Saturday, May 26, 2012

Give Me a Sign! What Should LoLo and Tebow Look For?

You may have noticed, I think correctly “reading” the signs of commitment in a potential long-term partner/mate is crucial. This is most important earlier on, of course, prior to “settling down” with someone.  Hence, while reading commitment accurately can be useful in marriage or engagement, what I'm really focused on here are those who are dating (or hanging out—I realize fewer people “date” anymore, but you know what I mean).  To clarify further, this whole issue is most important in situations where at least one partner wants to know if the relationship they are in right now has a future. (There are a lot of other posts here about this. I’m going to be more abstract here and then get back to practical in future posts.)

What’s a good signal of commitment? 

Some of the characteristics of good signals of commitment (or commitment potential) are these:

1.  Does the behavior actually relate to something about commitment? For example, if you read my last few posts, you know that there is good reason to believe that someone’s desire to have sex with you may mean nothing about commitment.  I hope that is not a shocking idea to anyone reading this, but people do too often “see” desire and infer commitment. Let’s call that “relationship reading dyslexia.”  What’s on the page does not match what got into the brain. 

Ditto if someone says, “I want to make a baby with you” with no other evidence of commitment like, say, marriage. An even worse indicator of commitment is if someone says to you, “I’d like you to have my baby.” Hm. Context matters a lot here.  It may sound silly to you that I even raise this example, but this is, in fact, a relatively common behavior in some teenager groups, where some males say some version of this to females they are interested in, and some females may be flattered and impressed, and . . . . . Don’t be that male or that female, and help your kids understand this. By the way, while I’d like to see people hold out for a lot more than this, it would be somewhat more impressive if someone said, “I want to raise a child with you.” That statement contains a much greater amount of information, especially if it’s accurate.    

2.  Is the behavior under the control of the one doing it—whatever it is? For behavior to have meaning about commitment, it must be behavior that the person has control over performing. There are tons of extensions of this point. A shotgun wedding has less information in it about the commitment level of the participants than other weddings. As I mentioned in the last post, saying “I love you” contains less information about commitment if it’s in the context of a hormonal rush of chemicals—when the chemistry is driving the bus. Chemistry is fun but it’s not a great bus driver, and some relationships are windy mountain roads without guardrails.   

Just ask LoLo how hard it is to keep the bus on the road!  She has her will and her values and her goal, and she has her chemistry.  Just how great would the gravitational pull be between Tebow and LoLo at this point? How much does a super strong impulse impact volitional choice? And, how well can volitional choice resist the pull of behavior that’s not consistent with one’s values?

3.  Signals contain more information when there are more options. When you have more options to choose among, what you pick tells me more about who you are.

I was inspired to think about this by economists. You don’t usually see the words “inspiring” and “economist” in the same sentence, so if you are an economist, enjoy this moment. I try to avoid being totally infected by their dismal realities but they do get some things right (and they have mad math skills, which must count for something).  [Yes, I added the italics to the word “count” for those who have deficient pun receptors.]

Put another way, when a person has diminished options, what he or she chooses contains less information about true preferences.

Think about buying toilet paper in 7-11.  I’m not even sure they have it, but let’s suppose they do. It will be one brand, and in one roll quantities, and it will likely cost you 4 bucks a roll.  7-11 is a great chain of stores but they excel at convenience not low price or variety (except for pop and candy bars and such. They are my “go to” supplier of Junior Mints.). What does this mean? If you badly need a roll of toilet paper (not so badly that you are just heading for a restroom, if they have a public one), you’ll take what they have and forego your desire to get the Charmin Ultra Soft you might normally prefer. You’ll take the individually wrapped roll of Scott’s (my favorite brand, actually, and how far wrong can you go with that brand? Slight over-share there.).

Anyway, with limited options, your choice represents less about your preferences. And that goes for commitment, too. With fewer options, what you choose reflects less about volition and preference, so what you choose may not mean you have much commitment to that choice. 

How’s this apply to dating and mating? Anything that constrains your options limits the information contained in the choices you make.  In their romantic lives, some people are shopping in 7-11 rather than Safeway.  Some do so by their own actions or past behavior, and some because they truly have poorer quality options in life. More importantly, some people are routinely misinterpreting the behavior of their partners, and thinking things signal commitment that just don’t. 

Okay, enough for now. More on implications of signals in the near future.  (That’s signaling my intention, btw.)


Friday, May 11, 2012

Love Me, Love Me Knot: "I thought you loved me!"

I came across this study described in a little write up on the Science of Relationships blog, by Samantha Joel.  An excellent summary on an excellent blog. 

Samantha Joel describes a study published last year (2011) by Joshua Ackerman, Vladas Griskevicius, and Norman Li.  This follows up perfectly from my last post, where I suggested that, on average, it was more critical for women to get clear signals about commitment from men than vice versa as relationships are progressing—or potentially progressing.  This is because women have a lot more at risk simply because they can become pregnant and have babies and men do not.

A lot of commitment dynamics and commitment decoding issues are tied up in that simple biological fact above.  I’ve discussed the importance of this in numerous places.  The findings of Ackerman, Griskevicius, and Li fit perfectly within this thinking.  They use some pretty complex evolutionary and economic theory to make their key points, but I can distill it down pretty clearly for the current themes on my blog:   

On average (it’s always on average, remember that!):

1.  Men tend to express love in a new romantic relationship before women do.

2.  Most people believe it’s the other way around.

3.  Men and women have different emotional reactions to the expression of love before versus after having sex. 

A couple of quotes from the research paper make the important points rather well:

            A presex confession may signal interest in advancing a relationship to include sexual activity,whereas a postsex confession may instead more accurately signal a desire for long-term commitment. (p. 1090)

          On the face of it, this reaction appears to suggest that men are quite interested in early commitment. However, after the onset of sex in a relationship, men exhibited somewhat less positivity to confessions of love. (p. 1090)


Feelings of feeling in love—and, more importantly, expressions—can be affected by the desire to have sex. That’s why when an immediate desire to have sex with the possibility of having sex make for a confusing picture regarding signals of true long-term interest and commitment.  So, for someone interested in deeper commitment and/or tying the knot, “love me, love me not” decision situations are pretty critical.  Does it mean someone wants to become more intertwined—knotted, if you will—just because he or she says they love you?

As I’ve talked in numerous posts and writings, signals about commitment are a really big deal in understanding what’s going on in relationships. If you are looking at a signal that has little signal value related to what you are trying to discern, you can misread the situation by a wide margin.  And I do think there are fewer clearer signals related to commitment in developing relationships than their used to be.  I’ll talk about Facebook pretty soon, as something pretty interesting has emerged there in this regard—and if you are in the zone of life dealing with all these things personally, you know where I’ll head on that. 

I will end by asking a similar question to the one in the last post. What truly signals commitment? What do you think?  What are you sure of? Does it work the same way for you as for others you might be romantically interested in?  That’s something it may be worth being less sure about.

If you want to read more, two of my (our) papers get pretty far into this whole issue of both signaling issues related to commitment and differences that may often matter related to either gender and/or personality attachment styles.  So, if you want to go deeper, have at it.  Here are links to two papers. 

Our journal article on commitment, signals, attachment, and the formation of commitment:

"Commitment: Functions, Formation, and the Securing of Romantic Attachment"

My article on men and commitment and why men resist marriage but say they value it more (on average) than women.

"What is it with Men and Commitment, Anyway?"


Monday, May 7, 2012

Rings, Signals, Sex, and Babies

[There is an updated version of this post at my Psychology Today blog, here.]

Plain gold ring on his finger he wore
It was where everyone could see
He belonged to someone, but not me
On his hand was a plain gold ring
            Lyrics to “Plain Gold Ring”
by George Stone (performed by Nina Simone, recently, by Kimbra)

I’ll come back to these lyrics by the end of this post. 

Last time, I left you with a question:  Should Tyra keep the engagement ring she got from Sam?

My answer is, “yes.”  Tyra clearly feels like she lost something of value to her with Sam breaking off the long engagement—time wasted on her biological clock. In this particular case, the value of the engagement ring is in line with how they came to be commonly used in the US over the past decades:  A promise by a male to a female of following through on the intention to marry. The reason that I feel like the economics writer I noted last time (O’Brian) was wrong about it no longer makes much sense for a female to keep a ring if an engagement ends is that there is one thing that has not changed—biology. Women are the ones who get pregnant.  Yes, there was that one exception and maybe a few others, but . . . ..  Women are also the ones who bear children (goes with the whole pregnant thing).  Lastly, with a growing number of exceptions, women are still far more likely to be the ones who spend the most time on child care. 

Biology affects societal and cultural trends and customs.  This aspect of biology makes women, on average, more vulnerable than men to things going wrong in dating, mating, marriage, and family development. This is why it has been widely recognized that, ON AVERAGE (meaning, there are many exceptions), it’s more critical for females to properly decode the commitment levels of men, early on, than vice versa.  Some aspects of advances for women in careers and earnings counter this, but there is still not way to wipe out the fundamental differences that begin with who can and who cannot have a baby.

While the use of customs to clarify commitment seems to me to be waning, there is a perfectly good rationale for the existence of societal customs that require romantic partners, male or female, to produce clear signals of commitment as a relationship progresses. Further, it’s most crucial that those who stand to lose more if things go South protect themselves by getting the clearest evidence of commitment that’s possible and appropriate for a relationship stage from their partners. Sacrifices made by one for another are one of the clearer kinds of signals one can get about commitment. However, these run more risk of being misinterpreted. Another would be societally sanctioned emblems of public commitment: for example, the engagement ring, Facebook status designations and so forth.

Back to the sexism of biology for a moment: I think there could be a further biological bias in the mix here that makes it harder for the one who is most committed to see accurately how committed a partner is.  Women (and, no doubt some men) have more active oxytocin systems than their partners, and this propels sacrificing behaviors that may be, unfortunately, not shared.  To make a good thing worse, oxytocin can boost trust, but that does not mean it’s boosting trust according to facts.

Looking for lasting love? Here is some advice related to these themes. 

1.  If you can become pregnant, it’s especially important for you to look for, and wait for, clear evidence of a mutual commitment to the future before allowing yourself to get too deeply drawn in.  That’s why there has, historically, been some protection in marriage compared to things like cohabiting (especially without engagement); there is no doubt about what is meant to be signaled with public declarations such as engagement and marriage.  To be the most protective, that evidence of your partner’s commitment should be seen clearly by you and others. (Which also means that a person might have to be more careful when public signals are hard to come by.)

Some of you may be thinking, “hey Scott, what do you mean by ‘if you can become pregnant?’” 

Simply this: Is it biologically possible for you to become pregnant?  You may or not be intending to have sex and/or you may be using birth control.  Birth control methods have failure rates.  So do intentions not to have sex.   

2.  Whether or not you can become pregnant, do you attach strongly to people, quickly? If that’s you, you also are at greater risk from not looking for cues about commitment. Your own desire for connection, along with the power of oxytocin, can make you misread the signals about how committed a partner is to you.  Lots of people find out, painfully, that they were “over-giving” to a partner who was never going to become more seriously committed.  Kinda of gives “over-share” a whole new definition.

3.  Think about the markers that you think should give you valid evidence about the commitment level of a partner in a relationship that is progressing. What do you think you need to see? Give some serious weight to what you might look for that is public.  Public displays of commitment beat the snot out of private, ambiguous messages and hints about commitment.  DTRs are nice, but it takes a lot of skill and guts to do them right.  So, it’s good to have clear ideas about what else to look at to decode commitment. 

The haunting lyrics from Plain Gold Ring, posted at the outset here, get what I’m going after as the most protective.  It is an example of an emblem of commitment that is so unambiguous that partners and outsiders know exactly where things stand.   

4.  If you have a friend or two that seems really wise and knows you well, share what you are thinking and see if they can knock some holes in your ideas about correctly decoding commitment.  Love is blind but does not have to be. 

Here are some links to older posts of mine that are directly related to these themes: 

Decoding commitment

Is Roulette what You are Playing?

Having the Talk:  DTR I

Having the Talk:  DTR II

Oxytocin and Commitment

Kimbra (amazing new singer coming out of New Zealand) has a wonderful YouTube of Plain Gold Ring, if you are interested.  Here