Monday, May 27, 2019

The Big Thing Relationships Researchers Don’t Study

You might think that relationship researchers would investigate how relationships form. But we don’t—largely because relationship formation is surprisingly difficult to study.

When Eli Finkel and I conducted our speed-dating studies over a decade ago, we were hopeful that we would see our participants go on to form actual romantic relationships. That is, we thought we would be able to follow participants from their very first impressions of each other through the formation of a dating relationship.

About a third of our speed-daters went on to have something like a coffee date with someone they met at speed-dating. But in the weeks and months following the initial event, only about 5% of participants reported having a casual or serious dating relationship with one of their fellow speed-daters.

Was this low percentage something weird about speed-dating? Maybe Northwestern University undergrads have terrible social skills? Well, in 2008, Eli and I were part of a co-ed kickball league in Chicago, and ~150 twenty- and thirty-somethings from this league got together on a weekly basis to compete, eat, and imbibe a few alcoholic beverages.  We administered a survey to try to get a sense of how often people were forming relationships across this league.

The period of time between the moment two people meet and the
formation of a committed relationship is empirically hazy.
Was relationship formation more common in this group? Yes… a whopping 7%.  That is, 7% of single people who took part in the kickball league formed a relationship with someone else in the league over the course of a 2-3 month season. 

In the years since, there haven’t been many more attempts to capture relationship formation as it happens; I could probably count these studies on one hand. The path from strangers to relationship partners is extremely hard to study. And, in my view, it remains one of the greatest untapped reservoirs of interesting psychological phenomena.


Close relationship scholars are pretty good at studying initial attraction between strangers, and we are really good at studying people who agree that they are currently romantic partners. But what about the time period between initial attraction and "real relationship" status? It’s more or less missing entirely from our literature. 

As Eli Finkel, Jeff Simpson, and I argue in this recent (open access) Psych Inquiry article, this gap in the literature is a big problem.  Why? Three reasons:

Ethan Hawke might have been able to pick up a stranger on a
train, but most people form romantic relationships with
acquaintances and friends, not strangers.
1. This period of time is not short. The average is about a year. There are exceptions, of course, but people typically form romantic relationships by drawing from their network of preferred-sex friends and acquaintances. Successfully chatting up a stranger a la Before Sunrise is not the norm. So we are missing out on about a year's worth of presumably important psychological processes. 

2. There are many studies that examine whether individual differences predict relationship outcomes. But very rarely do these studies get measures of individual differences that are uncontaminated by a current relationship (i.e., measured before the current relationship had the chance to shape them).  Sure, some studies recruit participants right as they start dating each other, but even these studies are not capturing the true beginning of the relationship. If you just started dating someone who has been your friend for the past year, she could have been boosting your self-esteem or exacerbating your attachment anxiety for that entire time. This means that even though we think we’re studying the effect of individual differences on relationship processes, we may actually be studying the effect of relationship processes on relationship processes.

3. The fields of evolutionary psychology and close relationships both inspire a lot of work on romantic relationships, yet remain surprisingly disconnected given this shared focus. The mystery period between initial attraction and acknowledged romantic relationship might be hindering integration across these two fields: Most evolutionary psychological studies resemble studies of initial attraction (e.g., participants evaluate a stranger depicted in a photograph), whereas close relationships studies often focus on existing relationships (e.g., participants report on a dating partner over time). Sometimes, scholars suggest that studies of initial attraction capture short-term mating whereas studies of established relationships capture long-term mating, but this suggestion imbues a methodological distinction with intense theoretical weight (i.e., are you capturing two theoretically distinct mating strategies or simply measuring two points along a normative arc?). By filling in the missing time period between initial attraction and relationship formation, we may be able to shed better light on the true distinctions between short-term and long-term relationships, since it very well might take weeks or months after an initial interaction before people figure out whether someone is friend material, hookup material, or bring-home-to-meet-grandma material.

Our article offers a meta-theoretical framework for thinking about time across the entirety of a romantic relationship, from the moment two people actually meet. You can also read several very thoughtful commentaries on our article from close relationships, sexuality, and evolutionary psychological scholars who are deeply committed to studying these issues as well (see here, here, here, and here, and see here for our reply).


Thursday, May 16, 2019

Testing the replicability of claims about a sex difference: A brief update

A public commitment to update my own beliefs in response to a planned analysis I haven’t seen yet (part 3)

Over the last year or so, several people have asked me if I had any updates about the data sharing quandary that I covered in part 1 and part 2 of this series. Now, I do.

To recap: As part of an effort to make sure I was willing to update my beliefs in response to empirical data (even if the data disconfirmed those beliefs), I preregistered an analysis plan in March of 2018 to test the replicability of a sex difference in the effect of attractiveness on marital satisfaction. The relevant data would have been the published data columns from a recent JPSP article  (which reported a different sex difference and only tangentially mentioned the one I would be testing in the Discussion). The owner of the data, Dr. McNulty, felt that my analysis was too close to a graduate student’s paper that was in the works and asked that I wait until the student’s paper was published, and so that’s what we did.

In February 2019, the graduate student’s paper was published online in PSPB. I wrote to the authors, and after some back and forth, they sent me the data on April 24, 2019.

Importantly, they sent me the data on the condition that I would only use the data to verify the exact analysis published in the PSPB article. Dr. McNulty explained that he wants to add additional data to the PSPB dataset before reporting the sex difference in the effect of attractiveness on marital satisfaction.

So, I am permitted to report that I have verified the published analysis that is reported in the PSPB (a three-way interaction that moderates the two-way interaction that I am interested in). But I am not permitted to report the underlying two-way interaction (i.e., the analyses that could assess the replicability of the sex difference tested in Meltzer, McNulty, Jackson, & Karney, 2014, and in Eastwick, Luchies, Finkel, & Hunt, 2014).*


This has all been a strange foray into the complexities of data sharing. These issues are thorny, people have strong opinions on both sides, and I don’t want to spend my time right now trying to push things further with PSPB or any other relevant governing body.

Nevertheless, I do want to reiterate that this whole episode wasn’t originally about data sharing. It was actually about preregistration and being willing to update a strongly held scientific belief in light of new data that could have gone either way. It was about the usefulness of declaring publicly what results would be persuasive, and what results would not be persuasive. It was about specifying an analysis plan as a means of improving one’s ability to differentiate signal from noise, and vice versa.

When it comes to increasing our understanding of sex differences in the appeal of attractiveness in marriages, a persuasive contribution would have been enabled by a preregistered analysis plan that constrained the many researcher degrees of freedom (e.g., stopping rules for data collection, planned covariates) that happen to characterize this research area. It’s a missed opportunity that these hard-to-collect data won’t be able to do that.

* In the 3-way interaction analysis in the PSPB, the covariates are not quite the same as what is reported in the original Meltzer et al. (2014) article. I would need to remove some covariates and shift around some others to reproduce the Meltzer et al. (2014) analysis; Dr. McNulty has asked me not to do this.