Saturday, December 17, 2011

Through a Portal in Time

In my last post, I noted the suggestion made by some to have marriage licenses with certain terms, wherein couples would need to renew their marriage licenses periodically. While this is not yet the law anywhere as far as I know, it is functionally the type of committed romantic relationship many people have these days. Most people want to marry and most people will. But ever greater, large numbers of couples will not marry but will live together and raise a family together, before or without marriage. Perhaps unknown between the partners, each may be periodically be re-making their commitment to the other, internally. There are some people who believe this is the way it should be, even at an almost day-to-day level. To some, it’s a romantic ideal that means each partner is there again, each new day, because he or she chose to be. “I’m here with you and you with me, and we can both see from this that we love and live on together.”

That process, or something like it, is part of marriage as well other relationships. Periodically, people committed to any person, project, or thing will internally reset their sense of commitment—especially if the path taken has included challenging times. I mean, by that, gut check times where you may need to remind yourself that “I committed to this and I believe in this, and I’m going to give it my best.” Unless you have a perfectly blissful union (married or not), and you’ve had no significant challenges, you understand this dynamic. It’s part of what actually builds meaningful, lasting love in a world where relationships are made up of imperfect people.

What does the word “portal” means to you. Perhaps you think of a walking through a tunnel. Maybe you imagine walking through a field-level tunnel of a stadium, like you see in big football games sometimes, emerging into the light of the stadium, and to the cheers of the crowd. Perhaps you are a sci-fi fan, and you think about change-in-place portals (Beam me up, Scottie) or change-in-time portals (H. G. Wells’ time machine). I’m focusing here on change-in-me portals.

Whatever comes to your mind, portals have this characteristic: They are a way of transitioning from one place to another. In some instances, they are the actual pathway and in some instances they are, metaphorically, the pathway. A wedding is a metaphorical portal into a new life.

While we (our research team) do not have quantitative data on this, we have heard numerous cohabiters who are marrying comment that they are not quite sure what they are going to do to make the transition more of a, well, transition. Those that espouse this want the change from not-married to married to be really clear but it ends up feeling sort of blurry. I wish I could tell you how many people struggle with this and what most who do end up doing about it. Maybe I’ll have that data in the future. Of course, there are, I am sure, a great many others who do not worry about this.

I think many people, though, deeply desire for major life transitions to be actually transformative. They want what goes into the portal to come out the other end something different; something fuller and richer and more founded.

How does this concept apply to the renewable marriage license idea? The renewable marriage license idea fairly screams out that there is not anything like a permanent transition going on. I like to be very realistic, and I know that the transition into marriage is very much not a permanent transition for many. Many will be transitioning out of that marriage one day. Some, like Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, transition out in a matter of days. But, I’ll also say this. Because of the nature of commitment, the sense that it is intended to be permanent is really where a lot of the power lies in going through the portal into marriage.

Slowly but steadily, particularly among those who do not graduate from college, marriage is disappearing. Sometimes that is partly because of a diminished sense that marriage matters. Sometimes it’s because of a difficulty in achieving the conditions one feels are necessary to make a marriage work; for example, having a job.

Back to the main point. I believe that the reason why wedding rituals are common around the world (even if weakening today) is that they function as portals through which two people enter and two people exit, but different from when they entered. Two separate identities enter the portal and three identities come out the other side—you, me, and us. Psychologically, this transformation may have happened far earlier, or for some, it happens most powerfully because of the ritual of a wedding. For others, there is no big ritual to see but something happens inside, maybe along the way to the justice of the peace. Let me amplify that a moment. I’ve heard some people say their transition into marriage was more special and meaningful because of wedding with all the rituals. I’ve heard others, however, say that the very reason going to a justice of the peace was most meaningful was because they avoided all the stress and pomp of the wedding industry. And, just to be clear, I am sure there are couples where the inner transition happens and they never marry or do not marry for a long time to come. But I also think that the whole idea of marriage—and all the ways it happens—is really founded on making the inward change an outward act.

For some, there is no transformation with whatever transition is happening. (That’s close to one of the core applications of the principle of sliding versus deciding.) In some instances—maybe in a lot of instances these days—one or both partner avoid anything like a portal taking them from one place to another because one or both know that they are not interested in a life altering transition—at least not with this partner. Maybe the transitional object of their desire will come along in the future.

The nature of major commitments in life is to be transformative. I don’t mean magical, but I do mean symbolic of the inner process of becoming something more than two. So, in the case of love of this sort in life, the deepest desire many have is for transformation that adds something. In contrast, think about a meat grinder. It’s a transition alright, and things do change from going in one end to coming out the other. But what comes out is also nothing more and nothing less than what went in, albeit in a different looking form.

Next time, some more thoughts focused on the nature of rituals and transformation.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Bid Adieu or Renew? Thoughts on Renewable Marriage Licenses

It seems like so many things are renewable. If I do not call Verizon and instruct them otherwise, my mobile plan will automatically renew whenever my current contract is up. My subscription to PC Magazine will renew, also, but only if I send in the little card with a check. With my mobile plan, inertia leads to renewing in that I do not have to act and do something for renewal to occur. It’s automatic. I have to act for it not to renew. In the second case, my PC Magazine subscription will only renew if I send in a check demonstrating my end of commitment to the ongoing relationship. The first type of renewal is what I like to call “inertialized.” The second type is “electable,” as in there being a process of re-election.

Both of these examples portray a commitment process. A choice point came and went, noticed or not, and one path or another was taken, and one left behind. In one case, I passively continue on the same path and, in another, I actively re-up.

What about commitment in marriage? Which is it? Inertialized renewable or elected renewable? This is an interesting question.

This might become a very real question couples marrying in Mexico City face in the near future.

Some assemblymen in Mexico City have proposed that marriage licenses be renewable, sort of like drivers’ licenses. A colleague of mine at DU, Rachel Miller, sent me the link to the story which you can click on here. So, here’s the idea. When you marry, you choose how frequently you want your marriage license to come up for renewal. The minimum is every two years. So, if you so choose, on your anniversary in every other year you not only celebrate but you decide all over again whether you have some “still do” in your “I Do.”

Before you call me crazy for even saying someone is thinking about this, read this quote from the Reuters story:

“The proposal is, when the two-year period is up, if the relationship is not stable or harmonious, the contract simply ends,” Leonoel Luna, the Mexico City assemblyman who co-authored the bill, told Reuters. “You wouldn’t have to go through the torturous process of divorce.”

The assemblyman suggests that the great value in this idea is that a marriage that is not fairing so well could end without the ugly or difficult process of divorce. I’ll come back to that in an upcoming post. I think the idea is actually commonly believed and I’ll explain why.

Back to renewable marriage licenses. I have some practical questions. I wonder if you could send out invitations, asking others to attend your renewal decision ceremony. Imagine your friends and family proudly standing around you as you sign the card, pay a fee, and put the renewal card in an envelope to go out in tomorrow’s mail. How could you even sleep through that night? What if it gets lost in the mail? And another thing. Can you get registered for gifts somewhere for a renewal? I also wonder if people would be a lot nicer to their mate as renewals approached, especially if they were uncertain that the renewal they hope for would be a slam dunk.

A little more seriously, I have a few thoughts and I also have a keyboard, so here they come.

Here begins the “duh” or “no kidding” paragraph, but these points are always worth mentioning lest another think one is not in touch with reality. Marriages do not always work out, and for any number of reasons. Some marriages should never have come about in the first place. Worst of all, some marriages are dangerous and damaging. Yet, in general, the whole reason that marriage does work and offers advantages in life (many advantages, on average) is because the commitment is considered to be once and for all. It is this idea that is the core of what marriage is about. Here are a few advantages of settled commitment:

1. You don’t burn a lot of energy re-deciding, periodically, if you are in or out. Deciding takes a lot of energy away from other things like building a better life together.

2. You don’t burn a lot of energy re-wondering, periodically, if your partner is in or out. The whole reason (I believe) that commitment is so important in lasting love in the first place is because it settles anxieties about whether or not there is a future together.

3. Having a strong sense of “us with a future” changes behavior in positive ways. Research demonstrates this in countless studies. People invest when there is a future. People sacrifice when there is a future. People don’t get as upset about small (and sometimes large) problems in the present when there is a sense that “we are here for each other despite our imperfections and annoying habits.” While a settled sense of a future together doesn’t (and shouldn’t) make abuse or infidelity tolerable, it otherwise does wonders for making it okay for you each to be human.

Having said those things, I can imagine one way in which this type of policy could lower the odds of divorce for some people.

Imagine a couple we’ll call Lucy and Ricky. They are planning their wedding. Their wedding is a week or two away and it’s time to go down to the town hall and get their wedding license. They get to the desk and talk to the clerk and ask for a license. The clerk says, “no problem. Just fill out this form and give me a check for the fee.” The clerk points to a section in the middle of the form and says, “Also, you have to check one of these boxes, here, to indicate if you want the renewable-term marriage or not, and if you do, what term you are choosing.”

Lucy starts to fill out the card, and she gets to the term election section. She starts to mark the “non-renewing” box (which, ironically, means perpetually renewing), and Ricky says, “hold on a second. Let’s talk about if we should go for a 5 year or 2 year term. That’s an interesting idea and there must be some advantages.”

Ricky and Lucy are now going to have a special moment. Let’s call it a somewhat late stage DTR. (Define the relationship.) As you might imagine, in their case, it becomes their last serious conversation about a future together.

Here’s my point for today. Temporary commitment is not compatible with a relationship that most people choose in the belief and hope of permanence. If the commitment is temporary, it just is, but we shouldn’t expect the benefits that come with the expectation of permanence to follow from a temporary permit.


I will stay with this theme in the next post or two because there are some more angles to explore that are interesting (or fun) or both. Can you commit to reading just one more blog entry? Two? I’m not asking for a lifetime commitment here.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Government Funding and Questions of Impact with Relationship Education

This is another one of those posts that leans on the heavier side related to policies. Some of you brave souls stuck it out through my posts on selection and science and free will (scroll down to the entry "Did you Decide to Read This" and work your way up if you are interested). In that chain, I got involved in some of the dust up on sociologist Philip Cohen's site about marriage and cohabitation. We're onto another topic now.

Philip Cohen recently wrote about the expenditure of federal and state funds on programs to strengthen relationships between unmarried parents, marriages, and fatherhood. He raised strong concerns about what that money was buying us as a culture. These are reasonable questions. At any rate, I could not help but weigh in. So, if you are interested, see his entry here. The link seems to take you to the bottom of the page, where my long comment was on the day I made this entry. Scroll up to see his comments that led to mine. Important stuff to read and consider if it's an area you are interested in it.

Next up, lighter side again. Something interesting about marriage licenses.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

A Fascinating Site I Just Came Across

Hello folks. It’s been awhile for a new post because I’ve been attending again to family business (moving my mom to Denver from Florida).

I hope to have a new post up within the next week or so. However, I do have something of substance to share. I just found this great blog by a group of social psychologists. Their blog is at a site called “Science of Relationships.” The blog is excellent. Most of their entries are similar to some of the edgier ones of mine. The write concisely and very well about various emerging findings, and they cover a lot of interesting ground. The site is also exceptionally well organized by categories, if you like to browse. They cover the findings of many interesting studies.

For those of you who follow my work and are more on the conservative side, just note that they are not, so you’ll get a different cultural flavor on some things there than you might get from me. Anyway, their work is fun and provocative and I recommend the site to you. You would not lack for great discussion starters with students or other groups by looking through their site.

More from me soon.

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas, Right? Thoughts on Life Before Marriage

More people are getting married later and later. Last I read, the average age at marriage for men in the US was 28 and for women it was 27. (Clearly, women in their 20s dig older men.) There is an obvious and interesting implication of this that I first a sociologist talk about around 12 years ago. He noted that there exists this increasingly long period of time in human development between when people are sexually maturing (I only mean capable of having sex and making babies) and when people are settling down into marriage. It’s really pretty amazing to think about this. It has huge implications, since the average person is not settling into marriage until 15 years after when they become interested in, and capable of, having sex.

15 years. Hm. What can happen in 15 years? Unless you’ve been living on another planet, you are aware that the answer is really, “quite a lot.” I’m going to ignore a number of interesting and related issues that I will discuss in coming blog entries (things like age at marriage and how young is too young, and the complications in life from having children from different partners).

What I want to focus on here is Vegas. Does what happens in Vegas stay in Vegas? As a side point, it’s an interesting marketing campaign they have going, especially in contrast to their prior years where their marketing was oriented toward getting people to think Vegas was a fabulous place to take the family. Call me suspicious, but I suspect the different ad campaigns were written by different people.

I’m not actually much interested in Vegas but I am interested in the Vegas mindset. The core idea, of course, is that what happens in Vegas does not touch the rest of your life. It’s a no-harm, no-foul, place with a firewall around it. You can do whatever you like in Vegas and it won’t affect the rest of your life. I have a theory about this. It has two parts.

Part 1. What happens romantically between the ages of 18 and 34 (or whenever a person settles down in marriage and family life) affects the rest of life.

Part 2. People are now more likely to believe than in the past that what happens before they settle down will not affect their prospects for life-long love and happiness.

Part 1 is really pretty easy to document. Part 2, then, is the hypothesis that matters here.

Being a geek who like’s gadgets, I decided one day to draw some figures on my iPhone that depicted this theory. In the first figure, what you see is a green line, increasing over time. Let’s say that depicts idyllic growth when it comes to romantic relationships and marriage. Things are smooth and growing toward the future.


Next, let’s make that green line kind of wiggly, because almost no one’s life is as smooth as depicted in that first picture.


Now, contrast that drawing with the next, that has a red line with serious ups and downs in romantic life.


I can be a more specific about the jagged red line. It represents taking the path in life where any or all of the following happen:

- Having children before marriage
- Having children before marriage with more than one partner
- Cohabiting with more than one person prior to marriage
- Having a number of sexual partners (for some, a lot of sexual partners)
- Cohabiting with a partner before marriage, especially before having mutual plans for marriage

Scientifically, all of these things are associated with greater risks. Of course, there are some people who experience all of these things and life turns out fine, anyway. And there are others who avoid all of these things and struggle a lot once they marriage. Nothing is destiny here, but these things are reliably associated with greater risks for struggles in marriage and/or divorce.

Now, take a look again at the last drawing above. You may not have noticed it, but it expresses my theory about what I think many people believe. Note that it suggests that one can go through their 20s and follow that red line up and down, and when ready to settle down, be right back on the green line as if nothing happened in between. That’s Vegas. It’s a visual depiction of the belief that “whatever I do in my love life before I settle down has no bearing on the rest of my life.”

I think something like the next drawing is closer to the truth for too many people. It shows one’s future options being affected. It suggests that what happens in the Vegas of romantic lives in earlier adulthood doesn't stay in Vegas for some people. In fact, for some, what happens in Vegas might not even stay in Nevada.


There is a parallel to this way of thinking in the computing world. Geeks know that you can create what are called virtual machines within a computer that can be used to surf the web or do whatever, and whatEVER happens in that virtual computer will affect nothing else about the real computer. No virus or Trojan-horse program or anything else can touch what matters. It’s walled off. In fact, some refer to this as a sandbox, conveying the idea that there is a container for playing within that you can simply leave when done. Not even a grain of sand will stick to your foot.

In thinking about this, I’m suggesting something pretty simple and not very radical. More people should think about what is going on in their love lives, go more slowly, and make the best decisions they can, rather than letting things slide in ways that put their futures at risk.

Vegas wants you to think you can do whatever you want and leave with all your options intact—all your options except for having as much spending money or savings as you had before you got there. Obviously, they want you to leave with a lighter wallet. But is real life like Vegas? Is there a magical place in a person’s love life where nothing they do matters to their future prospects? That’s what Vegas is selling: The illusion of a place without risk or consequence to the rest of your life. How about you? Do you think that life works that way?

Here’s one recent editorial making the case that life may not be like Vegas, after all. Click here.


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Friday, September 9, 2011

Marriage and Cohabitation: Another Take, Building on the Discussion of Selection

[This was written years ago. Since this one is pretty popular, I have updated links now with various studies as of 2-2015. Also, if you are interested in the subject of cohabitation and want a narrative summary of our line of research, complete with abstracts and citations and how we were thinking in the progression of studies, you can get a document on that, here.]

This post is about cohabitation and marriage and commitment. It is also the last of five posts on key scientific issues that affect all of science, social science, and have been huge issues in discussions and debates about cohabitation. I plan for this one to be the last major, heavy science piece on those themes for awhile. For full context, see preceding posts.

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Backdrop for the Blog Entry Below

The Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project just released the third edition of a report entitled Why Marriage Matters. It is a document authored by sociologist Brad Wilcox, who heads up the National Marriage Project, and co-signed by a group of family scholars, including myself. You can find out more about the report, order a copy, or download the press release, executive summary, endnotes (all the references cited) by clicking on the title above.

The report created quite a stir, and reignited the continual debate among scholars about the importance of marriage and the implications of cohabitation. One particularly strong example of the debate on such matters comes from the blog of sociologist Philip Cohen. You can see Cohen’s comments on the issues as well as comments from various people in reply, including Brad Wilcox and other family scholars, on his site by clicking here. There are follow-ups in the next blog entry of Cohen, as well.

In thinking about the various issues raised in the Why Marriage Matters report as well as on Cohen’s blog and elsewhere, I wrote the following thoughts. So, here you go. Plenty to chew on and think about.

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My Thoughts

Every responsible scientist in the family field understands that there are potent selection factors involved in romantic trajectories and family outcomes. Further, the income/education/poverty aspects of selection are particularly compelling and raise concerns about how individuals’ aspirations can get hammered by environments. In comparison to sociology, though, psychologists like me have an orientation toward intervention at the individual level while accepting selection. To many of us, evidence for selection is knowledge that can be used to identify people at greatest risk who may need help more than others. For example, there must be a large amount of selection involved in having low birth weight babies. Such knowledge can be used to guide policy at the macro level while also informing what to try to change at the micro, individual level. One of the concerns that I (and colleagues like Galena Rhoades) have is that selection is too often taken to imply that only the macro, societal level of risk matters. I think there is a bias in sociology in this direction because the scientists are primed to think about macro effects.

In terms of cohabitation and selection, my colleagues (Galena Rhoades & Howard Markman) and I find that you can robustly control for selection and still demonstrate risks associated with cohabiting prior to engagement (the risk of cohabiting prior to marriage appears to be clearly moderated by this). That’s not to say that we’re done studying this. We would particularly like to get longer-term marital and cohabiting outcomes in a large, national longitudinal sample we have wherein we measure a massive number of potential selection variables along with relationship status changes, relationship quality, and information about how transitions occur. Regarding the latter, we originally began to test for the presence or absence of mutual plans for marriage at the time cohabiting begins based on a theory we have that cohabitation has more inertia for continuance than dating without cohabiting. In other words, what people often miss in thinking about cohabitation is that it makes it harder to break up (once you share a single address). Yes, people are quite likely to break-up in cohabitation, but that’s in comparison to marriage. The comparison to dating is more apt for understanding some of the issues involved. [Update 2-2015: Website for official journal article is here. PDF of manuscript in form I can post it is here.]

For many, moving in together allows constraints to build prior to the development of mutual, or at least clear, dedication between the partners. We have shown in a number of studies that constraints build up steadily in cohabitation and that constraints predict relationship stability net of dedication. In the latest analyses, we examine changes resulting from the transition to cohabitation using within-subjects analyses (providing a strong control for selection). Among a myriad of findings, the analyses show that constraints take a marked jump up in level at cohabitation and then start to grow at a faster pace during cohabitation. (Update 2-2015: This paper is published.)

This brings me to one key point I’d raise related to the flurry of postings on Philip Cohen's site. Cohabitation often occurs well before marital intentions are mutually clear and public. This means that, for many couples, various forces to remain together (constraints) increase earlier in the mate selection or pair-bonding process than before, at least in modern history. Further, the type of cohabitation we believe is most associated with risk from inertia is now the most common [Link added, 2-2015] (cohabitation prior to mutual plans to marry). (For those who would want to take marriage and/or engagement out of the picture in thinking about risk, simply insert the idea that the commitment to the future—its mutuality and symmetry—is important prior to going through a transition that is potentially constraining. Like transitions into cohabitation or having a child.)

There is a lot of selection involved in who cohabits prior to having clear, mutual plans for marriage. However, on top of those selection characteristics, cohabitation adds to the picture by making some of these already riskier relationships harder to leave. This does not prevent a child from being born to two cohabiting parents. With more children being born and raised in cohabitation, children increasingly are in homes with parents who are in higher risk relationships that have, on average, lower levels of dedication and other characteristics of higher risk. There are, of course, marriages with the same characteristics and there are many cohabiting unions without these characteristics. However, on balance, we believe cohabitation plays a causal role in risk on top of selection because of the increased constraints inherent in it. (And for some people, cohabitation likely lowers their risks, though this is more challenging to demonstrate.)

This model of cohabitation risk based on inertia fully embraces selection. In this way of thinking, cohabitation may not causes poorer parenting but it may well increase the number of couples who have or bear children who are not well matched and who will have difficulty parenting together. Hence, one can predict that a net societal increase in cohabitation that begins before partners have a clear and mutual commitment will lead to a greater number of children living in difficult contexts.

Serial cohabitation is illustrative of some points about selection at one level and individual choice at another level. Serial cohabitation is associated with later difficulties in marriage and/or family stability. Selection is involved (on average, it’s more likely for those growing up in a single parent home, those with economic disadvantage, etc.). A person who has those and other background factors is definitely at higher risk no matter if they cohabit with a number of people or not. Yet, does it seem far-fetched to suggest also that a person with such background risks can improve their odds if they raise the bar on conditions under which they would begin to cohabit with someone (e.g., strong mutual commitment, engagement, or marriage)? In line with inertia, a person doing so would make it less likely she or he will get stuck, at least for a while, in a difficult spot. More importantly, if a single parent avoids extra cohabiting relationships, they also reduce the degree to which their children are exposed to significant attachments that end. Further, there is reason to believe that such a person could reduce the possibility of child maltreatment since the odds of that occurring are greater with live-in partners. Even with selection, a person making such adjustments in their personal life is changing here-and-now behavior that matters. Fortunately, this is one area where experiments may show if the chain of logic holds up. Such an experiment was designed by my colleague Galena Rhoades, but it is, as yet, unfunded.

That brings me to the matter of cultural and dyadic aspects of commitment. There are reasons why marriage, including the ceremony, actually should matter regarding outcomes. This can be debated endlessly, of course. A conceptual rationale may be the best we can do here, since this is not an area where any of us are going to get to do an experiment and randomly assign people to marriage and not marriage.

First, marriage signals a lot about commitment. While marriages are much weaker than they used to be, at least in terms of stability, part of what I believe is protective about marriage is that it conveys a less ambiguous signal about commitment than that conveyed by cohabitation. This matter of signals was becoming a big focus in Steve Nock’s work before he passed on, and, what I am pretty sure was his last published writing was focused on exactly this (see references link below). At the same time that Steve Nock was focusing more on signals, spurred on by the ideas of economist Robert Rowthorn, I had been focusing on what I saw as a decline, in general, of emblems of commitment in changing patterns of how people mate. Nock and I, along with numerous others, all thought these changes were consequential. Andrew Cherlin has suggested that marriage has become a status symbol, economically, denoting wealth. That seems true. But, more importantly, I think, marriage remains the strongest culturally imbued signal of commitment status even in weakened forms. [2-2015 update: For a piece dealing with the issue of the timing and sequencing of signals, I lay this out clearly, here.]

In our work, we have found that when cohabiting is not preceded by mutual clarity about a commitment to the future (e.g., by engagement or marriage), there is not only evidence of lower relationship quality, there is a greater likelihood of asymmetry in dedication levels between partners. I see this as part of a scientific explanation for why books like “He’s Just Not That Into You” are bestsellers. One of protective things about publicly understood (and institutionalized) signals like engagement and marriage is that they require both partners to declare their commitment levels—and I particularly mean commitment as dedication, here. [Update 2-2015: For more on this theme, see our article here.] Without cultural forms that push this information out in the open, it is easier to have relationships where one partner does not fully realize that the other is substantially less committed. The emergence of new cultural forms like FaceBook’s relationship status indicator may start to fill a gap by providing a commitment clarifying tool for some couples.

I do, by the way, believe that cohabitation can signal higher levels of commitment (compared to not cohabiting) among some who are very poor. I think it likely that the potency of a signal is partially related to what other signals are available. For many complex reasons, marriage is so far off the radar screen in terms of experience for many in poverty that another signal like cohabitation can take on signal value. But, more generally, it seems that cohabitation conveys very little information about the level of commitment in romantic relationships. That’s why, for example, we find that infidelity is no less likely in cohabiting relationships than in dating relationships. This is not to say that cohabiting partners cannot have high levels of dedication to one another. Many do. Further, while marriage requires public clarity about commitment and cohabitation does not, a cohabiting couple can talk about their relationship and clarify commitment between them and to others. But most do not do these things, and, in fact, most cohabiting couples slide into cohabiting without discussing what it means (for more on this, see the note in the references link below). This is part and parcel with Steve Nock’s observation that cohabitation is not an institution with specific, common meanings.

Second, let’s think about the matter of ceremony as raised by Brad Wilcox. I am not a social psychologist, but it is easy to call upon that field’s robust literature of experimental studies that test the likelihood of people following through on commitments made under varying conditions. The cognitive dissonance literature is replete with evidence that the strongest action tendencies are set up by the awareness that one is making a clear choice among two or more alternatives. Further, based on the power of a desire for cognitive consistency, the more publicly one has declared their decision, the stronger the set up for following through. These are powerful human tendencies demonstrated in scores of studies. What aspects of cohabitation (when not accompanied by commitment to marriage) perform these functions? Marriage is a cultural phenomenon that, whatever else may be true, has historically required the very kinds of behaviors that a lot of science suggests will affect persistence to follow through.

To sum up, I believe that scholars can accept and respect the evidence for selection while also maintaining that there are strong, protective aspects to marriage.


References Centrally Related to this Post (click here)

For something more lighthearted, but meaningful, about personal decisions in one's romantic life, see my older post on black jack and roulette (click here).

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Friday, September 2, 2011

Do Actors Act? Further Thoughts on Science, Selection, and Free Will

[NOTE: This is the fourth in a series on science, free-will, and selection. So if you’ve not read the last three entries, I recommend you do because they build up to this one. It’s a lot to read, I know, and this is the longest entry I am writing on this subject, but it’s all got to be said in one chunk.]

I last suggested that one might be able to show that teens can get sexually transmitted diseases without ever touching other humans. I do not mean that one can get a STD without some type of sexual contact. I mean that a social scientist might be able to get close to presenting a convincing case for something that is not possible. And, to be sure, I am exaggerating. But I exaggerate with a purpose, and it is not to be flip.

Recall what a social scientist means by a selection effect. There is a great deal of evidence of selection in numerous kinds of risk that people have in life, including in their love lives. Some of the most important selection effects are related to family history, poverty, and education. For example, people who cohabit with a number of different people before marriage are likely to have more trouble in marriage than those who do not, and they are also more likely to have selection factors like those I just listed. The interesting question is whether or not cohabiting with a number of people actually makes it more likely people will struggle in their marriages or if the other background risks simply lead to both the serial cohabitation and problems succeeding in marriage. Or both. You would not do too poorly in life to usually bet on “both” when dealing with questions like this.

My colleague Galena Rhoades and I talk about this a great deal because it affects what social scientists covey to others about what can and cannot change in their lives. I’ll get to that later after we have some fun with imaginary data.

AN EXAMPLE

Okay, now to sex. I know you have been waiting patiently. Assume you are a researcher studying sexually transmitted diseases in older teenagers. In fact, you have the most amazing data set in the history of your field. You have a sample where you know a stunning number of things. On the 25,000 people in your sample, you have measured these variables and more: family history, parental relationship quality, parental divorce (or, if parents ever married), the number of romantic relationship transitions each parent has had (and at what ages for the individuals in the sample), levels of parental supervision, personal insecurities, personality tendencies to seek stimulation and impulsivity, drug use history, alcohol use, school performance, the number of sexually active kids in each individuals’ school and neighborhood, physical health, everything else about the neighborhood including crime, stress, social integration/disintegration, resources, sex-and-stress-hormones like daily (I mean to be extreme here) blood levels of androgens and estrogen, oxytocin levels and reactivity to it, vasopressin levels, parents income, current household income, parents’ education levels, religious beliefs, religiousness, beliefs about sex, type and number of friends, specific genetic markers associated with sexual behavior and pair bonding (are you getting tired of this list yet?) . . . (Okay, I’ll stop). But, please assume I could have gone on for a while because I could have.

By the way, you have a huge budget.  Huge.  And a massive sample size.  Massive. You have followed this sample from age 12 to 20. You and your assistants check in with each of the individuals, relentlessly, and you also have access to all kinds of records. And, you’ve not lost contact with too many people. It’s a dream data set (and it would be very expensive). You also know who has had sex, when, with whom, what type of sex, and under what circumstances. (Those GPS circuits in cell phones are really rather amazing.) You also know who has had, or continues to have, an STD. Let’s also assume that the data are really good with low measurement error; however, you also must assume that sexual behavior is pretty sensitive stuff to most people, and it’s a little fuzzier than most of the other measurements you have as to error. But still, you have very good information on sexual behavior.

It’s statistical time. Your first question is about selection. How much of the STD risk do all these variables, except for sexual behavior, explain? You crunch the data and find that you can explain 75% of the differences between individuals who get and do not get STDs. Pretty amazing (though, realize it’s harder to explain as much as a prediction, using the same variables, in a new data set—technical point you can ignore if you like). Now, you do another, similar analysis but you add the sexual behavior variables into the stew. Suppose the amount of variance explained goes up 80%. Wow. That’s a lot of explanation. You are happy because you will get this published and it’s actually kind of useful information.

Please keep in mind I’m making up an example, here. These are not real findings.

Why doesn’t the amount of variance explained shoot up a lot higher when you throw in the sexual behavior variables? In this case, it only goes up a bit higher because the selection variables explain so much, there is not a lot else to explain. Your big bunch of selection variables was so good at “predicting” who would get an STD that you hardly need to know whether or not, and when and how, people had sex. In fact, that whole having sex thing looks pretty inconsequential based on the analyses.This is an extreme example but the point I am making is that when it comes to come common behaviors and risks, there truly are a lot of background variables and factors that seem to determine the outcome. 

Quiz. Does the fact that you have just shown that selection explains a ton about who gets STDs mean that teens can get STDs without ever having sexual contact? Of course not. While we are here, I want to make a couple of complicated points. If you want to skip ahead, just move on to “three points to ponder” below.

COMPLEX BITS

First, as a risk behavior becomes something more and more people do, it, ironically, becomes harder to detect it as mattering in risk outcomes. Extreme examples are extremely useful. If 93% of people do some behavior that is risky, the fact that you have almost no one to compare the 93% to makes it pretty hard to show that the behavior matters. Plus, the 7% will be quite unusual, making what you can conclude from the comparison of limited value. Let that sink in a bit.

Second, I’m using terms here like “risk behavior” a lot here, but doing so is complicated because one of the core issues in this discussion is whether or not a behavior associated with risk is truly risky behavior. In the case of a hookup with a stranger at a party, it’s pretty obvious that the behavior is risky, no matter what else is true. That’s the point of my STD example above. But here is a different example. Serial cohabitation is associated with later difficulties in marriage and/or family stability, and, of course, there is some selection involved (on average, it’s more likely for those growing up in a single parent home, those with economic disadvantage, etc.). A person who has those and other background factors is definitely at higher risk no matter if they cohabit with a number of people or not. Yet, isn’t it pretty obvious that a person with such background factors improves their odds if they do not cohabit before marriage or they cohabit only with one person, and only after having mutual plans to marry or some other really clear clarification about commitment?

I say this because by not having those extra cohabiting relationships, the person makes it less likely they will get stuck, at least for a while, in a difficult spot. That’s because constraints to remain together are greater when cohabiting, and that makes it harder to leave. If a single parent avoids extra cohabiting relationships, they also reduce the degree to which their children are exposed to significant attachments that end. Further, there is reason to believe that such a person could reduce the possibility of child maltreatment since the odds of that occurring are greater with live-in partners. Even with selection, a person making such adjustments in their life is changing here-and-now behavior that matters.

THREE POINTS TO PONDER: CAN ACTORS ACT?

Back to you and your amazing, fantasy data set and astounding evidence for selection. (Yes, researchers have fantasies about data sets. There, I’ve let the secret out. You might think you’ve heard about all the temptations on the web, but do you know there are some data sets out there on the web that anyone can access? I know, I should not tempt you.) So, now you have your findings and you present them to the world. You can very easily sound like you are saying that the actual sexual behavior of the teens didn’t matter much in producing risk. You’d be right in a way and way, way off in another way.

First, selection matters and it is everywhere. In fact, it’s closely related to what social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. It has been repeatedly proven that we (all of us, really) tend to over attribute the causes of other peoples’ behavior to themselves and give far too little weight to their circumstances. (We happen to generously give ourselves credit for how circumstances affected what we did when we have done something wrong or poorly. Neat trick, that.) That’s why popular sayings like “walk a mile in their shoes” have real scientific oomph behind them. Environments matter, as does selection.

Second, social scientists have a difficult time figuring out how much of a risk effect to ascribe to selection and how much to experience. We can get close, but it’s hard to ever totally answer this question. One of the common ways to figure out if experience (versus selection) actually matters is to assess a massive amount of potential selection variables and see if experience still explains anything. This is an imperfect but credible and important approach to teasing selection and experience apart. This is one of the things we do in our research on cohabitation, particularly in one large sample we are following over time. We measure an amazing number of possible selection variables to “see” how much experience matters. There are other strategies one can pursue, as well.

Third, and a SUPER BIG SOCIAL SCIENCE DILEMMA: It’s not all that clear how researchers can actually measure whether or not people have the option to engage in, or not to engage in, a behavior associated with higher risk. You can measure if risky behavior happened. You can measure what background characteristics make it more likely that behavior will happen. But, you cannot easily measure if someone had a choice.There are some ways to get close to measuring choice, but they involve very creative experiments, and these are not the kind of data most debates about selection and experience revolve around. So, while it’s hard to demonstrate that people actually make choices, and, thereby, show they have choices to make, it’s pretty easy to get evidence for selection. But how do you even keep evidence of free-will and choice in your statistical model? This means social scientists can often sound like the individual's ability to decide or choose is not part of what matters. This is a profoundly important question (unless I’m missing something really obvious to another who will eventually point it out to me.  That happens plenty often and I’m fine with it!).

An emphasis on selection can be motivated by good science and it can also be motivated by compassion and social justice concerns. This is because, in most things where it comes up, selection implies that individuals have disadvantages that contribute to how things turned out. But here’s the downside of so strongly emphasizing selection, as is truly, commonly done is social science. The misleading message carried in the DNA of selection is that you—the individual—can’t really do anything to control your odds of success in life. It’s out of your hands. And this is the greatest concern Galena Rhoades and I have identified in thinking deeply about this issue: while it’s important to take into account the hand someone has been dealt in life, it’s also important to look for ways to help that person play the hand they have as well as they can.It is important not to convey that they are helpless victims and cannot do anything that affects their own outcomes.

Very strong selection-based story lines tilt the whole board toward implying our behavior is determined somewhere other than in our decider circuits. Is that what most social scientists really have in mind when they emphasizing selection? I doubt it, but that is the implication of the message.

Sure, some people have selection factors that make it harder to choose, or even have access to, a lower risk pathway in life. But do we want to accept the idea that our here-and-now behaviors, in some of the most important areas of life, are out of our control? I choose not to believe this.


For the practical implications of how what someone believes in such matters can affect his or her love-life, see my post on gambling from last year. When you are up for reading more, that is.

Click here:
Black Jack Or Roulette? You Choose

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Selection and Science: Cohabitation Research as the Example

I’m going to build on the last two posts about science by focusing in on a related topic that is of great importance in my own field of study—that is, the study of romantic relationships. I want to start by giving you the definition of a selection effect in social science. I’ll start with an example. While it’s less clear than it used to be, decades of studies show that those who live together prior to marriage are less likely, not more, to do well in marriage. This finding keeps making headlines because the historical pattern has been very counterintuitive. After all, most people believe that one of the best ways to improve your odds in marriage is to live together before marriage. I used to say most “young” people believe this, but now it’s really most people of all ages, including the parents of people who are currently young. (More recently, by the way, it is the presumed absence of this finding that has been making headlines.)

There is a complicated debate going on among social scientists how as to whether or not this cohabitation effect is going away as cohabitation before marriage becomes the norm. I think the reports of its demise are premature. Nevertheless, if you are interested in the current findings, our work consistently shows that people who only cohabit after they are engaged or wait until marriage are at lower risk than those who cohabit before there are clear, mutual plans for marriage. That word “mutual” is pretty crucial, here. Sometime, I’ll come back to why that latter finding is very important and what theory it was predicted by before we started to test for it. Suffice for the moment that we have published many studies now with different data sets showing that cohabiting prior to engagement is associated with greater risks in marriage. Personally, I think it’s best to wait until marriage, but if one does not plan to do that, I think it’s wisest to at least be engaged, first.

Okay, that’s not really what I wanted to write about. It just sets the stage. I want to write about selection effects and here I go. The classic explanation for why cohabiting before marriage has been associated with poorer outcomes in marriage, not better, is selection effects. Selection means that there are characteristics associated with certain people that are both related to the risk you are interested in (in this case, doing less well in marriage) but also more associated with the likelihood of doing something like cohabiting prior to marriage that appears to cause risk. Are you still with me? Historically, one could have looked at all the research showing cohabiting before marriage may not be the panacea it’s cracked up to be and suggest that cohabiting prior to marriage actually harm relationships. The counter view is that the cohabiting itself has nothing to do with the eventual outcomes but that it’s the people who were more likely to cohabit—they were more risky to begin with, and they ‘d have been more risky whether or not they had cohabited prior to marriage.

There is a lot of evidence of selection effects in various types of analyses of risk in social sciences. In the case of cohabitation, those who are most likely to cohabit truly are less religious, less traditional, more likely to come from homes where their parents divorced (or never married), more likely to have a lack of confidence in marriage, more likely to have children from prior partners, have had more sexual partners in the past, and are less educated (just name a few things associated with selection). These factors are associated with more problems in marriage and they are associated with greater likelihood of cohabiting prior to marriage (and a much greater likelihood of cohabiting prior to engagement). The idea is that these folks are already “select” for risk in marriage, and they are also more likely to “select” cohabitation prior to marriage or prior to engagement. That’s a selection effect. When a social scientist uses the term, they mean to suggest that what you might have thought was the element causing risk is not causing the risk at all. Selection variables are actually causally linked to risks and outcomes. What I mean here is that selection effects are not the part of the risk that is causal as in related to the behavior in focus—cohabiting before marriage or before engagement.[1] It was already baked in and it just looks like that variable is causal.

Here’s the problem with selection and here’s where this post links to the past two posts about science and materialism (the view that everything that is, is material; and if enough of what’s around is was measured accurately and analyzed correctly, you could explain anything). I believe that selection has the same tie as much thought in other areas of science to the logical extension that people have no free will. You may think I exaggerate, but keep thinking it through. It is where the assumptions lead. In this case of cohabitation, you might think that you decide whether or not to cohabit before marriage or engagement, but in reality, selection says that such things were pretty determined long ago by the behavior of your parents and the setting of your birth and upbringing, and the opportunities these things provided or failed to provide.

My colleague Galena Rhoades and I (along with our colleague Howard Markman) have shown in numerous studies that, even if you “control” for scads of selection variables (scads is scientific speak for a large number), you still can show a clear risk for cohabiting prior to engagement. With selection massively controlled for, such findings provide some evidence suggesting that there is something about the experience of cohabiting that is causing risk on top of the selection into the risky pathway. Ah, but hold the fort (I suppose that means, don’t abandon your position too quickly). If you are a modern day scientist, and you deeply believe that better measurement ultimately causes more thing to be explainable, you would not take studies controlling for known selection variables as evidence of the behavior being risky but, instead, as evidence that you have not yet figured out all the other selection variables to measure in order to wipe any sense that there could be something causal to cohabiting prior to engagement or marriage. This idea is analogous to a scene in one of the Star Wars movies. Remember when the good guys are “flying” through the sea in a submersible, and a giant fish of a sort starts snapping after their little boat, and then a larger, even more giantish fishlike sea creature comes out of a hole to bite down on the large fish pursuing the good guys? Crunch. Qui-Gon Jinn says: “There's always a bigger fish.” A scientist often believes the same (often, rightly so, by the way): There is always another variable or set of variables that, if properly measured, explain what is not yet explained or incorrectly explained.

I will stop here for now but stay tuned. Next, I’m going to argue for how science might be able to show that a person could get a sexually transmitted disease without every touching another human being. And I don’t mean from a toilet seat. I mean to use that point to highlight a problem science has with measuring and analyzing free will. For now, I'll keep a lid on it.

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[1] I added the clarity here about selection playing a causal role but not in the way people wonder about the effects of cohabitation, in February 2016.

If you are interested in some of our publications related to cohabitation, here are a few citations.

Kline (Rhoades), G. H., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Olmos-Gallo, P. A., St. Peters, M., Whitton, S. W., & Prado, L. (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 311-318.

Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 107-111.

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499 - 509.

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 906-918.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Are You Determined?

Continuing from my last posting, I want to talk about science and where it is heading, ideologically. In many ways, this post builds on the last one, to set a foundation for the next one which will be about romantic behavior.

Before I go further, realize that I am a huge believer in the value of science as well as a scientist. I believe that science has made all our lives immensely better. Way better.

Here’s a basic fact about science. Science cannot address things that cannot be measured. Sound measurement is about knowing what to look for and when to try to capture it. Science is dependent in many areas on technology, and technology limits what can be observed. For example, if you have followed physics in the past decades (you know you love it!), smaller and smaller particles have been found. Just when scientists think they may be at rock bottom in terms of fundamental particles, someone smart comes along and proposes or demonstrates more, even smaller things, at another level lower.

Ironically, to measure the smaller particles (known or hypothesized), the machines have to be larger and larger. The largest machine on earth right now to measure the smallest particles we’ve “seen” yet is in Europe, and it’s call The Large Hadron Collider. That’s not where BMW, and Volvo, and Mercedes test the safety of their cars. But, it is an oval. Go read about it sometime. We in the US were building a HUGE collider in Texas but that got abandoned (after spending a couple billion dollars or so) because of how much more it was going to cost.

Where was I going with that? Actually, not in a circle. Science is limited by what it can measure and analyze (some things can be measured well but we have very poor abilities to analyze the mass of data thoroughly: weather patterns, brain functions, entire genomes, and how Justin Bieber got so popular).

Here’s a crucial idea that was embedded in the ideas in my last post. Suppose you are both a scientist and a believer that there is nothing else in reality or the universe except things that are material. By this I mean you are a devout materialist. Typically, this would mean to most people that you don’t believe in God or spirits or stuff like that. But it means something more than that if the belief is totally, philosophically, grounded in the idea that all there is is what is material. In other words, all there is in existence is stuff that can potentially be measured because all there is, really, is material and energy (another type of material for sake of argument here). Really important point: Not all scientists are total materialists in this sense, but many and maybe most are. And, whether particular scientists are or not, science functions as if all there is is the material universe.

I think that means that the Big Belief at the end of the Scientific Rainbow is this: If you could measure everything well (or enough of everything), and you had a super computer powerful enough to make sense of how everything that was measured related to everything else that was measured, you could theoretically explain everything that exists and everything that happens. Science rests on the assumption that meaningful things can be measured and studied. The most far out extension of that basic idea is that there is really nothing else but what could potentially, eventually, be measured and studied. If you really believe that, then you can easily believe that a butterfly flapping it’s wings in the heart of the Amazon jungle is somehow connected to everything else that has happen and will happen in the universe. You just have to have the data and the understanding of how the flapping connects to the things around it, and the things around those things, and the things around those things and . . .

The quandary in all of that is that the strongest view of this idea leads one to push personal choice further and further to the side. At least to me, it reduces ultimately to a strictly deterministic view of the universe. I do not really see how it can go anywhere else. Potentially, if I knew every variable possible and could understand how they relate, I could predict exactly who would read this blog entry and who, when starting to read it, would read this far. And if I understand all the variables well enough, I could predict that before I wrote it. (And could have predicted that I’d write it.) Okay, I’m nearing the strange edge of how material and time intersect here, so let’s move away from that chasm. I’m not Einstein.

The prediction that follows from all of this is pretty simple. While science has, and continues to be, immensely valuable to everyday life, it will also keep pushing the edge on the fundamental notion that people choose what they do, and that presents some serious challenges for thinking about personal responsibility.

Next time, I will focus on how these ideas affect scientists’ views of the romantic behavior of individuals.

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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Did You Decide To Read This?

Am I responsible for writing this? Surely, you think the answer to both questions is “yes.” But don’t be hasty in your, um, decision about it. There is a strong movement in our country that challenges the general viewpoint that people choose what they do and are therefore responsible for what they do. The movement is led by a community that you may not guess to be at the heart of these ideas. It’s a non-secret society. (There is no secret handshake or hidden meetings. Actually, there ARE some hidden meetings, but there are lots of public ones, too, and their sacred texts, called journal articles, are public for all to read.) They call themselves Scientists. I am one of them.

Let me give you an example in this post and then more in future ones. Then we’ll see where that takes us over the course of some thoughts on the nature of us. (I say we’ll see where that takes us, which sounds rather passive than active, because, remember, you are not really choosing to read this and I did not really choose to write this, either.) Are you confused yet? That’s okay, it’s nothing you did. At least not consciously.

This example I’ll share in this post just happens to come from a field close to my field of psychology, and it’s recent, so it serves my purpose well. (There I go again, talking like I have a choice in what I’m writing. Dang, it’s going to be hard to adjust to the notion that I’m not a decider. And, if I’m not a decider, does that mean I’m always a slider?)

A recent column in the Wall Street Journal reviewed the core thesis of a book called “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Unconscious Brain.” Incognito was written by a cognitive neuroscientist named David Eagleman, and the column I wrote was written by Christopher Chabris. You can read the column here, if you like (well, I mean HERE). I’ve not read the book, only the column, so I cannot vouch for the book and am trusting Chabris for getting the basic points right. That’s not too hard to do since I know the main idea quite well from various things I’ve read over the years in my field of psychology. I’ll quote Chabris. He writes:

“In "Incognito," the neuroscientist and polymath David Eagleman argues that the actions of the unconscious are so powerful and pervasive that they "dethrone" the conscious mind and, when combined with the inescapable influences of genes, undermine our traditional ideas of self-control and free will. Most of "Incognito" is an attempt to replace the intuitive notion of the mind as a unitary, conscious actor with a description of how the brain really works, drawing on recent research.”

By the way, I want to be a polymath, too. That sounds so cool. I’m pretty sure I’d like this book Incognito, a lot. However, my current reading backlog is pretty huge, and my writing backlog, huger, so it may be awhile before I get to it. I’m going to cut to the chase now (I write with irony in this 6th paragraph). What Eagleman and many other researchers have concluded is that there is a vast amount of processing and, yes, decision making that happens outside of our conscious awareness I’ll go out on a steady, short limb here: Most of us think it’s our conscious mind that decides what we do. However, I can vouch for the fact that there is a lot of compelling evidence for the idea that quite a lot of processing does seem to happen in our minds outside the realm of our deciders. If that’s true, it raises interesting and thorny questions about what we’re really in control of or choose.

Eagleman gets the implication of this. Totally.  I’ll quote Chabris because his column is so readily available.

“Mr. Eagleman wants us to revamp our criminal-justice system in light of neuroscience. He begins with a good point: We tend to excuse behavior when we can identify an "organic" cause for it, such as a brain tumor, and we tend to blame perpetrators when no such excuse can be found. But, he observes, this is just an artifact of our current state of knowledge. As we become able to measure more and more abnormalities, the scope of blameworthy actions will shrink and shrink.”

Chablis writes a nifty ending to his column after those words, but you’ll have to go to his column to read it.

That last comment in the quote above about the scope of blameworthy actions shrinking ever more is an important point--one that most scientists will readily recognize as having an analogue in their own field. The common theme is this: as we are able to measure more and more—provided this measurement coincides with substantial growth in the capability of organizing and analyzing the mass of what is measured—the realm of mystery, serendipity, and free will shrinks. As more is explained, the part we now attribute to chance and/or choice will evaporate into explanation. What that means to me is an increasing sense of determinism in the minds of scientists and other scholars. There are many implications of this, but the most profound ones are related to our notions of decisions, accountability, and responsibility.

I’m going to choose to return to these themes in my next blog posting or two. I want to discuss this philosophically, but then focus on how this issue shows up in the notion of selection effects in my field of social science.

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[Light edits on 7-24-2017]

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

YouTube of my Core Sliding vs. Deciding Talk

Last year, I gave one of my favorite talks to the teachers at the school where my sons attended High School. That school is Denver Academy, and they excel at working with young people for whom typical school strategies are less than optimal. My wife Nancy and I really believe in what they do and wish more children could have what our sons have had there. So, when they asked me if I would give a talk to the teachers on an inservice day, I was happy to say yes.

The talk I gave is one of my core talks. It focuses on patterns and changes in how romantic relationships form these days, and what some patterns may mean for eventual success in relationships--especially marriage.

If you are interested, you can see it at YouTube by either clicking HERE or Googling "Scott Stanley Tedx Denver Academy".

I know of people who have found this talk online and have used it with high school or college classes for discussion starters. If that's something you do (teach), I think it's a great idea (whether or not you agree with all the things I bring up!).

Have at it.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Does it work? Does Relationship and Marriage Education Work?

I have long been a believer that solid forms of marriage and relationship education (MRE) can help individuals and couples to have stronger, happier relationships. By education, I mean strategies that teach skills, strategies, and attitudes associated with success in relationships; I do not mean therapy, though therapy can be useful if done well. I started working with my colleague, Howard Markman, in 1977 when I was a junior at Bowling Green State University and he was a young assistant professor. His passion then, now shared by me and all our colleagues, was to build prevention oriented, relationship education strategies to help couples prevent major problems in marriage before the problems could get a serious foothold. His particular vision was to make such programs as empirically based as possible. Over the years, we and our colleagues have developed one of the better known approaches, called PREP (The Prevention and Relationship Education Program). [By the way, we recently changed the word “enhancement” to “education” in the acronym, to reflect the terms favored in the field at this time.]

By “empirically based,” we mean something specific. First, we mean basing the content of such programs on sound science about how relationships work, how they fail, what is risky, and what is protective. Empirically based programs utilize the scientific knowledge that is out there to inform the strategies. Second, empirically based programs are tested in outcome studies. Empirically based curricula should be tested and found to be helpful, or, if not directly tested, at least include some of the types of strategies used in programs that have been tested. Third, empirically based programs are regularly refined. By this we mean that scientifically based programs are always changing in some aspects based on new knowledge that is being generated in the field. New studies may suggest an idea is outdated, or may suggest a great new way to get a complicated point across to people, or may show that some type of strategy is more effective than another. Like many other things that stay cutting edge these days, empirically based programs of relationship education stay up on what is going on. These points are foundational to the work we do on PREP and all the curricula we have developed over the years.

There are two primary types of educational models are designed to help achieve success in relationships—especially marriage: Services designed for existing couples and services designed for individuals whether or not they are currently in a relationship. The field has focused the most energy, for decades, on couples. Many studies and approaches focus on couples who are planning marriage or couples who are already married and want to tune up their relationship. There are many studies—outcome studies—testing the effectiveness of MRE with couples. The more recent, rapidly growing focus is on relationship education for individuals. The difference between individual focused models and couple focused ones is very important. Most couple focused approaches assume the work is with existing, committed couples, who want their relationships to work.

The stronger individually focused models tend to be designed to help individuals realize their own aspirations for success in love and marriage, not only by teaching skills but also by helping participants recognize healthy and unhealthy relationship patterns, and to consider carefully if a particular partner is a good choice for them (and their child, if they have one or more). Even when there is an existing relationship, individually oriented models do not assume that it’s healthy or that it should continue. A lot of the effort in individually oriented programs is focused on getting people to go slower, make better choices, and to be thinking clearly about what will get them closer to their own goals for happy, healthy and lasting love; in other words, to be deciding rather than sliding when it comes to key turning points. There are growing uses of this approach with individuals such as high school students, college students, single parents, adults receiving government supports (like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), military service personnel, and so forth. You might wonder why some government or private systems would care about the love lives of individuals. The answer to this is really pretty simple, and it’s summed up best by a colleague of mine named Marline Pearson. In extensive work with teens and those in young adulthood, her battle cry has been, “Your love life is not neutral.” By this, she simply means that what people do in their love lives can have a huge impact on whether or not (or when) they will achieve other important life aspirations (educational, vocational, familial, etc.). I’ll write more about this in a future post.

Do these educational approaches to helping people build lasting love work? I believe there is a lot of evidence that they do. Do they work as well as they could? No. See point three above under the notion of what an empirically based, best practices model does—it regularly gets improved as more is learned. That is essential because many of us in this field want to learn how to continually improve what we do. There is always more to learn. Back to the point about if such strategies work. Here is what I know:

• A large number of studies show that MRE for couples works. Since it’s a newer field, there are fewer studies, but promising none-the-less, showing that individual oriented relationship education works.

• There are now a number of important, meta-analytic studies showing that MRE works, particularly when it comes to helping couples communicate and manage conflict better. There is also evidence that MRE helps couples maintain overall relationship quality (such has marital happiness). Meta-analytic studies are very valuable because they are studies of the effects of many other studies all included in one large analysis. I will include some citations for such studies at the end of this post.

• Studies in this field generally show that those who need help the most are most likely to get the greatest benefit from such services. This is not always true, but, in general, when studies examine higher versus lower risk couples or individuals, those at greater risk often benefit the most. However, the benefits for higher risk couples may be shorter-lived, suggesting the need to provide occasional booster shots (to augment the original inoculation) to help couples stay on track. Higher risk can mean many things, such as being from a family wherein your parents divorced.

• There is plenty of evidence that MRE services are much more available to middle income and up couples. This has been changing in the past decade, mostly related to various government efforts, but generally, like in any other area, effective services are the least available to those who are economically disadvantaged. For a great example of recent, positive evidence that such efforts can be successful, see the link (here) that I posted in an earlier entry on this blog.

• A few studies show that MRE can reduce the odds of divorce or break-up. This has been harder to show than changes on dimensions such as communication quality largely because few studies track couples long enough for break-up and divorce to be evaluated. And tracking is crucial here. If you cannot track most of your original sample (people move, and such), you have less opportunity to meaningfully test for these possible benefits.

An ongoing study of ours provides a good example of evidence of MRE helping couples reduce the odds of divorce. We are currently conducting a pretty large study of our program, PREP, as used by chaplains in the US Army. Chaplains in all branches of the services have used PREP, as well as other approaches, to help people in their marriages for many years. PREP has been used extensively. In this particularly study, funded by NIH, we randomly assigned couples to receive either PREP or serve in a control group that did not receive PREP (at least not at the same time. Some couples in the control group no doubt eventually have received it if they sought to do so.) There are two parts of the sample in this project of ours. (The largest wave began a few years ago with the smaller wave following about a year behind.) The initial wave of couples was much larger than the second wave, and tended to be couples exposed to high stress related to ongoing war efforts. With the initial, larger wave, we found that those couples receiving PREP had 1/3 the divorce rate (2%) one year later compared to the control group (6%). We did not find this difference in the smaller, second wave, however. When we average the two groups together, we find that the PREP couples have an overall divorce rate at the one year point that is 50% of that in the control group. This effect may well weaken over time—many preventive effects do, which argues for providing ongoing training and supports to couples who are undergoing numerous challenges. At any rate, this was one of the most encouraging findings in the MRE field to date because it is based on a large sample that we continue to follow in a study using the most rigorous scientific procedures for evaluating program outcomes. (for more information, click here)

When it comes to examining the evidence about the effectiveness of MRE, there are both optimists and pessimists. I believe that the evidence favors the optimists; however, I think pessimists can raise legitimate concerns about how to increase effectiveness. If you want to know more about studies on the benefits of MRE, you could find any or all of the following. There are many other important studies but these ones would get you on the right track. (I am not allowed to provide the actual papers to you because of copyrights, but if you are really curious and have access to an academic library, or you search online, you would be able to find the abstracts or whole papers in one way or another.)

Blanchard, V. L., Hawkins, A. J., Baldwin, S. A., & Fawcett, E. B. (2009). Investigating the effects of marriage and relationship education on couples’ communication skills: A meta-analytic study. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 203-214.

Carroll, J. S., & Doherty, W. J. (2003). Evaluating the effectiveness of premarital prevention programs: A meta-analytic review of outcome research. Family Relations, 52, 105-118.

Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., Baldwin, S. A., & Fawcett, E. B. (2008). Does marriage and relationship education work? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 723 -734.

Hawkins, A. J., & Fackrell, T. A. (2010). Does relationship and marriage education for lower-income couples work? A meta-analytic study of emerging research. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 9, 181–191.

Also useful:

Halford, W. K., Markman, H. J., & Stanley, S. M. (2008). Strengthening couple relationships with education: Social policy and public health perspectives. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 497 - 505.

If you care about this area and whether or not MRE is effective, it is up to you to read what you can and form your own conclusion. As should be obvious, as a founder and developer of a major model of education used in this field (PREP), I have a financial interest in such efforts (in the spirit of full disclosure). However, I can tell you that my interest in actually helping people trumps all other interests here. Fortunately, many of the most important studies in this field—including the meta-analytic studies—were not conducted by Howard Markman or myself or our team. Of course, other studies have been conducted by us. There. That’s a brief (but long blog entry!) overview of the evidence suggesting MRE works. You will decide for yourself if such efforts may be useful to you personally or to others.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Getting the Girl

Picking up from my last post, I am going to tell you about one of the most interesting hypotheses that rattles around in my head over the years. At least, it’s been interesting to me. And what are blogs for but for sharing? I have not written about this hypothesis before but I’ve mentioned it in many talks over the years. Before getting into it, you should know that this is a pretty naked theory about differences between men and women (not a theory about nakedness, though it’s related). Naked theories—I mean blunt-right-out-there-saying-there-are-some-important-differences between men and women—tend to be disturbing to many social scientists. Some of that reluctance to talk bluntly about sex differences has to do with the fact that such differences are very often over-emphasized beyond all relation to the actual findings. Some of the resistance to talking about such sex differences is more ideological—coming from a desire in some to stress equivalence over differences. As I made clear in earlier posts about sacrifice and oxytocin and sex differences, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about average differences and tendencies, but any given male or female can be an exception. Okay, caveat and qualification time is over. Let the thinking begin.

First, a tiny bit of data: There is growing evidence that, in many ways, women are outpacing men when it comes to various types of achievement, including as reflected in things like the number of men and women in college, the number completing college, the number seeking and getting advanced degrees, and the number having and keeping jobs, with or without college. For example, as noted in my last post, the average college campus now has 56% to 44% females to males. The ratio of females to males has steadily gone up in the past few decades. There are more women in college than men—and more women will graduate—in most wealthy nations. Here’s an interesting little nugget: By 2001-02, the percent of women graduating with business degrees was 50% where it has been only 9.1 % in 1970-01 (see). Women have also overtaken men in graduating with honors (see). If you want to read a variety of theories about what’s going on, see one of those two links I just noted. By the way, it’s not that men are less likely than ever before to go to college; rather, it’s that women have rapidly overtaken them when it comes to things like going to college, excelling, and completing college.

A very important point before we go further here: There are very good, clear reasons why women are advancing in all kinds of ways, and that is all to the good. It’s the gains relative to the efforts of males that I’m most interested in here. The difference in motivation and outcomes has also led to a bit of crisis for achieving women: How can you find a male-mate who matches up on achievement? This is not only an issue related to college and degrees, but you can hear similar concerns raised by less educated, steadily employed women who sometimes have trouble finding men who are similarly employed and producing income. (And, lest anyone accuse me of being simple, let me just say that this last point is very complicated by massive changes in the availability of different types of jobs in our economy. But that’s not my main focus here. I’m also not touching income disparities right now. But if you want to go there in the context of these types of points, see this link and this link. But do come back, because I have an idea you won’t see in these other links.)

So, my premise, shared by a growing number of folks is that women are now outstripping men in achievement motivation. If you believe that, we’re good to go on my theory of why. If you don’t believe that, well, you shouldn’t really care why I think that may, in part, be the case.

Time for the naked sex theory (pun unintentional, but intentionally left in): Men are slowly but steadily achieving less relative to women, in part, because they no longer have to achieve like they used to in order to “get the girl.” There, I said it. And I believe it. I don’t believe this the whole story, but I believe it is part of the story. The other parts are sprinkled throughout the earlier links I gave.

Men used to have to achieve more to get a woman. They had to show drive and economic potential, and they had to step it up in terms of commitment to the relationship. It’s always made tons of sense for women to hold out until they see evidence of responsibility and achievement (like education, a steady job, a ring, marriage, etc.) because women have been more vulnerable if things go wrong (women have babies and men do not, and it seems to still be true). So, all I’m sayin is that men are, in this present day, much more able to have sexual relationships with women without putting up achievement. When he had to achieve more to “get the girl,” the average male did so.

Am I saying that males are shallow and only interested in sex without commitment? No. In fact, I don’t think of the average male that way at all. However, I believe that societal changes of all sorts are contributing to an environment where men have less motivation than in the past to achieve and commit. And, if you think about it, that would also add more pressure to women to do all the more in terms of their own achievement so that they do not have to rely on men like they used to. Again, this part is a great trend for women and their opportunities that may, in part, be related to some not so great trends for men. And, in case you already thought this far, I’m not “blaming the victim” by suggesting that women are having trouble finding similarly motivated men because they give in too much sexually. I am saying that large changes in society have conspired to put both men and women in a tight spot when it comes to both achievement, mating, and the development of commitment that benefits both. Many of the changes are good, but some changes have resulted in complex dynamics that are not good.

Alright, think that over. If you want to read more that goes this direction, try this piece by Mark Regnerus, the sociologist I mentioned in my last post. He arrived at the essence of the same hypothesis I just presented here: that men are lagging in achievement motivation because sex has become more available at low levels of effort—for men. He wrote cogently about this in a piece in the online magazine, Slate (click here).

Go ahead. Indulge the idea that there might be some differences in the sexes that matter when it comes to sexual activity and achievement.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Markets and Sex

Got your attention? You could be thinking this will be about sex trafficking. Nope. Maybe this will be about the selling of sex, as in prostitution. Nope. I’m going to write some about how the number of men relative to women in a given geographic area affects dating and mating behavior. There is a lot of evidence that an uneven distribution of men and women affects how men and women behave toward one another. The word “market” here comes from the idea that there is a supply and demand dynamic between men and women based on this the relative numbers of men to women (or women to men, if you prefer).

I’ve read about this aspect of relationships, off and on, for many years. A few years ago, I read the book “The Logic of Life” by Tim Harford. Among many other interesting things, he discusses how having an uneven number of men and women in a society affects divorce rates and also the likelihood of settling down with a partner in poor communities (where many men are incarcerated, affecting the balance in the number of men to women). Here’s the basic idea. Whenever men or women are a relatively scarce resource, the gender with fewer numbers has more power in the “market” of mating and romance. A person in the smaller group has more options to choose from, which is the basis of greater power. And what that means is simply that they have to give up less to get more. Harford does a very nice job of talking about how great the skew in power is based on even a small difference in relative numbers.

I came across this idea recently in a USA Today article, entitled “More college 'hookups,' but more virgins, too.” It’s a fine article by Sharon Jayson, who I have talked to many times over the years. She covers a great many interesting points in her article, but none more interesting than the idea put forth by Mark Regnerus at the University of Texas-Austin. He asserts that the growing, higher ratio of women to men on college campuses has advanced the growing culture of uncommitted hook-ups. To quote from Jayson’s article (available here):

"The women wind up competing with each other for access to the men, and often, that means relationships become sexual quicker," says Regnerus, co-author of Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying, released earlier this year.

This is a pretty powerful theory with empirical evidence to support it. Let me break it down a bit. The average college campus (according to the article) now has 56 to 44 percent females to males. Suppose Barbara is a sophomore on a campus where there are 67% females and 33% males. That would make the ratio of females to males 2 to one, right? There are two girls for every boy. Regnerus is making the point that Barbara will feel more pressure to be sexual, and sooner, with boys she has attraction to than on another campus where the ratio is 1 to 1. To attract a boy, she not only has to get his attention, but she has to keep it from going to one of the many other females around.

You know, there was a song about this idea called Surf City. The authors understood the point really well. It’s a song by Jan and Dean (somehow, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was also involved) named Surf City, and it was very popular.

The refrain was “Two Girls for Evvvverrrrrryy Boy.” Unless you are a newbie on the planet, the refrain is now going through your head. Take a moment to listen to it. Jan and Dean understood very well the dynamic that Regnerus is speaking to in the USA Today piece. Here is just a small sample of the verse:

“Yeah, and there's two swingin' honeys for every guy
And all you gotta do is just wink your eye”

That’s pretty straightforward. Guys in Surf City, the land of loads of females, don’t have to do a lot to get the girl. A wink will do. It used to be a wink and a nod, but with this deflation in the market of boy-meets-girl, it’s taking less and less. Have you noticed? (I’ll leave alone the definition of what “get the girl” means at present. Suffice to say, that for my purposes here, it means everything from a little to a lot.)

As Harford and Regnerus suggest (as have many other social scientists), in such circumstances, the girls will be competing against each other; over time, they will offer more sexual involvement, more quickly, and without being able to demand much commitment in return. You could wonder where morals and beliefs about what one should or should not do come in, and I’d say this: They surely matter a lot. Beliefs affect behavior. Morals matter, but contexts also have a powerful influence on behavior.

Back to Regnerus’ point. He’s saying that the growing hook up culture on campuses is, in addition to many other influences, further propelled by the growing tendency for women to outnumber men (on campus). If this keeps up, guys may not even have to wink.

I am now reading the book by Regnerus and Uecker noted above. It’s fascinating and I highly recommend it. Next time, if I dare, I’ll share my theory of why men are becoming less likely to get college degrees relative to women. Hint: I don’t’ think it’s all about women having improved options.

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