Friday, December 25, 2009

Waiting to Inhale: Oxytocin and Trust

This will be the first of a few posts on the chemical I spend more time thinking about than any other: Oxytocin. I would love to be able to measure oxytocin in the studies my colleagues and I do on couples but I think that ability is, technologically, some years off—at least in the way I’d want to measure it. But let me tell you why I’d love to measure it. The chemical oxytocin (a neuropeptide, to be exact) is widely assumed to be THE chemical of trust and bonding in humans. It is the chemical that floods women’s bodies at the birth of a child to enhance bonding with the newborn. It is also released in you (yes, you) by hugging, touching—and, importantly, people also get a jolt of it from sex. I’ll focus on some interesting thoughts about sex in a later post. For the moment, we’ll warm up to that by talking about talking.

There are a variety of small experiments that have tested the power of oxytocin. Apparently, you can inhale oxytocin and it will affect you—or most people, anyway. Perhaps inhale is not exactly the right term for what researchers do, but it can be put in your nose, introduced into your body in some way like that, it would likely have some short-term effect on your trust of others.

Enter a recent study that I find totally fascinating. A team of Swedish researchers (Beate Ditzen, Marcel Schaer, Barbara Gabriel, Guy Bodenmann, Ulrike Ehlert, and Markus Heinrichs) attempted to see if this trust-inducing chemical could affect how couples communicate about problem areas. Psychologically trained marital researchers in the U. S. and Europe have been videotaping couples while they communicate about issues for decades. (Perhaps you’ve noticed the small cameras around your home? Just kidding.) Hundreds of studies have come from this type of work. Couples come into a lab such as the one my colleague Howard Markman set up in our research center, and talk while being filmed. Howard, along with people such as John Gottman, Robert Weiss, and Cliff Notarius, are pioneers of this methodology. Videotaping couples while they talk allows researchers to watch the tapes over and over again in order to observe aspects of how couples communicate.

This method of studying communication allows us to study how “objectively” coded communication patterns (versus people’s personal reports of what they do, which are less reliable) relate to many other aspects of couples’ lives. For example, from such studies, we have learned a great deal about types of communication patterns that are associated with marriages running into difficulties in the future. Our books, such as Fighting for Your Marriage, focus a great deal on such things—and what to do about it.

Back to the Swedish researchers. (It just sounds sexy to be a Swedish researcher, doesn’t it?) What they found in their ingenious study fits all that we know about oxytocin. They gave couples either a snort of oxytocin or a placebo prior to talking about an area of conflict. The couples did not know which chemical they got. After studying the tapes, what they found is that those who got the oxytocin communicated more positively and less negatively during their discussions. Amazing. It’s exactly what you’d predict.

Does this mean that you should run out and get some oxytocin spray? (Oxytocin spray is available on the web. I bought some, and I’m not sure I trust that it’s really got oxytocin in it. Of course, maybe I’d trust it more to spay it up my nose before deciding if I trusted it. There’s some problem with that plan. I need a chemist.)

So, should you run out and buy some spray? Not yet, and maybe not ever (though, who knows). But here is an idea that could work for you. Suppose you and your love know you have to talk about something tricky or hard. My idea here assumes you are not already upset. In addition to the types of techniques we teach in our books and materials for couples (PREP), you could give each other a solid hug for a few minutes before talking. Heck, give it a try afterwards, too. Mutual hugs do not, currently, come with any government warning labels. And, studies suggest you’ll get some oxytocin released from a good hug. It also relieves stress. With this plan, it possible that the hug will boost oxytocin and, along with some basic communication ability or skills, you may just have a better talk than you’d otherwise expect. Are you waiting to inhale? Don’t. Try a hug.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sleeping Better Part Three

This is the last in a series of three postings I’ve written on sleep and sleeping better together as a couple. Sleep is in the news in big ways, lately, with a large study being released by the CDC here in the U. S., that researcher in England (I wrote about two posts ago) recommending that mates NOT sleep together most of the time in order to get better sleep, and various new studies coming out all the time intensifying the focus on how the sleep styles and issues of one partner affect the other. There is lot’s of good attention on what is really a fundamental health issue. My research colleagues and I (Howard Markman, Elizabeth Allen, Galena Rhoades) have been adding questions about sleep to all of our ongoing studies, because we are convinced that is much more to be learned and that it really does matter.

I wanted to mention two more issues before letting this topic go for the time being. The first topic here is snoring. Read the last two posts if you have not already done so, before I go on. Many people snore. Men snore more than women, and women are affected more negatively in their sleep by their husbands’ snoring. If the snoring is regular and seems pretty intense, it would be wise to get a medical evaluation before doing anything else. Snoring can be a sign of serious medical problems, especially sleep apnea. If you or your mate sounds anything like a freight train at night (or even the Little Engine that Could not-stop-snoring), get it checked out with your doctor. There are treatments for sleep apnea and some are very effective (and some are more effective than others). Many people go a long time, if ever, before getting it checked, and many other things about the quality of life will suffer for years if you let it go.

Now, for some simple advice to couples with snoring issues. Make it okay for the one who does not snore to wake up, poke, prod, roll, WHATEVER, the other in order to get that snoring partner to shift positions and stop snoring. I forget which of the various sleep studies I was reading that made this point, but apparently many women (and some men) lay awake being polite and not waking their snoring partner to get them to move, and thereby routinely suffer from poor sleep. That’s not good. Talk together, and work as a team, to make it okay to use whatever verbal or non-verbal signal you both agree on to allow the one to get the other to move it.

The second topic I want to address in this post is simply this: Sleep researchers believe another problem for many couples is the motion of one partner affecting the other’s ability to remain asleep. There are a couple of ways to think about this. Does one toss and turn and roll around a lot more than the other, and does that movement wake the other up? Or, perhaps one partner has a different type of work (or sleep) schedule that means one is coming to bed after the other is asleep, or waking up while the other is still planning to sleep, and the movement in and out of the bed wakes up the other.

Here are some simple ideas for dealing with this problem. First, work as a team to agree on how to handle some of this, especially the different schedules thing. Talk about it and what each can do not to disturb the sleep of the other. Second, consider getting a type of mattress that isolates motion. Some mattresses do this a lot more effectively than others. As I noted two posts ago, I’ve been working with Tempur-Pedic this year, and it’s been really fun. Note: there’s your official notice that I have this association. Now I can go on to tell you that this is one of their big selling points. They are the ones with the commercials (and funny videos on You-Tube; seriously, a lot of them, and some of them are hilarious) showing one person jumping up and down and it not bothering a glass of wine or the partner. (If you are married to a glass of wine, this could be especially important advice. Of course, you have other issues we could talk about.) Motion can really be dampened down a great deal with certain types of mattresses. By the way, Consumer Reports has great information on mattresses and what people buy and are happiest with, and it’s worth a look if you end up thinking that a new mattress is part of strategies to gain blissful sleep.

Sleep is a serious issue. It’s probably just as important for how marriages will do over time as how couples handle money. We just know more about the money stuff, but that’s only because most researchers in my field have not been paying a lot of attention to sleep. It can really pay off if two people work as a team to get the best night’s sleep possible. Sleep comes up every single day of your life. If you snooze, you lose. No, that’s not right. If you snooze, you win.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Sleeping Better Together

As I said in my last post, some sleep experts believe that most people would sleep better if they didn’t sleep regularly with their mate. Sleeping alone may produce the best night sleep for many people. Of course, even if true, most people are not going for this. Further, research by Wendy Troxel at the University of Pittsburgh suggests that happily married women sleep best of all women.

What’s a couple to do? I have a few ideas, but first, how many couples don’t regularly sleep together? Turns out, it’s a pretty big number. The National Sleep Foundation did a national survey in 2001 and again in 2005, and found that the number of married folks who reported not regularly sleeping in the same bed as their mate jumped from 12% to 23%. If that finding is totally solid, it’s an amazing change in such a basic pattern in life. It suggests that people truly are having more sleep problems than before, and some are resorting to sleeping alone to deal with it.

Of course, some couples who are not sleeping together are probably doing so because of not getting along well together. That would be nothing new, though, and couldn’t account for the increase. Still, it’s worth pointing out that some couples sleep apart because they just want to be apart. When I was little, growing up in Kettering Ohio, there was a time when this cranky couple lived next to us. I knew that this couple had separate bedrooms. I don’t remember how I know this, because I can’t recall ever being in their home, but I did know this and I remember thinking that it was odd. But I also remember how regularly this woman yelled at one of my brothers, who, I would add, was gifted at getting her riled up. She also sneered a great deal at all of us. She was not a happy person but she was gifted at sneering. I’m not sure what was up with her, but I don’t think she was happy, nor do I think they were happy as a couple. Having separate bedrooms might have been part of the only way that their marriage could work. (One day, they were gone. We were on vacation when they moved out, and all of a sudden, a perfectly lovely and delightful, non-sneering family had moved in. Happy days.)

Back to couples and problems with sleep. What are the problems that couples who are otherwise doing fine have with sleep? There are three I’ve been thinking a lot about: tension, motion, and snoring. The way I’m using the term here, “tension” is the one that’s most related to the research my colleagues (especially Howard Markman) and I have done over the years on how couples communicate and handle conflict. What I’m talking about here is tension between partners. Sleep is something that happens best when you are relaxed and not being stimulated (well, not stimulated in a stimulating way; a great massage might help you sleep and it’s obviously a kind of stimulation). When two partners are upset with each other, they are less likely to fall asleep as quickly and sleep as soundly.

Vicious cycle time: Research shows that when people don’t sleep well on a given night, they are more irritable and negative with their partner the next day. So poor sleep leads to more negatives between partners. The bummer is that those increased negatives also make it harder to sleep the next night.

To summarize: Tension bad. Sleep good. Tension makes sleep bad. Bad sleep means more tension. Bad spiral to get into and hard spiral to get out of.

It’s very clear that sleep is related to everything about personal health and wellbeing. If you are not sleeping well, everything else in life will suffer. Everything else in life includes your marriage. There is a lot at stake with sleep problems.

Here’s some simple advice. It’s like everything else that we (my colleagues and I) recommend in our books. Take control of your conflicts and don’t let them control you. How do you take control of how conflict and tension affects your sleep? You need to decide on a plan that can help both of you to sleep better, and then stick to it. Take charge and don’t let things slide if your sleep is suffering.

Agree not to talk about issues, conflicts, or problems within two hours of the time you should be falling asleep. Just don’t let stuff come up then, and when it does, get it back on the shelf quickly. Get good at not sliding into that mode near bedtime. That also means you need to find other times to have these talks, when you are at your best, and can work together as well as possible. Otherwise, you’re just asking for these issues to come up when you happen to be together, as you near time to sleep. Sometimes sleeping well together isn’t something you can accomplish lying down.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sleeping Together

Okay, sorry to mislead you—not! I bet you thought this posting would be about sex, also, like the last one. It’s not. It’s actually about sleeping. You know, like being asleep through the night and all. I’m going to look at the issue of sleeping together, but not in THAT way. This is the first of several entries I make on the subject of sleep. Over the past couple of years, my colleagues and I (especially Howard Markman) have become very interested in the subject of sleep and how it affects individuals and couples. Speaking for myself, that could be because I’ve had a harder time sleeping well in the past few years.

Apparently, problems sleeping are nearly a national epidemic. In fact, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) just released the results of a huge study (based on surveying 400,000 people in the U.S.) on sleep. Overall, they estimate that about 1 in 10 people have a serious sleep problem. One of the headlines from their report is that people on the East coast (especially West Virginia) have the highest number of sleep problems and people on the West Coast have the lowest number. Remember, with research, it’s always on average. Some people in New York City, no doubt, sleep like babies and some people in California have not slept well for years and years (certainly, you’d think people in charge of the state budget there are not sleeping too well).

I have a theory. I think people on the East coast don’t sleep as well because they have to get up so much earlier than everyone else, and especially those of us out West. You know, the sun gets there a whole lot earlier than it gets to us here in Colorado; and it gets later still to the West coast. I’d hate to have the sun coming up so early every day!

Now, back to the idea of sleeping together. (Hold it a second. I hope you figured out a moment ago that there is a flaw in my reasoning about the East coast. Egads. Did some of you think I was that stupid? Or worse, did my logic about the East coast make sense to you? If so, you really ought to work on not trusting everything you read.)

Now, for some really interesting research. A sleep researcher named Dr. Neil Stanley (no relation), in England, recently caused quite a stir by recommending that people would sleep a lot better if they slept alone—as in, not sleeping with their mate. You can read more about what he said, here, courtesy of the BBC. His main point is that all kinds of sleep problems are compounded by sleeping together. Since I’ve been studying sleep issues with couples, I have come to believe that he is correct, and he is backed up by numerous solid studies on sleep. A number of studies show that behaviors of one partner will negatively affect the other’s sleep, especially things like snoring and tossing and turning.

While I believe this other Dr. Stanley is correct in the basics, I’m not buying into the idea that most partners should sleep apart. Most people aren’t going to follow his advice. It is true that sleep problems are compounded between partners, and women are particularly affected by this. A lot of the sleep problems women have are related to snoring or restless husbands (actually, it’s more often the wife who is “restless”). Men snore more and that makes it harder for women to sleep well.

Here’s a really interesting fact. People think they sleep better when sleeping with their partner, but it’s not true based on some pretty strong studies. If you go to the BBC link earlier, note the comment by Dr. Robert Meadows near the end of the article. I’ve looked at the studies that back this point up, and they are impressive.

Where does that leave sleeping together? It’s complicated. People think they sleep better sleeping together, but many don’t. Sleep problems like snoring, or having one partner toss and turn a lot, makes these dynamics much more of a concern. Women, especially, value sleeping with their man in terms of emotional comfort, but studies also show that women pay the greater price in terms of their own sleep quality. (Remember, “on average” okay?)

I’ve been doing something particularly fun this year. I’ve been consulting for the mattress company, Tempur-Pedic, about sleep issues with couples. I’ve enjoyed this immensely. Their interest in having me give them input was perfectly timed with my own growing interest in the topic of sleep and how it affects couples. Given my growing interests, and my consulting role for Tempu-Pedic (paid, by the way), I’ve been thinking a lot about simple things couples can do to improve their quality of sleep. I’ll share some of those things in the next post or two.

Sweet dreams. (I better expand that a tad: May you have wonderful dreams that you are perfectly unaware of. Research (at least as of some years ago) shows that we only remember dreams if we wake up during them. If you regularly have vivid, clearly remembered dreams, it probably means you are waking up a lot, not that you are dreaming more than anyone else.)


Saturday, October 17, 2009

What’s My Line?

Ever think about sex? I have and I bet you have. In fact, while I don’t fathom how researchers can accurately study such a thing, it seems widely believed that people think about sex a lot. Add a sex-charged culture, and I don’t see how anyone avoids thinking about something related to the subject fairly often. In this post, I’m writing about sex and pre-commitments. The last two posts have been about the concept of pre-commitments and their effects on behavior. Recall that pre-commitment means this: Deciding ahead of time—before a situation or circumstance—what you intend to do. Research shows that pre-commitments make it more likely that we will do what we intended to do when the time comes.

Two posts ago, I mentioned a book that I think is pretty fascinating, called Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. (Click on the book title to go to Amazon page for that book.) Ariely covers many interesting topics. His specialty is analyzing how people behave under various conditions. I highly recommend the book with a word of caution. Since I know that some portion of my readers of this blog tend to have more traditionally religious values, it’s worth noting that some of his experiments are, shall we say, something you likely would not yourself conduct or participate in, such as the one I’m going to focus on today. The results, however, are important, and I am going to talk about his study on sexual arousal.

He conducted this study with male college students. He advertised for volunteers on the campus in this way: “Wanted: Male research participants, heterosexual, 18 years-plus, for a study on decision making and arousal.”

He first got the young men’s opinions on questions like this (and many more):

Q: Could having sex with someone he hated be enjoyable?

Q: Would he tell a woman that he loved her to increase the chance that she would have sex with him?

Q: Would he encourage a date to drink to increase the chance that she would have sex with him?

Q: Would he keep trying to have sex after a date had said “no”?

Q: Would he use a condom even if he was afraid that a woman might change her mind while he went to get it?

These are just a sampling. Some of the questions were about what is arousing. Some questions were about how far the men would go to have sex with a woman. Some were about the subject of “safe sex.”

I’m going to skip over the methodology. Let’s just say that what Ariely did was get the opinions of the young men while there were not aroused, and then asked the questions again while they were in a state of high sexual arousal.

What did Ariely find? I will quote him:

“The results showed that when Roy and the other participants were in a cold, rational, superego-driven state, they respected women; they were not particularly attracted to the odd sexual activities we asked them about; they always took the moral high ground; and they expected that they would always use a condom.”

“In every case, the participants in our experiment got it wrong. Even the most brilliant and rational person, in the heat of passion, seems to be absolutely and completely divorced from the person he thought he was.”

Essentially, the values and predictions about what the young men would do or where they would draw lines sexually changed dramatically from non-aroused “cold state” when in an aroused, “hot state.”

By the way, while this study is on college males, it’s undoubtedly just as valid a result for college females—in fact, for people, period. It’s just that this particular study was more likely to be something you could get college males to do.

In this study, Ariely shows how much—and it’s a lot—a person’s beliefs and values can change when sexually aroused. Beliefs and values do not perfectly predict behavior, partly exactly because of phenomena like what Ariely was studying. The context one is in greatly affects behavior, and apparently, beliefs and values as well. That’s why part of being who you want to be in life is related to choosing who you hang around and where you put yourself. If that sounds a lot like situational ethics, it is because it is related. While many people do not like this notion, the fact is this: A gazillion (a really big number) of well designed experiments show that context greatly affects what people will actually do. Maybe I’ll do a whole blog on that. I should, and depending on circumstances, I will.

Does all this mean that one’s values and ethics do not matter? Not at all. Your values and beliefs are the starting point of what you bring into a situation. Let’s use that nifty notion of “sliding vs. deciding” again. Unless you are different from almost everyone else (this is not likely, I hope you realize), your values are like a set point from which you may slide given the circumstances you are in. I am suggesting—and I hope this does not offend any of you—that people do slide at times, and so do you.

Taking the idea of pre-commitment full circle, the question is this: where do you want to plant flags about how you will behave in certain circumstances? I think it’s fair to say that without planting any flags at all, one’s behavior will be much more determined by circumstance alone than anything else. There is nothing else if there are no flags planted. Planting flags is like deciding what territory you want to defend so that, if pressures do push you to slide, you know where you are at and where you might start to slide from. With flags, you know what you are trying to work toward when circumstances are bearing down on you—including your own emotional or sexual arousal.

This is all another way of asking the question, “What’s my line?” Especially for those in the dating mate-searching scene, where do you want your line to be about things such as sex? You’ll be tempted to slide from your line, but deciding ahead of time that you have a line that you are making a commitment to makes it a lot more likely that you’ll be able to hang around where you planted your flag.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

WHATEVER is annoying

Just a quick little fun note. I read this article today. Apparently, "whatever" is the most annoying phrase in America. See the article here in USA Today: 'Whatever' is, you know, annoying, but 'it is what it is'

Looks like letting WHATEVER happen to you is not only unwise to do, it's unwise to even say!


Monday, October 5, 2009


In my last post, I described the idea of pre-commitment. Now let’s apply it to relationships. Quick recap: A pre-commitment is deciding ahead of time—before a situation or circumstance—what you intend to do. Research shows that pre-commitments make it more likely that we will do what we intended to do when the time comes. Of course, pre-commitments don’t protect us completely from temptation to stray from the plan, and not all plans should be kept.

How effective are pre-commitments? It probably depends on scads of things, including the area of pre-commitment. Some things are harder to stick to than others. What kinds of things are hard for you to stick with in day-to-day life?

While not any panacea, it should be kind of obvious that deciding what you intend to do makes it more likely that you will do what you intend and not slide into whatever.

The opposite of pre-committing is letting WHATEVER happen. WHATEVER can be all kinds of things. WHATEVER can be good, but at important times in life, WHATEVER can be bad. A lot depends on if a lot is at stake. There is nothing wrong with sliding into WHATEVER if nothing WHATSOEVER is at stake.

Okay, time to work. You, I mean, not me. I’m going to be done working after I finish this. I’m going to assume that you, the reader, are in one of two categories:

Category One: You are a single or a sort-of-single. Either way, you are not done looking around for the person you might want to be with for the rest of your life.

Category Two: You in a committed relationship, and that means are not looking around because you have committed to someone (most likely, in marriage). Of course, you could be looking around, but that’s another story.

You category two types can get something out of pondering these questions in your relationship. However, I’m going to focus in on category one folks today.

Here are some steps you can take to up your pre-commitment game.

1. Think about the WHATEVERS that can happen in your love life that you might like to avoid.

2. Think about what you would like to have happen instead of various WHATEVERS. In other words, what is the anti-WHATEVER?

3. What pre-commitments could you make that would make it more likely that the best things would happen?

Here is one example. Sarah wants love in her life. She’s not been in a relationship for some time and she is feeling lonely. She has had serious relationships that, ultimately, didn’t go where she wanted them to go. Sarah happens to have a strong faith tradition and belief; however, she has not thought much about the beliefs that she wants or needs her future mate to hold, when she gets to the “to have and to hold” part she seeks. (I’m just picking one particularly important area of compatibility for Sarah, but you could apply this point to any number of things, including hobbies, looks, values, life motivation, beliefs about being green, etc.) Since she has no pre-commitment to herself about what she should hold out for, she’s looking for love in WHATEVER places she happens to be. She’s not guided by a pre-commitment to what she should see in a person before falling in love.

You could think about what pre-commitment means to someone like Sarah in terms of setting boundaries. These boundaries could be her minimum standards for a mate in areas like values, drive, or intentions about having children (or not). In her dating life, she could set boundaries about things like her romantic and sexual behavior. Where will she draw the line? Does she want there to be a line? Anywhere? I know it may sound quaint but people can decide who they are and what they will do, and not just let WHATEVER happen.

Yes, I’m talking about mate selection, again. I talk about that subject a lot because people have a lot of options—or at least some options—about where they will end up in their love lives. And people have the greatest number of options before they get settled on one path with a specific partner.

If you are seriously seeking someone, at sometime, what are some of the pre-commitments that you could make that would help you find lasting love? If you decide on some pre-commitments, are you willing to write them down? Do you have a good friend that you could tell them to—someone who’s willing to encourage you to stick to what you think is important?

Without deciding otherwise, WHATEVER will be will be.

Que sera sera, Sarah.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Eat and Drink What You Want: The Pre-Commitment Diet

I have an idea for a new diet. I won’t sell any books about it, though, because it’s not really about cutting calories or losing weight. And it’s bad marketing to announce that your diet does not help you lose weight. This diet is most relevant to times when you are eating out with friends or business acquaintances. The pre-commitment diet is about increasing your odds of eating what you want most and drinking what you want, when you are out with others. Of course, I’m not really interested in meals out, beer, or diets, in this blog. It’s about relationships. Here, I’m laying down some principles for upcoming posts.

I like to mention books that I have enjoyed or found interesting. Another of the books I’ve liked a lot in the past year is one by a behavioral economist named Dan Ariely. The book is called Predictably Irrational (the title is a link if you are interested). Ariely’s specialty is examining the ways in which people do not behave quite rationally in all kinds of situations. One of the very interesting things about Ariely’s work is that he devises inventive ways to test various ideas and theories. His book is really a series of descriptions of these interesting experiments, followed by discussion of the principles they highlight and what it may mean to the reader. I will cover one of his studies here that happens to be based on beer. I’ll expand the application for relationships of this study on beer in the next post. After that, I’ll write about one of his studies that is focused on sex.

(By the way, I am not unaware of the probability that blogs that contain the words “diet,” “beer,” and “sex” are likely to draw some attention. In fact, maybe someone reading will have gotten here by Googling those three words at the same time. As you’ll see, beer is not really my focus, but I do want to describe his experiment and it is about beer.)

Ariely’s beer experiment was focused on the orders people made in a pub near MIT (Ariely worked at MIT at the time, not the pub). He and his colleague were allowed to run this experiment in this pub. The idea was pretty simple. He was testing the idea that, when in a group, the beer orders the first people to order make affect the beer orders others, who follow, will make. I don’t mean people across the bar, but people in the same group. So, imagine a setting where persons A, B, C, D, & E are out relaxing, and they are all going to order a beer. To make things simple, let’s assume they are going to order their beers in alphabetical order, so person A is up first.

What did Ariely find? The first person in the group who orders a beer is the one most likely to get the beer she wanted and to like the beer she got. How can this be? We’ll, it turns out that in social settings, like this pub setting with college students, that people like to be unique and special. If person D wanted beer X, but persons A & C already ordered beer X, person D will feel some pressure to be unique and cool, and get a different beer even though he wanted beer X. Being unique and cool is not always groovy. Person A, having no one going before her, gets the beer she really wanted all along because she’s not affected by anyone else’s order.

(By the way, again: It’s studies like this that make me completely mistrust focus groups as ways of gathering information. Unless the setting is just right and the interviewer super skilled, how can what the first people say not affect the validity of what others who follow will say? Are you getting the real opinion of those who speak after several others have spoken? I bet not. This is also pretty good confirmation of the importance of secret ballots.)

Okay, application time: Ariely found that if you had persons A, B, C, D, & E each write down their order on paper, privately, everyone would get the beer they wanted most and would report being more satisfied. This is where the term “pre-commitment” comes in. By pre-commitment, I’m not talking about what builds up to commitment. I’m talking about pre-committing yourself to what you want—or what you think you should do—BEFORE you are in a situation where the circumstances and people might sway you to do, or choose, something other than what you really want or really think you should do.

The pre-commitment diet I have in mind is about deciding ahead of the time that others place their orders what you want and then sticking to it. So, my pre-commitment diet is mostly about getting what you want when you order, not about losing weight. But, if could lead to weight loss if your pre-commitment was about what you were going to order because it had fewer calories.

There is great power in deciding ahead of time what you are about and what you mean to do. Otherwise, the situation or social pressure might lead you to slide into something other than what you wanted to have happen in the first place.

Next time, I’ll focus on that principle when it comes to relationships. And after that, we’ll get to sex. I’m pre-committing to write about that.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Interest in Everyone is Interesting to No One

Here’s a research nugget that rings true. Using speed dating methods, Paul Eastwick and Eli Finkel of Northwestern University found that people who convey romantic interest in nearly anyone who is attractive to them end up with fewer people finding them attractive. The lesson? Potential objects of your affection will be less interested when they detect that you are not too choosey.

Put simply, people are able to detect when a person is non-discriminating. And this happens fast, since the phenomena can be measured in speed-dating.

If you are looking for love, hopefully you are looking for someone special, not just any person who will do. Being choosey is not only going to make it more likely you find a partner who fits you in important ways, it will also make you more attractive to this person when you find him or her.

Here’s a very practical tip if you are trying out speed dating in your search for lasting love. Leave your Crosby, Stills and Nash t-shirt that says “love the one you’re with” at home.


Friday, September 11, 2009


I’m returning, briefly, to the subject of the endowment effect. If you want more background before I get to a new point, see the two blog entries below by just searching “endowment” and you’ll get right to them. Then, come back here for the latest thought.

I’m re-reading Tim Harford’s book, The Logic of Life. As I mentioned in an earlier blog (Stuck on You), I really like this book a lot. In the earlier sections of the book, he covers issues directly related to the theme of this blog about relationships and commitment. He covers things like reasons for the greatly increased practice of oral sex among teens. And it, depressingly, makes a lot of sense. He also covers phenomena such as the way the partnering options are affected by how many people exist in your community who you’d be interested in versus how many other people like you are interested in those same people: for example, how it skews things when you live in a city where there are many more single females versus males. Numbers affect things.

Early on in the book, Harford covers some research on the endowment effect that I had missed before. While there is tons of evidence that the endowment effect operates on all of us, it affects people the least who have the most experience buying/selling/trading in that market. He cites a study where a researcher named List did a study at a Pin swap meet. Apparently, there are enough people around who are very interested in all manner of pins (you know, like what you might pick up when you travel to Niagra Falls to commemorate your experience) that there are who swap meets among collectors. In this study Harford cites, the researcher did the classic type of endowment effect study—he gave people something they did not already have and then examined how much it would take to get them to part with it. Here is the bottom line. People who were very experienced pin traders were much more willing to part with the pin they just received in exchange for another. They had become less rapidly attached to the pin they just received than others who had less experience. In essence, the experienced people did not overvalue a new pin just because one was just given to them.

Relationship application time. I’ve seen this illustration used before where someone will liken the way people attach to romantic partners to duct tape. Crude, yes; relative, also yes. Imagine someone taking two pieces of duct tape and sticking them together (sticky sides together) and pulling them apart, over and over and over again. You’d not be surprised that the tape becomes less sticky overtime. The stickiness wears out. Now, think romantic relationships. There are a number of scholars (and others) who believe that having a great many romantic relationships might wear down one’s ability to attach. If I apply this point about the endowment effect above, I get this theory. People who have had a lot of romantic (and sexual) partners may be at greater risk of coming to a point where they do not overvalue the person they are with now. That makes sense and may not be as big of a deal if one is still searching for a solid match of a partner.

Imagine how this might affect someone once they have found “the one,” the person they want to spend the rest of their time with. I’m all for thinking realistically in relationships, but only to a point. There might be something pretty valuable in being able to consistently overvalue your mate: to think they are the best thing since sliced bread and you’d not trade them for anyone. It could be that churning through too many romantic partners earlier in life might make it harder to have that way of seeing one’s mate that may help keep commitment strong.

Maybe staying sticky is a pretty good reason to go slower and more carefully in how one approaches the dating and mating part of life.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hand Held. Hand Played.

I am continuing on with some thoughts about gaming and doing well in life, especially in love life. Please see the last post before this one, if you have not already. This one will make a lot more sense if you do.

Everyone is dealt a hand in life. Here, I’m focusing on the hand you were dealt when it comes to succeeding in romantic relationships. A person’s hand is made up of many things that affect success and risk in romance. This is a very short list (there are many other things I could list):

- Family history (parents divorced, for example = more risk)
- Education and income (less = more risk)
- Looks (see blog entry below “what women want (and men too)”
- Disposition and personality tendencies (are you smooth or easily upset?)
- Past relationship history
- What city you live in terms of available partners
- Mental health history and issues
- Attachment security and insecurity (more insecure = more risk)
- Age (it’s complicated)
- Genetics (yes, the risk for divorce is partly genetic)

To some extent, you have little control about the hand that life dealt you. You have some control, however. For example, there are increased risks in marriage when a person has a lot of sexual partners prior to marriage. Presumably, one could decide not to do that and affect the hand they have to play later in life.

My point here is that whatever your hand, you will do better in life to play it and play it well. As I said in the last post, “give yourself a hand and don’t drop the ball.” Hope you got the play on words. Think like you have a hand to play in life and not like someone who’s just dropping a roulette ball and hoping that it lands on his or her number.

I’ve been reading a very interesting book called “The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life,” by Ben Sherwood. (The title is a link to it if you want to read more about it. It’s a bestseller.) Ben Sherwood covers a whole range of interesting stories about people who survived various things that most people do not, or would not, survive. He uses those stories to talk about the characteristics of survivors. He notes that, in some situations, you will not survive and there is nothing to do about it—nothing in your hand that it would matter to play. If you are on a plane falling from the sky, you have few or no cards to play. That’s in comparison, though, to a plane crashing while taking off, where many people do survive. As Sherwood describes, in that type of situation, what people do in a critical window of 90 seconds after the crash determines everything.

As Sherwood goes though the book, one of the things he attacks over and over again is passivity. He challenges the idea that there is nothing you can do to affect your chances in various situations because he believes (and research backs him up) that such a fatalistic view can get you killed when you don’t need to be dead. And I’m not talking about merely being undead, like many characters in my sons’ video games, but really alive.

In romantic relationships, playing your hand means taking an active role in what you do and why. It means deciding and not sliding so that you can do what you are able to do to improve your odds in life and love. That may also mean learning some things you don’t know already, like about what things make it more likely that relationships will succeed. Or, learning how to choose a partner wisely (see earlier post, “Looking for Love that Lasts,” as well). Or, if you are a couple trying to figure out if you got what it takes, taking a relationship education class together to see what you can learn and how well you cope together with learning. (For more information on relationship education, see websites such as,, and

The key is realizing that what you do truly matters in how your life will turn out. That can make all the difference.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Black Jack or Roulette? You Choose.

I’m not a gambler. I don’t really enjoy it much and I’m not all that good at it, especially in games that involve bluffing (just ask my wife how good I am at hiding what I am really feeling). Part of my aversion to gambling is that I lost 20 bucks once playing poker with friends in 8th grade. Twenty bucks was a whole lot of money when I was in 8th grade. That’s a lot of pizzas or burgers. I was traumatized and decided not to play poker anymore with the guys. I didn’t give up my friends, I just gave up doing that with my friends.

Why am I writing about gambling? Simple. It’s a great metaphor for how people approach dating and mating.

I know people who like gambling from time-to-time. (I don’t know anyone who has anything like a gambling addiction—at least in so far as I am aware.) I am told by people who study these things that that the games you can play at a casino vary a great deal in terms of chance and skill. At the two ends of the spectrum are the roulette wheel and black jack. People who are skilled gamblers prefer a game like black jack to roulette because there is some skill involved with black jack. In fact, black jack is a game where your odds relative to the house’s odds are best. It’s not that they are ever as good as the house, mind you, which is why casinos make a great deal of money. Perhaps I should say “take” a great deal of money rather than make it. Roulette is pure chance. You put down a bet (of various kinds, like betting on black or red or a specific number). You drop the ball (or someone does) and round and round it goes, finally dropping down into a slot. You bet on red, and it drops in a red slot, and you win. It drops into black or green and you lose. (By the way, while most slots are red or black, there are a number of green slots which just goes to demonstrate to you that your odds don’t even get to the level of 50-50, which is what the red and black bets lull you into believing. The house is not stupid.)

With roulette, you drop the ball and the ball is out of your hands. There is nothing you can adjust once you have placed your bet. You can’t up it, lower it, or get it back. You win or you lose. That’s what you can do. In contrast, black jack takes some skill. There are fairly well understood relative odds that change based on what cards you already have and what cards the dealer is showing. Disciplined black jack players know when the odds have moved against them (and do not bet more) and when the cards they can see suggest they should up their bet and either hold with the cards they have or take more. Good black jack players don’t go by feel, they understand the relative odds and where they have become most favorable, and they act on this.

How is this like relationships? People who are in the relationship market tend to be either playing black jack or roulette. People would be smarter to be playing black jack than roulette. Roulette people are letting things happen to them; they are sliding into relationships or situations and not making decisions. They are letting life happen to them rather than making the best decisions they can with the cards they have been dealt.

What’s the deal? Well, the deal is important. There is no illusion here (or in a casino) that everyone has equal odds of doing well. Some people have been dealt a worse hand than others. We can wish this were not true but, as they say, wishing does not make anything so. I would not go so far in calling this the luck of the draw, but that’s because I believe there is more meaning and purpose and order in our lives than it sometimes looks. But there are good hands and bad hands and in between hands. It’s worth thinking about what is in your hand. I’ll write more about this next time.

While some people do not have ideal options, I believe that everyone has choices. It may be most important of all for those with tougher hands to play as well as they can. Everyone can make decisions within the range of things that they control, and, within that range, the odds of doing well in life and love go up. That beats dumb luck. Dumb luck tends to be hard luck.

It’s your life. Give yourself a hand and don’t drop the ball.


Monday, July 20, 2009

How Endowed?

I’m back now and ready to write a bit more about the endowment effect. To recap, this is a well-known, potent mechanism wherein people come to value things they already have more than they would value them if they did not have them. It applies to anything but I’m applying it to romantic relationships.

Let’s focus on the downside of this. As I noted in the prior post, the upside of this is that, in good marriages, this effect adds to the total forces of commitment that help you keep on doing what you promised to do—in ways that benefit you, your family, and your children. On the other hand, let’s think about all the relationships, like dating relationships, where some people get stuck with a not very good thing.

What the endowment effect means, in part, is that it’s easy to be biased in thinking that what you have is better than it is. Don’t get me wrong. If what you have is really good and maybe has a wonderful future, nothing I or anyone else is going to write or say will change your mind about it. In fact, don’t give it another thought. But think about a person who’s hanging around and dating someone who’s really not very good for them. It could be that the partner is just not the right type of person or even that they are dangerous in some way. Sometimes people overlook things that really do matter in terms of how their future could turn out as a couple. What might one overlook?

• Drug addiction or abuse
• A lack of a desire to have children when you know that you really want to have children sometime
• Differences in religious beliefs that you think don’t matter but you kind of know it might in the future
• Problems being responsible with money
• Completely different desires for how to spend free time

These are just a few of the types of things that relate to long-term happiness together that some people try very hard to believe just won’t matter. By the way, it’s possible that you are reading this and you realize that you are the one who brings more problems to your relationship and that maybe it’s your partner who should be thinking carefully about you. If that sounds like you, problems in your own life are things that you can work on. It’s possible to change. There are a lot of ways to get help, including religious organizations, community agencies, community mental health centers, jobs services, so forth.

Back to my main point: The endowment effect works on most everyone, and when you are in a relationship that has little chance of a solid future, it can be just one of the factors that makes it hard to get an accurate picture of what your future really would be if you married this person. Does the relationship have real value or is it just a mirage?

Safety note: It’s possible that someone who reads this is in a relationship that is dangerous. If you are in a relationship with someone who can be dangerous or who is highly controlling, you should know that the time one leaves such a relationship can be a particularly dangerous time. If that’s you and you are thinking through your options, find a way to make contact with local or national domestic violence workers who know how to help people increase their chances of staying safe. The national hotline number is: 1-800-799-SAFE(7233)


Friday, July 3, 2009

Well Endowed: The Endowment Effect

Okay, that’s a bit of a misleading title for this post, but I am going to say some things today about the Endowment Effect.

First off, a definition: The Endowment Effect is psychological effect discovered by research psychologists and behavioral economists. It reflects the now well-proven fact that people place a greater value on a thing they already own than they would if they did not own that thing and had to buy it.

Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler studied this effect in this way. What they did is give some participants in a study a mug—yes, like a coffee mug. They did not give other participants a mug. Then, they simply examined how much the people with the mugs would be willing to sell them for (around $7) and compared that to how much the people without mugs were willing to pay for one (around $3). The interesting thing here is that these participants only differed in whether or not they happened to be given a free coffee cup. But once owned, they want more to part with it then they’d have been willing to pay for it in the first place. Quite a bit more, in fact. There are now many studies that show this same phenomena in all sorts of ways.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman would relate this to his brilliant work with Amos Tversky that showed, in many ways, that people are more motivated to avoid loss than to attain gain. (I say “brilliant” because, after all, they do reflect my own chosen discipline of psychology. Other than that, I’m sure I have no biases, endowment or otherwise.)

Economist Richard Thaler also named this effect the “status quo bias,” because it reflects the fact that it favors keeping what you already have. By the way, this goes a long, long way toward describing why some people do so poorly when they have a garage sale. They are just too attached to their junk. Those who come by are judging from a different standpoint, one that is closer to the real market value of the stuff. (I personally believe that the main purpose of a garage sale is not to make money but to get other nice people to come to your house and carry away all your junk.)

There are some tricky implications for romantic relationships here. For example, for the average pretty good to great marriage, the Endowment Effect helps you stick to their commitment when times are a bit tougher because you so highly value what you already have. And you should, because you’ve invested a lot and what you invested would result in a lot of loss if you don’t stick. If you are married, have built a life together, have children, and all sorts of other things, you are, so to speak, very well endowed.

On the other hand, what if you are dating and trying to find the right person to spend your life with? This Endowment Effect also means that you can easily get too settled with a current partner who’s not really a good long-term fit, and not move on when maybe you should.

I’ll go a bit deeper on some of the implications in my next post. I have a very busy week coming up, so it may be a bit more than a week before I get back to you. But I will be back!


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hello, I’m a Mac. And I’m a PC.

I give a lot of talks. Sometimes, my talks are to large audiences. One day a few years ago, I was giving a talk on the differences between men and women when it comes to the development of commitment. There were around 600 people in the audience. This is one of my favorite things to talk about, so I was in a good mood and ready to have a groovy time. (Yeah, I said “groovy.” I’m bringing the word back.)

So, picture this. I’m standing at the podium, the audience is all ready, and I’m maybe 4 minutes into my talk. Just getting going. It will not shock you to know I was using PowerPoint. While PowerPoint can be over done, I think it’s exceptionally useful for talks like this where I want to make a number of points very clearly and not be misread. I also had some nice visuals to depict concepts I wanted to put forth.

Back to 4 minutes into the talk: Freeze. I don’t mean the room grew cold, though it was Summer and I’ve always hated over-refrigerated hotel rooms on those hot muggy days. But, no, the room temperature didn’t change; it was just fine. What got cold feet and froze wasn’t me and it wasn’t the room; it was my PC. I’m a PC. My name is Scott and I’ve always been a PC. (Up until now.) There are many reasons for this, but they do not matter to our story. Generally, I’m quite a geek and have had great success over the years with PCs and keeping them running smoothly.

So, what would you do in my shoes? You are in front of 600 people, you have just begun your talk, and your computer crashes. Of course, there’s nothing for it but to restart the PC. This was a total blue screen of death crash. Ctrl, Alt, Delete was not happenin.

Side tip on giving talks: If you live by technology don’t die by technology. I remember once watching someone else’s keynote address at a conference when their computer froze and they spent 20 minutes—really, 20 minutes—in front of the audience painfully working through fixes to get started again. That’s a bad thing to do in a major talk. It is not only boring, it makes the audience anxious as your anxiety and frustration flow into them. If your equipment fails, just keep going with your talk. If you are multi-tasker like me, restart the equipment but proceed with your talk—even if you’ll be needing to buy a new laptop later that day. The show must go on, and talks like this are partly a show. (Related tip: Always bring a printed copy of your notes with you.)

As a speaker, I’ve always used just about whatever happens in the room that’s interesting as part of my talk. I mean, why not? Life is short and stuff like this is an opportunity. There was an interesting dialogue going on now in my head, standing there, audience waiting, while my computer was restarting: “Hmmm. PCs. PCs. What is it about PCs? Maybe I should really be using a MAC, at least for stuff like this. MAC people don’t ever seem to be fiddling with their computers just to get their tasks done. Heck, with a PC, something that worked perfectly well yesterday can’t be counted on to work today. PCs give you that exciting edge of life, feeling, where you just don’t know. How boring would it be to have a MAC and just have things work all the time? How realistic is that? Hm. . . . I got it.”

Okay, back to the audience. This turned into one of my favorite moments in my history of giving talks.

How is marriage like the difference between MACs and PCs? Or rather, how are differences in marriages like MACs and PCs?

Most marriages, and I mean perfectly good, worth working on, solid marriages, are like PCs, not MACs. Just as there are many more PCs in the world than MACs, and there are many more PC marriages than MAC marriages. (BTW, if you think I’m talking about what type of computer you have at home or in your briefcase, you haven’t shifted yet to the more abstract level. I’m not talking computer equipment now.)

Here’s the deal. While the people I know with MACs are not always perfectly happy with their MACs, they are mostly a seriously happy lot when it comes to computing. They turn on their computers (which look gorgeous, of course), they do what they meant to do in getting on their computers, they don’t think as much about the computer as they do about just doing their tasks or following their interests, and then they move on. How simple. It starts up, you click on some things, you happily compute, and when you are done, you do something else. And none of your time involves searching for some error message on Google. Now seriously, that’s not my experience with PCs. PCs are something else.

PCs add a sense of deep mystery to life that is more in tune with the way life really is. PC people are living closer to reality in some cosmic sense.

Some people have MAC marriages but most people have PC marriages. You know you have a MAC marriage if it just works most all the time and you don’t’ think about why it works or how to make it keep working. You know you have a PC marriage if you have to frequently reboot, install a patch, update something, scan for problems, or simply endure the fact that something is not working today that worked perfectly well yesterday. PCs are exciting. MACs? Oh, they are so boring.

I think some people end up in MAC marriages—again, which are much more rare than PC marriages—simply because of luck. Others do so because they are very careful in the right ways about how they partnered up. For some couples, they simply had compatibility, attraction and a big ole helping of easy-going-ness. (Those with MAC marriages should not be arrogant; being thankful would be more the thing or else you may find your MAC starting to slow down.)

Most marriages, and this includes very good marriage, are PCs. They take effort in order to keep doing the work of life. The truth is, in healthy marriages that have enough of the right stuff and that are not dangerous, the work is worth it. Sadly that message is regularly undermined in our culture. But it’s true, and much research supports the point. There’s no getting around the work. It’s just part of life in a PC marriage. And remember this, those of you in PC marriages: You have the opportunity of getting that deep sense of satisfaction that comes from overcoming things together. MAC marriage people can only dream of that joy.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Daughter of Son of a Son of Dissonance (Cognitive Dissonance IV)

Maybe it’s just a bad movie that keeps coming back, but I’m not having any dissonance over writing so much about cognitive dissonance. (If you are tired of the topic, I really do think this is the last post on this for the time being.)

Some of you have been thinking about where I left off (and some have not). If you want the full background, you really need to read some or all of the prior three posts. In the prior post, I left off with a question about what cognitive dissonance might have to do with the trend for ever more expensive weddings. Caveat: I would guess, but do not know, that there is some reigning in on wedding expenses by those who historically could or would spend a lot, given our current economic downturn. Nevertheless, here’s a theory of why some people are spending amazing amounts of money on weddings.

My Theory

We live in a time when people largely are still interested in marriage. The image of marriage has been tarnished and confidence in marriage has suffered, but people want it. Why, you might ask? Because marriage remains the preeminent symbol of commitment for two people interested in life-long love. Sure, not everyone is into it or can be into it (a matter way too complex for me to touch here), but it remains what most people want and what most people will seek.

My theoretical assumptions look like this:

Assume people are more anxious than ever before maintaining life-long love.
Assume people are as likely as ever to fall in love.
Assume that most people will seek to address commitment in love by marrying.
Assume that the security of marriage, as a vehicle for commitment, has suffered.
Assume that cognitive dissonance is a fact of the human experience.

Some people who can afford it (and many who cannot) will spend an amazing amount of money on their wedding because doing so creates a particularly strong cognitive dissonance dynamic that serves to reinforce the commitment. I’m NOT saying that these folks are more committed than those spending a lot less (you can’t believe how little my wife and I spent on our wedding). What I am saying is that some folks will feel acutely a need to create a binding commitment that lasts, and dissonance theory predicts that making a bigger deal, spending more, and having more guests, etc., will all add to the power of the dissonance force that is created.

Suppose you have the Smiths and the Jones. They are identical—virtual clones, of each other in all ways that matter, including desire to marry for life and anxiety about marriage for life working. And let’s assume that the anxiety is pretty strong for all four people involved because they all came from homes where they saw commitment not work out very well, up close and personal. (Refer back to research by Paul Amato and colleagues, and Sarah Whitton and I and colleagues, some posts back. )

The only difference: The Smiths pay $ 30,000.00 for their wedding and the Jones pay $ 3000.00 for theirs. What researchers like Rosenblatt predicted long ago (1977 is pretty long ago, right?) is that when times get a little tough, like they usually do, the Smiths will feel a stronger force of dissonance to keep to their committed path than will the Jones. The reason is simply that the Smiths more strongly built a dissonance that will add extra discomfort when tempted not to follow through. In their heads it sounds like this (if you could put it into words so easily): “I really made a big deal and a big investment out of committing to my partner, and in front of scads of people; I simply have to follow through. I must have really meant it!”

I’m suggesting that the escalation in what people are willing to spend on weddings may be a form of buying insurance for their marriages. (For some, obviously, it’s simply about a big, showy, expression of wealth, which is another matter altogether.)

Am I recommending this? Nope. I’d rather see people have reasonable wedding costs and better savings—or less debt—at the start of their marriages. I’d also much rather see people invest in things like learning about how to communicate, manage conflict, clarify expectations, and build and preserve friendship and commitment in marriage by doing things like attending a marriage/relationship education class. There’s more than money when it comes to ways to invest in your relationship.

As a poignant side point: Researchers who study couples in poverty note an especially strong desire to have a formal wedding rather than merely go to the justice of the peace. The stated reasons are often about respecting marriage by respecting the wedding process. In this, I think there is a recognition of the positive role of ceremony in forming strong commitments. This makes particular sense for couples who tend to have very high respect for marriage but a lot of odds stacked against their marriages when it comes to making it in life. Here, the goal isn’t a lavish wedding but a solid, good enough, serious ceremony. That’s a nice goal.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Son of a Son of Dissonance (Cognitive Dissonance III)

Silly me, I used to think dissonance was more about wanting to behave in ways that were consistent with what you decided or committed to do. While that’s in the mix, research suggests that dissonance’s force is even more strongly related to wanting the bad feeling of not being consistent to go away rather than to have the good feeling of being consistent to stay. If that sounds like a distinction without a difference, you’ll have to fight your point with ultra geeky social psychologists who tend to be really excellent researchers. Good luck with that.

To sum up, the more you have grappled with a decision—really examining the pros and cons and what you intend to do—the more you will build a strong intention to follow through on that decision, partly based on a dissonance mechanism. Further, as suggested by Rosenblatt in 1977, you’ll feel a lot more internal dissonance to follow through on a commitment in a relationship when you’ve made that commitment very publically.

Think about that, unless you’re in a big hurry to keep surfing the web. It’s an interesting idea that Rosenblatt had. Ever wondered why some type of serious, solemn, and public ceremony exists for weddings in most all cultures on the planet? The more public the ceremony, the more witnesses, the more serious, the stronger the resulting intention to follow through. The decision making up the commitment becomes a big deal. A BIG deal. That may help quite a bit when what is intended is a life-long commitment. What’s that say about a culture that is steadily dismantling ceremonial aspects of entering into commitments? I’m thinking it’s not too good.

With a clear decision made before others, the decision becomes part of you, and the rest of you will be pulled to behave in ways consistent with that decision. When you are tempted to stray from the path, a stronger and clearer original decision will produce more dissonance; dissonance is your friend because it helps you keep to what you said you’d do.

Coming full circle, decisions are important because decisions support follow-through. People are less likely to continue down a path that they have not decided on. That’s why sliding through important relationship transitions can be a pretty bad deal.

Here’s my final point for now. Decisions are most important when there is something at stake—something that requires follow-through. If there is nothing at stake or that needs sustained effort, decisions are less important and sliding into whatever happens may be just fine. Could even be fun. Since decisions take a lot more mental energy than sliding, you don’t want to be making everything into a decision. But the big things in life—especially in your love life—call out for decisions so that a sustainable commitment can be built.

What kinds of things do you want to be making decisions about in your life?

I feel Cognitive Dissonance IV coming on, and I really thought this would be the end of my dissonance. In my next post, I think I’ll make some points about the current craze for super costly weddings. I wonder if you can guess where that point will go and why.


Friday, May 29, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance II

I’m sure those of you who read the last post could hardly wait to read more about cognitive dissonance. Those of you who have not read that post might want to do so now. I’ll wait.

Okay, onward with more thoughts about cognitive dissonance. Here’s the basic idea of the concept and decades of research on it. One of the key applications of the concept is to situations where you have to make a choice. I’m going to mix it up some today and, instead of option A or option B, I’m going with option X and option Y. (Don’t worry, I’ll bring A and B back in another post, in case you really liked them. But we need some balance here, right?)

Let’s say you have a situation where your options look like this:

Option X
Option Y

The option you don’t have here is to have both X and Y. Sometimes you can have it all, but not today. Sorry. In the real world, it looks like this. You have 75 cents and you can get the Hershey bar or the M&Ms. You cannot get both because you don’t have the resources at the moment to get both. Bummer, I know, but this is real life and you cannot have every type of chocolate. Let’s up the stakes, and since chocolate is often linked to love, let’s go after love.

Suppose you want to choose a partner and you hope it’s for life. You’ve narrowed your options to Jesse and Lee. Now, even if you have a buck fifty, it should be exceptionally obvious that you cannot have both, at least if life-long love is your goal. Jesse’s not likely to accept the idea of you still hanging around Lee if Jesse is your choice. Likewise, Lee thinks three’s a crowd. Lee and Jesse could be friends in another life, but not in YOUR life.

Back to dissonance. Let’s say you’ve done everything right, or nearly enough. You took your time, thought about what was most important to you, explored your options enough to have a good idea what they were, and then chose Lee. Call it a leaning that became pretty strong that ended up in a real commitment.

Here is where cognitive dissonance theory gets pretty important. What decades of studies show is that if you’ve made a clear choice—a real decision, not a slide—and chosen one option, dissonance will help you follow through. Dissonance helps you maintain your motivation on the pathway you chose. You chose Lee and not Jesse; dissonance supports that commitment in a powerful way.

Here’s what dissonance is in this context. Dissonance is that bad feeling you get when your behavior isn’t consistent with your decision. If you’re attracted (really, seriously attracted) to Jesse after you decided on Lee, and your character is fully intact, you will feel bad. This is similar to guilt but the idea of cognitive dissonance is broader than guilt. It’s feeling bad when things are not lining up right between important parts of yourself; dissonance feels uncomfortable and you’ll try to reduce it. The stronger and more forceful and conscious the original decision, the more dissonance supports following through on that commitment.

This has some really interesting implications for the ways that couples build commitment—keeping in mind that anything that can be built can be built poorly or built well. The clearer the decision, the stronger the follow-through on the commitment that was made. I’ll write more on this in my next post, surely to be labeled, Cognitive Dissonance III. Someday, these will be great movies, starring Lee, Jesse, A, B, X, and Y. I’m sure of it.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance I

The concept of cognitive dissonance has been around for decades. There is a lot of research supporting the fact that it is a powerful force in our lives.

Let’s lay some foundational points for the thoughts I’ll share regarding cognitive dissonance.

Deciding (or choosing) between two or more paths is the essence of commitment. My favorite one liner about commitment is this: “Commitment is making the choice to give up other choices.” That says a lot about why commitment can be so hard in today’s world. We’re encouraged to hang onto everything while commitment feels like we are giving something up. That’s because we do give something up when we make a commitment. If we are not giving anything up we are not making a commitment. Commitment is deciding to go down path A or B, in a situation where one cannot do both—at least until cloning is widely available. (There’s some time left before commitment is irrelevant.)

Cognitive dissonance is a concept originally developed in the 1950s by social psychologist, Leon Festinger. The essence of Festinger’s idea was that we often feel internal conflict about who we are, how we see ourselves, and what we do. That is what cognitive dissonance is. Something is unsettled or not in sync in how we see ourselves and what we’re doing. In essence, when have cognitive dissonance, you feel at odds with your self,

It does not feel good to have dissonance and our minds are pretty good at finding ways to reduce it. In fact, study after study after study (a large number of them) document that cognitive dissonance happens and we’ll do what we can to reduce it.

Suppose, for example, you see yourself as very environmentally conscious. However, you also happen to drive a gigantic SUV that gets 12 miles to the gallon with a fair wind at its back. Your behavior of driving the big SUV and your beliefs about the environment are in conflict, and you’ll do something to reduce that internal conflict. You might get a Prius or you might become less environmentally concerned. You might rationalize that it would waste a lot of energy for Detroit to build you another car (but they would dearly love to build you one), so you decide it’s best for the environment to keep the SUV even if it burns through gas like my sons go through Oreos. (We’re talking about fuel, after all, right?)

Next time, I’m going to talk about how cognitive dissonance research helps explain some things about decisions and commitment. Soon.


Friday, May 15, 2009


In my last post, I left off with the question of why people might avoid the DTR Talk. If you have not read that post yet, I encourage you to read it before going on with this one.

To reset the scene, I’m assuming some things about a relationship with person A and person B. I’m assuming that partner A is either more committed to the future than B or is, at least, thinking a lot more about the issue. Hence, person A is the one who wants to know now or soon where person B is at on the whole matter of a future. This is not something that usually (or should) happen early in the relationship. It’s something that becomes more and more of an issue over time. That’s because most people want to marry eventually. Most adults who are “in the market” for life-long love (the aspiration) are going to be less inclined to spend a lot of time with someone if they know that this someone does not see a future together.

So person A wants to know what person B is thinking and intending. While it’s easy to think of person A as a female and person B as a male, there are doubtless many situations that go any which way. The key is that one person, A, is more ready than the other, B.

Questions and Ideas of Answers

Why might person A avoid having The Talk? Person A might avoid having The Talk because person A has a hunch that person B either sees no future or that person B would run from the relationship if person A pushes it.

By the way, this relates to a painful reality about commitment: The person who is most committed has the least power. This is true, at least at this stage of a relationship, where the future is not nailed down.

Since person A loves person B, and knows he/she wants a future with person B, pushing the matter is scary. People tend to avoid scary things until they can’t put them off any longer.

The reasons why person B might avoid the talk seem more complex, in my view, but they all boil down to a sense of potential loss. Essentially, what I’m defining is a situation where person B likes the status quo. Whatever the relationship is right now, person B is happy not to rock the boat. It’s working, at least for now, so why mess with anything?

The Talk can bring person B the loss of something in one of at least three ways.

1. If person B is quite a bit less committed than person A, The TALK can lead to a break up. Person B’s answers can lead to person A to realize that what she or he wants is never going to happen. B avoids The Talk because of a desire to hang onto the present arrangement.

2. If person B is somewhat less committed than A but a future is at least possible, the talk leads to ongoing negotiation. One Talk will lead to other Talks because A sees the possibility of getting somewhere and will keep pressing it. B might not want to be in what starts to seem like a series of Talks because B does not like negotiating about change B really does not want, yet. The status quo is groovy for B and it’s not fun for either A or B to keep talking about something so difficult, tricky, and important.

3. Person B might avoid The Talk because the end result will be that B has to up the commitment. It’s sort of like playing poker. Both have their cards (their commitment cards and their attractiveness cards). Person A is throwing all in, and person B is being called to pony up or fold. Person B has to match the bet of person A and lay em down.

To put it briefly (something you may have figured out I don’t do easily!), person B avoids The Talk because it can lead to one of several types of loss:

Loss of the relationship due to break up.
Loss of peace in the relationship due to ongoing negotiation.
Loss of freedom due to having to match the bet of A or leave the game.

If you are counting, that’s three “dues” and it’s time to pay them.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

The DTR Dance: Avoiding the Talk

I wrote in prior posts about ambiguity and how that is one of the defining features of romantic relationships in this day and age. The motive for keeping things not quite clear about what a relationship is and where it is heading is simple: ambiguity gives couples a way to avoid breaking up in a relationship that is desirable for now, but where one or both senses the future is unclear.

Ambiguity can protect fragile relationships. There’s some good and a lot of not good in that.

The acronym, DTR, stands for Define The Relationship. It means having The Talk. DTR is a modern day antidote to ambiguity.

I have some thoughts about why people avoid DTR. There are a number of possibilities.

1. It’s just too soon to have the talk, and bringing it up too soon makes one look desperate.

2. It’s hard for one or both partners to talk about things that are emotional or sensitive because the most important conversations often don’t go well. In this case, the issue is communication not commitment. In the work I have done with colleagues such as Howard Markman, Natalie Jenkins, and Susan Blumberg, we focus a lot on helping couples to learn how to talk openly, clearly, and with emotional safety. Stuff for another day, but if you need help there, now, try one of our books listed on the left of this site (except the commitment one).

3. The big reasons why people avoid DTRing is that there are issues with commitment.

When it comes to commitment, I merely mean important dynamics such as the willingness to commit to the future, interest in marriage, etc.

When it comes to commitment, let’s assume two possibilities about hypothetical couple AB, which is made up of person A and person B.

One possibility: A and B are nearly equally committed.


Second possibility: A and B are not equally committed.

In this second case, either A is more committed to B or B is more committed to A. Let’s just focus on A being more committed to B. It happens all the time. It’s pretty much a normal part of couple development, except that if it goes on and on and on, it’s a serious problem. In fact, the problem version of this now happens so commonly that bestselling books have been written about this painful dynamic: He’s Just Not That Into You, comes to mind. (The title is a link if you want to read more about it.) It’s an excellent book—humorous, brutal, a bit coarse (that’s a warning if such things bother you)—describing these dynamics of differences in commitment.

I think situations where there are serious differences in commitment levels between two people are the situations where DTR talks are most likely to be avoided, and for some pretty logical reasons.

I’ll give you my sense of those reasons in my next post. For the time being, think about the possibilities in the reasons people avoid doing the DTR talk. I suppose the DTR talk is then a DTR dance.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

We, We, We, all the way home!

I’ve thought and written a lot about commitment. Once of the hallmarks of a strong commitment between two individuals is that they have “WE-ness.” In other words, there is a strong identity of “us” and it’s not all about just me or you. In fact, one of the many ways I’ve summarized commitment in marriage is that it reflects “us with a future.” (My book on commitment is linked on the side of this blog. Okay, that was shameless, but someone might be interested!)

Having a strong couple identity doesn’t mean merging the identities of the two individuals into some Vulcan-mind-meld-blob-of-undifferentiated-goo. A lot of people fear the merging thing, some to the point of over doing their avoidance of joining with another; and some people desire exactly this type of merging because of insecurity or other issues. Healthy couple identity means there is me, you, and us. There are three identities. All three matter and all are honored in how we go through life together.

So, WE is good, but it also gets hard to build and hang onto in a culture that is focused on individuality. There is growing trend that reflects the WE thing but undermines it as well. Paul Amato is a sociologist I know and admire, who published a book with colleagues two years ago that I thought was fantastic. (Keep in mind, I mean fantastic in the somewhat geeky manner.) It’s not a self-help book but it is a fabulous, very readable discussion of how marriage has changed in the past 20 years. Amato and colleagues have one of the best research samples in the country for addressing questions about changes in marriage. The book is entitled, “Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing.” If you are interested in marriage as a subject of interest, not just your own marriage, I highly recommend this book.

Today, I’m focusing on one major finding among many from their work. They found that couples, as couples, are increasingly isolated. There is a WE but the WE has, on average, been growing thinner. Think of this as the isolation WE diet. Couples have grown less engaged in shared activities and outside commitments, such as involvement in community groups. Amato and colleagues note: “Couples in 2000 were substantially less likely than couples in 1980 to eat together, visit friends together, go out for leisure activities together, or work on projects around the house together.” They were less likely to do things like be in clubs or groups together, as well. Home alone meets alone together.

Couples do best when engaged in some significant shared commitments outside their relationship, such as to groups, clubs, church/synagogue, etc., and efforts to help others. This trend toward growing isolation is concerning. Amato and colleagues note one exception to this trend, which is involvement in religious organizations, particularly churches. There is a movement toward increased church involvement among married couples since 1980.

My short hand for what they find is the title of this blog entry: We, We, We, all the way home. It’s sort of like couples—at least some couples—have figured out a version of the WE thing, but it’s very much a WE at home and alone thing.

Does this matter? I think it does. Doing some things together, where you are engaged and connected to others in the community, is usually a good thing. Good for you, good for your relationship, and good for the community. Isolation has never been shown to be good for people. While there are some couples who are involved in too many things, the trend for the average couple is toward reclusiveness. If you and your partner have gotten pretty isolated, it’s worth taking a bit of time to reflect on your options for doing at least one thing together where you can be involved, together, with others. That would take a decision.

You’re not always safe when you are sliding into home.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Doing That Thing You Do

Last post, I said I’d say a bit more about healthy sacrifices in relationships and how a person can step it up in a positive way. My idea for today is really simple. I think most all of us know of things we could do, that are easy to do, that when we do do, it make a positive difference in our relationships. My emphasis is on “little things,” and that is very important. There are too many things that can get in the way of doing big things on any given day. Of course, big things are great to do from time to time, but many big sacrifices require big opportunities that you cannot (or should not) try to make happen. Small sacrifices do not require big opportunities. They are thoroughly and routinely doable.

If you want to apply this idea to your own relationship today (and in the coming weeks), here’s a little exercise for you. Take a few minutes of quiet time and think about some of the things you have done in the past that fit these characteristics.

1. It’s something under your control.

2. It’s something small that you can decide to do just about any day or week you want.

3. It’s something that you know is good for your relationship and that your partner tends to like.

4. It’s something you are NOT that likely to do today or this week, even though you very well could.

It’s the last one of these four things that puts this into the realm of a small but meaningful sacrifice. You have to do something other than what you’d naturally do to get it done. You have to decide and follow through.

Go ahead and write a few ideas down that fit what I’m describing.

Challenge time. Commit to yourself to do one or two of those things you wrote down in the coming week. Not 10. One or two. Develop some way to remind yourself and get after it. Don’t tell your partner what you are doing, just do it. Your partner may or may not notice everything like this that you do, but he or she will notice some of these things and your relationship will be stronger for it.

You mission, should you choose to accept it? Do Do.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Got Love? Give Love

Healthy sacrifice is good for relationships. According to a new study out last year, it also is attractive.

Colleagues like Sarah Whitton and I have conducted some studies looking at sacrifice in romantic relationships—particularly marriage. We’ve published a couple of papers on this subject and I’ve given talks on it as well. While there have not been a lot of studies on sacrifice, there have been a number of good ones by different researchers. (click here for abstracts of related studies)

For purposes of this discussion, sacrifice simply means giving up what you want, at times, for what is best for your partner and your relationship. It also means not resenting giving up something for the good of your relationship. In fact, resentment and score keeping (“you owe me because I did this”) are associated with bad things. Of course, that does not mean being a doormat or putting yourself in danger. Done in healthy relationships in reasonable ways, sacrifice can be seen as a core element of true and committed love.

Sacrifice has been measured in many different ways by different researchers, and in all the studies I know about, it is associated with greater happiness and commitment in marriage. In an age when cultural messages surround us extolling the virtues of taking care of number one (ourselves), the findings of such studies are delightfully counter-culture.

Here’s a fun little nugget that is a new addition to the studies I’ve known about. Being a giver is attractive. It seems that women and men find altruism attractive in a partner. (Altruism is a close cousin to sacrifice.) This is especially true of women. Women dig giving men. A study published in the British Journal of Psychology showed that women place great importance on altruistic traits when searching for mate. (here’s a link to a summary of this study) Things like giving blood or volunteering to help others made men much more attractive to women.

Putting these two streams of findings together is not very hard. It’s smart for people to be attracted to others who give. Giving is a good sign in a potential partner because it is connected to things that build a strong foundation in relationships. Our take on some of the findings in our research and that of others is that sacrifice is one of the ways that partners send signals to each other about the nature of the commitment between the partners.

For those of you looking for a mate, this is one of those things that you can look for before you get too involved with someone—if it’s truly important to you. In fact, meeting someone in the context of helping others (say, while volunteering to help in a local animal shelter) is probably an especially good way to be sure that you are meeting someone who really is a giver versus someone posing as a giver. It’s not very likely that a person does that type of service just to find people to date.

If you are not much of a giver now, there is a paradox here; starting to give to others in order to look cool to potential partners is probably not going to work. That is just another form of giving to get, and that type of giving just doesn’t cut it. Worse still would be trying to draw all kinds of attention to just how great a giver you are. Can you imagine the pick up line? “Hi there. I gave blood today and I helped a frail, elderly person to cross the street. I’m going to teach someone how to read tomorrow. Want to hang out and appreciate me tonight?”

Next time, I’ll write some thoughts about how to boost genuine sacrifice in a relationship.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cleanup on Aisle 9 (at 35,000 Feet)

Warning: “Parental Discretion Advised”
Second warning: Long post. Settle in.

I flew the other day from Denver to Washington DC for a research meeting. The flight I was on took off 2 hours later than scheduled. Given my flight experiences of late, that’s not all that unusual. What is unusual is the reason why the flight was 2 hours late. Was the previous flight late into Denver? Nope. Was there 24 inches of snow on the ground in Denver? Not this time.

Like all flights there was a flight prior to mine for this plane. On the prior flight, there was an unfortunate incident. Apparently, a certain emetic experience (in “plane” language, means baby ejected the contents of his/her little tummy in flight) occurred to such a degree that it took the airline 2 hours to clean it up. I didn’t witness this. If you are a visual learner and wish to come close to seeing this, here is a video link sent to me by Nancy Gonzalez of the National Council on Family Relations: click here

Like I said, I didn’t see the baby and I was not on that flight. I just waited the 2 hours for the airline to recover from that flight. Why 2 hours? The little rascal was so thorough in his projecting that the airline techs could not merely replace the seat cushions. They had to dismantle the whole row of seats, disassembling them so that they could remove every speck of fabric. This apparently takes a good while because of things like needing to take apart the electronic panel, etc. That’s serious work to accomplish the clean up on aisle 9. By the way, I think the people doing this work deserve and extra helping of stimulus funds.

If your flight is going to be late, this reason sure beats the heck out of something like the flight crew not showing up or the toilets being broken or a passenger seeing the pilot having a drink preflight (I can imagine the flight crew needing a drink post flight, here). An odd thing: While everyone was duly frustrated and didn’t like waiting, there was a kind of resigned acceptance by most of the people who were waiting for the flight. In fact, the passengers were so good natured that the pilot thanked us all, several times, as we got on the plane for the fact that so many of us were not only patient but were smiling as we boarded. (Besides, how quickly, exactly, do you want to get on this plane? You want them to take their time and do a good job. There was also this odd dynamic of playing a group form of Russian roulette. Who knew which row? Was it mine? I am only using aisle 9 as an example but maybe it really was aisle 9!)

My initial, personal, reaction was one of total empathy for the unfortunate parent(s) in charge of said baby. It took me a few minutes longer to shift to empathy for the passengers around the baby on the plane. Sorry, but parental empathy trumped frequent flyer empathy.

There’s a point here somewhere and I’m getting to it now. In the week prior to all this, a colleague published a journal article on the effects of the first child on married couples. This colleague and the lead author on the paper is Brian Doss at Texas A & M, who, using one of our lab’s data sets, did an impeccable job of analyzing and writing up these findings. This is an area of specialty in his research and it’s a particularly fine work that he did. [Brian is now at the University of Miami University.] The paper was co-authored by my colleagues Galena Rhoades, Howard Markman, and me. The paper got A LOT of media attention. Google around a bit and you’ll find some of that.

The major finding of the study is that that there was a rather sudden drop in marital quality (happiness, communication, management of conflict, etc.) around the time of the first birth for the couples having children. That may not be too shocking to those of you who are parents. Interestingly, in the analyses that Brian Doss conducted, we also saw that those couples who did not have children also showed similar declines in marriage quality, but much more gradually over time and not on quite as many variables. But in essence, both groups of couples were taking a journey to a similar place but the couples having a child took a shortcut.

By the way, in case you are wondering, studies do show that most married couples experience some declines in happiness over their years together. The bad news is that this is normal. The good news is that this is normal. Realistic expectations can do a lot to improve one’s life.

Not surprisingly, the headlines around the study that came out varied from things like “Want to Have a Happy Marriage, Don’t Have Kids” to “Study Shows Transition to Parenthood Puts Strain on Marriages.” I’ll give it to journalists that the first type of headline sounds cool and sells more hits on the web but the second headline is a lot more accurate and does not editorialize.

Back to that little baby. Babies do things like this and it’s most inconvenient. In fact, having children means an endless stream of challenges and surprises and projectile experiences. Many parents wonder if the plane will ever land. If you have children, and you are typical, you may have had some declines in marital happiness that were concentrated around the time of the birth of the first child. But is that all that happened to you?

Maybe there is something more going on. While I like research and data, and really like thinking about how things work, it’s important to realize that researchers are pretty much limited to analyzing things that they measure. As a field, I think social science has missed something when it comes to measuring things that are important about families. Marital happiness is, to be sure, important. It’s measured a lot and in many different ways. But I think there is something else that’s different from marital happiness that could be called family happiness. David Brooks, the New York Times editorialist, wrote about this a few years ago in an a piece featuring some comments about a Leo Tolstoy novella on family happiness. Here is one of the lines from his work, commenting on Tolstoy’s story.

“Tolstoy's story captures the difference between romantic happiness, which is filled with exhilaration and self-fulfillment, and family happiness, built on self-abnegation and sacrifice.” (Brooks, 3-1-2005)

Brooks nailed something that researchers have not really gone after. There is a different, maybe deeper, kind of happiness that some people experience in life; deeper than romantic or marital happiness. Certainly different. It’s something like a contentment that a couple can experience (but might not experience) from building a family together. I know marriage does not work out well for many couples and I also know that marriage or a life together does not even happen now for many people who have a child together. So, not everyone gets in this line or experiences what I’m trying to describe. Yet, I know a lot of couples can relate to this: there can be some loss in one type of happiness that is readily replaced by another.

One can argue that a couple can and should be able to have it all, and should give up nothing in life for any reason. That does not seem too realistic to me. I do not know any of the people on the plane flight prior to mine. However, I like to imagine that both parents were on that flight with their little bundle of expressive joy. Once they complete their treatment for PTSD, I suspect that they will not ever recall that flight as one of the romantic highlights of their life together. On the other hand, even many years from now, I bet you they will smile and feel some weird kind of joy as they remember getting through it.

Posted from seat 9C, at 35,000 feet