classic game theory scenarios in the lab if they had a bit of oxytocin (again, nasally). When I first read of that work, I thought, “How soon before this shows up in bars.” After all, all the evidence suggests that oxytocin moves people in the direction of trusting others. Zak has even speculated that the stress of poverty depresses oxytocin levels to such a degree across a community that this is just one factor among many that makes it hard to turn around deeply entrenched poverty—people cannot gain on trusting others, and without some basic trust, you can’t really have an economy that works well (or a community). Might car dealerships want oxytocin spray wafting through their waiting rooms? Obviously, car manufacturers need people to trust them or else they are not going to buy their product. Maybe that new car scent should be laced with oxytocin? Especially in test drives! (That could make that deception so like the effect of un-careful dating as to not really be funny but sobering.)

But, back to bars. Since there are really date rape drugs that seem to have some effect, would people misuse oxytocin in a similar way to influence others? I know at one point Paul Zak didn’t think this type of thing would happen, but you never know. Something that turns out to have a clear effect that can be used for good might also be used in less good ways. There’s something in the air.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Movin and Groovin: Do you want to be a rotator or a sitter?

Some time ago, I blogged on a cool study by Paul Eastwick and Eli Finkel. In this post, I want to highlight another study by these two social psychologists. Here is the journal reference, but you might have trouble finding it if you want to read the whole thing.

Finkel, E. J., & Eastwick, P. W. (2009) Arbitrary social norms influence sex differences in romantic selectivity. Psychological Science, 20, 1290 – 1295.

Finkel and Eastwick have done a number of fascinating studies using speed-dating methods. (If you don’t know what speed-dating is, Google it. It’s not a date where you drive to the end of the block, kiss, and then return your date within 10 minutes.) In the study referenced above, they tested if the mere fact of being the one approaching others impacts how attracted you are to others. In speed-dating, there are rotators and sitters. The sitters sit still while the rotators move every minute or two to the next person they get to meet for a minute or two. Historically, men are almost always chosen to rotate and women are chosen to be the sitters. Men get to move and women get to wait for men to come to them. One more detail. Women are typically more choosey at these events than men (men indicate they would like to follow-up with more women than women do with men).

Finkel and Eastwick tested three really interesting ideas:

1. Are rotators more attracted to the people they meet in a speed-dating event than sitters?

2. Do women become more attracted more men when they are the rotators versus sitters?

3. Is there self-confidence boost from being a rotator?

Yes. Yes. Yes. (No, Harry didn’t meet Sally.) Let’s start with number 1. Part of what Finkel and Eastwick tested is if rotators are more attracted to more people simply because they are the ones on the move. In other words, does moving toward a partner give you some boost in attraction toward that potential partner merely because you are moving toward them rather than vice versa? They found solid evidence that being the one on the move—being the rotator in speed-dating—boosted attraction to others. This is similar to the effect of becoming a bit happier if you smile—after you smile. Feelings can follow behaviors.

Here’s the really smart part. Finkel and Eastwick had women be the rotators in one half of the groups and men in the other half. That way, they could test if it was really rotators who were more attracted because they were rotating and not that men were less choosey than women. Voila! It did matter. When women were rotators, they were attracted to more men than when women were sitters. The differences between men and women disappeared when women were the rotators. Pretty cool. Movin is grooving. (Of course, as Bill Coffin at the Administration for Children and Families Observed, once married, the rotating should stop. Right?)

Lastly, Finkel and Eastwick showed that this effect of being the one moving was related to self-confidence. Being the rotator was associated with more self-confidence which was associated with attraction to more people. I’m going to leave that there until the next post. Think about this and whether you think it’s uniformly better to be one or the other, and why. I’ll throw out some ideas about that next time. I may even tie these effects back to some points about sacrifice, but we’ll see about that.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Relationship Development and Oxytocin: A Theory of Men and Women

Theory alert!

I’m going to lay out a little theory here that is one I would love to be able to test fully in the future. It has to do with some average differences in how men and women behave during earlier periods of relationship development. This builds on themes from the prior three posts. Let’s recap a few crucial points of foundation for the theory I will lay out here:

- Oxytocin levels are stimulated by many things, including affectionate and sexual touch.
- Oxytocin is a chemical that is centrally related to attachment and trust.
- There is at least some evidence (in two studies from our lab) that the sacrificial behavior of men is more related to long-term commitment than is sacrificial behavior of women.

The last point begs the question about what sacrificial behavior is linked to in women. I mentioned in the last post that Sarah Whitton and I have suggested that this is partly and simply about the fact that women are more socialized to sacrifice in romantic relationships than men—at least about daily things.

Here’s my theory to add to this mix. Maybe long-term commitment is a more important driver of sacrificial behavior in men while having a strong attachment-bond is a more important driver of sacrificial behavior in women. Further, maybe the fact that women have more robust oxytocin systems is part of a biological basis for this difference.

The implications of this possible difference are not very great in solid marriages. Both partners have an attachment-bond and both have developed clear, long-term commitment. Things will balance out in terms of the partners giving to each other.

What about early on in relationship development? What are the implications of such a difference? If my theory is correct—or even somewhat correct—it means that women will sacrifice more for their male partners than vice versa early on, and continue to do so for some time up until the point where the male catches up once a clear commitment to the future has developed. I’ve depicted it as follows.

Note that the line for sacrificial behavior of the female ramps up fast and the line for sacrificial behavior of the male catches up some time later. Please note that what I depict here is the best case, not the worst. In just one form of the worst case (or a not so great case), a female sacrifices a great deal for the male and that particular male never catches up because he never really commits deeply to the future.

If I am correct in this theory, the average female is at a disadvantage once the attachment is strong and the oxytocin is flowing up until the point that the male catches up with commitment. Further, since oxytocin levels affect trust, it could be harder for the average woman to see this imbalance for some time, because the biology has primed her to see things from a trusting perspective.

PLEASE NOTE: This theory is not saying that women are superior to men or that this is a particular problem with men. In fact, in our work, find that men are just as committed, on average, as women, in marriage. What this theory suggests is that patterns of rapid relationship development (especially when things get really physical) is something people who attach strongly and rapidly need to be aware of and be cautious about—male or female. This person may give too much and not realize it for some time.

The risk I am identifying exists in any relationship where one partner feels the need to give a lot more than they are getting back. Since relationships develop so rapidly these days, I think some form of these dynamics are happening to many couples.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Well, It’s Men: Does He Flip for Her?

[I’m sorry that took awhile to get back to this theme. I’ve been over-busy working on a grant.]

In my last post, I left you with a question about whether attitudes about sacrificing for one’s partner are more related to commitment to the future of the relationship for men or women. Well, it’s men. This doesn’t mean that we found that men were more willing to sacrifice. We found no difference between men and women on overall level of willingness to sacrifice. What I’m focusing on here is that sacrifice was more related to being committed to the future for men than women. And I decided not to bring this back to oxytocin until the next post, but that’s coming.

So, what does this mean that sacrificing may be more tied to long term commitment in men than women? Sarah Whitton and I suggested that one of the reasons this could be the case is that women are simply more socialized to “give” of themselves to others, and that this would make women more likely to sacrifice (or have positive attitudes about sacrificing) no matter how clear the future is in a relationship. Men, on the other hand, may be more likely to need to decide that a particular woman is “the one” for the future in order to really give their all to that woman. Ironically, it’s men not women that most strongly fit what we predicted beforehand in this work. After all, it only makes sense that one would be most willing to sacrifice for someone with whom they see a future. It’s just in those two studies from our lab listed in my last posting, it seems that this is most true for men and only weakly true for women (on average).

My next point go somewhat further from the data than the interpretation above. I think the point is valid and practically important, but it really is more theoretical. I’d like to test everything in this line of reason more fully in future studies. Here goes.

I think commitment for the average man is a bit more like a light switch that gets flipped on (or not) at some point with a particular women when it comes to commitment. It’s flipped or switched on once he becomes clear that she’s who he wants to be with in the future. Until it’s flipped, he may be in love and he may be great to be around, but he’s not crossed over to where he’ll give regularly for that partner without resenting it. I think the average women crosses over to giving more fully sooner in how the average relationship develops. So, if we have the average women and the average man in a relationship together, early on, I’m betting she’s going to move more quickly to fully to sacrificing than him.

Think about that. There’s no great problem if this is true except where the guy never catches up. And that’s why books like “He’s Just Not That Into You” are bestsellers, because it too often never does catch up. If commitment is more like a switch being flipped for the average male, women are at greater risk for over-giving in romantic relationships until he flips—for her. Based on this theory, I’ve often suggested to women that they be careful not to give too much until they can find the switch and see if it is working. This advice is just as good for men, by the way, in relationships where they are the ones to give too much until the commitment is becoming clear.

Next time I’ll get back to biology and oxytocin and talk about an expansion of this theory that takes oxytocin into account. I bet you can see where that’s going. And go we will, next time.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What Drives Sacrificing for A Partner? And Does Oxytocin Play a Role?

There is a growing body of research on the role of sacrifice in romantic relationships and marriage. It’s really interesting stuff, too—at least for a relationship geek. I’m talking (mostly) about healthy giving from one partner to another, not martyrdom or responding to one’s inner doormat. (If you keep getting rug burns from giving in your relationships, you might not be giving in healthy ways. Hey, maybe that’s another not so hot form of sliding.)

When defined in healthy ways, there are a number of studies that show that sacrifice for one’s partner and relationship is associated with all sorts of good things in a relationship—especially in marriage. But I don’t want to focus on marriage in this post. I want to focus on how relationships develop early on.

Many studies show the positive effects of sacrifice. If you want to look some up, here you go. The article by van Lange is particularly wonderful. All the articles noted here also discuss or study the downside of sacrificing (especially Impett et al.). So, for the really geeky, here are some fine citations for you (otherwise, move on):

Impett, E. A., Gable, K. P., & Peplau, L. A. (2005). Giving up and giving in: The costs and benefits of daily sacrifice in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 327-344.

van Lange, P. A. M., Rusbult, C. E., Drigotas, S. M., Arriaga, X. B., Witcher, B. S. & Cox, C. L. (1997). Willingness to sacrifice in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social psychology, 72, 1373-1395.

Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A., & Agnew, C. R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 942-966.

In our lab, we’ve published two studies on sacrifice in intimate relationships (which flowed out of the steady focus we have on many issues related to commitment in our lab):

Whitton, S.W., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2007). If I help my partner, will it hurt me? Perceptions of sacrifice in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26, 64-92.

Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., Low, S. M., Clements, M. L., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sacrifice as a predictor of marital outcomes. Family Process, 45, 289-303.

We predicted that long-term commitment to the future would be associated with willingness to sacrifice, since one should be more inclined to sacrifice for their relationship if they see a future for it. Sacrifices can be seen as a type of investment, which is something people tend to do more of when they see a future. If one’s view is all short-term, you won’t see a lot of investment in anything except “me.” We and other scholars think sacrifices perform a really crucial role in addition to the obvious benefit of generating positive behavior. It’s this. Sacrifices demonstrate commitment. They send signals that reaffirm commitment between partners. This simple theory is why you can also see many groups—gangs for example—requiring some type of overt sacrifice by a newbie to become a member. The sacrifice, like knocking over a 7-11 or something a lot worse, demonstrates seriousness about commitment in a way that just saying “I’m with you on this” can’t. Note, if you are in a new relationship that is growing toward something, and your partner desires you to engage in criminal acts to demonstrate your commitment, that’s not too good a sign. Just take note of that.

Back to our studies. We expected that long-term commitment (wanting a future together) would be strongly related to attitudes about sacrifice. We expected this to be true regardless of the sex of the respondent. What we found, though, is a substantial difference between men and women in how things work. For one of those two groups, the association between sacrifice and long-term commitment was far stronger than for the other.

Which do you think it was? Was commitment to the future more crucial for understanding sacrifice for men or for women? What do you think and why? Mull that over and in the next post I’ll tell you what I suspect. And then I’ll come back to some points (a theory) about oxytocin.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Trust in the Fast Lane with Oxytonated Fuels

No, that’s not a suggestion for the shortest way to get to work. In the last post, I started writing about oxytocin. Let’s recap. Oxytocin is the chemical of trust, bonding, and social connection. There are other chemicals involved, but the big O is shaping up as the chief one. I’m not saying that you only trust someone because you get a jolt of oxytocin; I’m not saying that what you think, do, or decide has no part in who you end up trusting and what you do in your relationships. I’m just sayin that in addition to psychological and spiritual beings, we’re biologicals. You are a carbon-based life form, and for everything that happens that matters in your mind and social life, there is something happening chemically and neurologically in your body and brain. Oxytocin is the go-to chemical coursing in your body when you are getting attached to someone.

As I noted in my last post, lots of things can give you a jolt of oxytocin. Let me recap that list and add to it: touching, hugging, sex, kissing, a warm bath, vibration, massage, sex, tactile stimulation, genital stimulation, giving birth, sex, and/or sex. There are probably all sorts of other things, too, that cause oxytocin to get rolling but let’s focus on one in this post.

Did I mention that oxytocin released or increased during and following sex? I meant to mention that because it might matter to you or someone that you know.

It also seems pretty well understood by researchers that females (on average, research is always on average) have more robust and active oxytocin systems than males. That would make a lot of sense if you consider that it’s purpose beyond all purposes is to rapidly and massively bond a new mother to a helpless baby. Bam—big time attachment. I’m sure a lot of that must begin in the womb, but there is a big ramp up at birth. It’s, of course, really important for men to bond to their children as well, but through history, survival is at stake when it comes to the baby and the mother to bonding.

Is there any downside to this cool system? Theory alert. What I’m about to suggest is somewhat theoretical but it’s also kind of simple and obvious. By the way, that’s the best kind of theory to build—simple ideas that explain common things.

Things move fast in relationships these days. I get to talk with lots of groups of people, and when talking about some topics, I like to ask people how long it is before the average couple who meets and gets attracted has sex. Not all couples have sex. Not all couples have sex before marriage. Shocking, I know, but true. Not all couples have have sex soon after the relationships begins. Of course, if you read the hooking up literature (it’s pretty interesting), there are also lots of people who have sex before there is any type of relationship at all. If the sex is good, maybe there will be a date. But in general, when talking with groups of folks, especially those in their 20s or 30s, I rarely hear an answer longer than a few weeks when asking how long before the average couple has sex.

Back to the big O (I mean Oxytocin, not Oprah’s magazine or anything else). Oh, you thought I might have meant that! Well, I’m coming to that now. Here’s the problem with this very cool chemical. Putting it simply:

Oxytocin accelerates attachment and trust.
Oxytocin gets rolling with sex.
Sexual contact happens pretty rapidly for lots of couples—most, really.

Sooooooo . . . . .

In the absence of protective mechanisms or cultural rituals that promote going slower in developing relationships, trust and attachment are going to form strongly between partners well before those partners can possibly have evaluated whether the relationship is wise, viable, safe, and good. I don’t want to go too far out on a limb (I may do that next time), but if women have more robust oxytocin systems than men, who’s more at risk by not going slower? It does not have to be the woman, by the way, who has the stronger oxytocin reaction. I’m sure plenty of men are gifted with strong, biologically enhanced, trust circuits. No matter if someone is male or female, the cruel irony is that people who are biologically prone to be particularly gracious and giving may also be more at risk by not making careful decisions on the highway of love.