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).


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