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  • Writer's pictureGiulia Zoppolat

Relationship Science Roundup – Winter 2022

What is the latest in the science of relationships? Here are some of the articles I’ve found particularly interesting recently (plus a little plug of my own research).

1) Who would you let lick your ice-cream? That may be a weird question, but the answer to it uncovers some important truths about human relationships. Most people wouldn’t just let anyone lick their ice cream (especially in the last two years, I might add…), but only those with whom they are very close to, such as their romantic partner or their small child, because our feelings of disgust are sensitive to the type of relationship. In a new paper published in Science, researchers found that children and even infants as young as 8 months old realize that whether people share food says something important about the closeness of the relationship. The researchers tested this in a very interesting way. They showed children 2 types of videos: in one video, a woman eats an orange slice, then puts the orange slice in a puppet’s mouth, and then back in her mouth. In another video, the woman and the puppet pass a ball back and forth. They then showed the puppet being in distress and sitting in between the two women. What did the children watching these videos do? They looked first and longer at the woman who had shared the orange slice, meaning that they inferred that the saliva-sharing woman had a closer relationship with the puppet and was expected to provide it assistance when in distress. In other words, we can distinguish how close relationships are very early in our human development, and saliva sharing has a lot to do with this.

Twitter thread here. Pre-print here. Official article here.

2) We have all had experiences where we just “click” with someone, and we have all certainly have had experiences when we just don’t. Researchers have uncovered a key clue as to what differentiates the first from the second type of experience and it has to do with “response time” during a conversation. Response time is the time between when you speak and the other person speaks, and it is usually very short, about 250ms on average. Conversations with shorter response time are conversations in which we feel more connected with the other person. Even within the same conversation, people felt more connected to the other person in times in which the response time was shorter. And this applies to strangers and close friends! During a conversation, people need to do a lot at the same time: predict what the other is going to say, when they are going to stop, what they are going to say next and when…These things are easier to do – and therefore response times are shorter - when we “click” with someone.

Twitter thread here. Article here.

3) Have you ever moved away from your home town? Perhaps you have even done so more than once. It is no secret that moving can be a stressful experience, but have you ever thought about the strain it may put on your romantic relationship? In a new paper out in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers found that when relocating with a romantic partner, people see their romantic partner as more central to their life: in these situations, we need to rely more on our partners because we are less able to lean on a broader social network as this network has been weakened by the relocation. In comparison, people who are less residentially mobile (aka those who have not moved as much) do not centralize their partner to the same degree, as they have their broader social network to lean on, in addition to their partner.

I don't know about you, but I have relocated more than once in my life, and this article had me thinking more deeply about the role that my social network has played throughout those transitions, and the expectations I have placed on close others. This research has serious implications for a a world in which we often relocate.

Research Digest article here. Scientific article here.

4) If I may toot my own horn a little bit here, I would like to feature an article of mine that recently come out of the journal Emotion. In this project we answer this question: What happens when people feel desire towards someone other than their romantic partner? Lots of research shows that people tend to protect against extra-dyadic attraction, both consciously and not. For example, people in a relationship tend to quickly disclose their relationship status to attractive others and even remember fewer facts about an attractive other person compared to people who are not in a committed relationship. But we also know that people do feel desire towards people other than their partner, at times. When this happens, people feel more ambivalent (i.e. are more mixed and conflicted) about their partner & their relationship. They also feel more stressed and wrestle with thoughts of breakup. In other words, this is not an easy thing for those that experience the attraction.

Something I found particularly interesting in our studies was that although most people had an attractive alternative in their life (i.e. someone they found to be attractive or that they would date if they were not with their partner), it was primarily the feelings of desire towards this person - not just their existence - that increased the ambivalence. In other words, having attractive alternatives in one’s life should not necessarily sound alarm bells, but feelings of desire towards them might.

Pre-print here. Official article here. And a Forbes article covering our research, including an interview by yours truly, here.

5) Do you dislike small talk but keep engaging in it anyway? Turns out that people underestimate how caring and interested strangers are to our own deeper thoughts! In seven studies, researchers found that people felt less awkward, more connected and happier when engaging in deeper conversations with strangers than they expected to be. In other words, people prefer deep conversations to shallow conversations, and strangers preferred them much more than they expected. This was true for extraverts and introverts. This misalignment of expectations and reality is a barrier to deep and meaningful conversations and potential relationships: while we want to have more meaningful conversations than we usually have, we are often caught in small talk purgatory. Of course, there is such a thing as “too much information,” but more often than not a stranger is much more interested in hearing about your passions and purpose, your feelings of gratitude or regret, than your job or the weather. So ditch the small talk, and go deep.

Washington Post article about this research here. Research article out in JPSP here.

Curious for more? Check out the previous Relationship Science Roundup.

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