People Know Before They Wed The Wrong One

In the 1994 movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral (screenplay by Richard Curtis), the protagonist, Charles as played by Hugh Grant, suffers second thoughts as he walks down the aisle to wed Fiona in the fourth wedding in the script.  As anyone who has seen the movie knows, Charles, after some very funny inner turmoil, listens to his gut and does not follow through, instead pursuing and eventually marrying Carrie, played by Andie Macdowell.

If you've been through the ordeal of a wedding you may have experienced the second thoughts and sensation of "I'm making a mistake," as you tripped in fear and trepidation down the aisle.  

As it turns out, we already know if the marriage will be good or bad even before we say "I do."

A study by Professor James K. McNulty of Florida State University documents that newlyweds already know whether they will experience wedded bliss or an unhappy marriage as they approach the alter.

McNulty and his colleagues studied 135 heterosexual couples who had been married for less than six months and then followed up with them every six months over a four-year period. They found that the feelings the study participants verbalized about their marriages were unrelated to changes in their marital happiness over time. Instead, it was the gut-level negative evaluations of their partners that they unknowingly revealed during a baseline experiment that predicted future happiness.

"Although they may be largely unwilling or unable to verbalize them, people's automatic gut level evaluations of their partners predict one of the most important outcomes of their lives -- the trajectory of their marital satisfaction," the researchers write.

The conclusions:
  • First, people's conscious attitudes, or how they said they felt, did not always reflect their gut-level or automatic feelings about their marriage.
  • Second, it was the gut-level feelings, not their conscious ones, that actually predicted how happy they remained over time.
"Everyone wants to be in a good marriage," McNulty said. "And in the beginning, many people are able to convince themselves of that at a conscious level. But these automatic, gut-level responses are less influenced by what people want to think. You can't make yourself have a positive response through a lot of wishful thinking."

To conduct the experiment, the researchers asked the individuals to report their relationship satisfaction and the severity of their specific relationship problems. The participants also were asked to provide their conscious evaluations by describing their marriage according to 15 pairs of opposing adjectives, such as "good" or "bad," "satisfied" or "unsatisfied."

Most interesting to the researchers, though, were the findings regarding gut-level responses. The experiment involved flashing a photo of the study participant's spouse on a computer screen for just one-third of a second followed by a positive word like "awesome" or "terrific" or a negative word like "awful" or "terrible." The individuals simply had to press a key on the keyboard to indicate whether the word was positive or negative. The researchers used special software to measure reaction time.

"It's generally an easy task, but flashing a picture of their spouse makes people faster or slower depending on their automatic attitude toward the spouse," McNulty said. "People who have really positive feelings about their partners are very quick to indicate that words like 'awesome' are positive words and very slow to indicate that words like 'awful' are negative words."

That's because positive gut-level attitudes facilitate congruent cognitive processes and interfere with incongruent cognitive processes. In other words, McNulty explained, people with positive gut-level attitudes were really good at processing positive words but bad at processing negative words when those automatic attitudes were activated. The opposite was also true. When a spouse had negative feelings about their partner that were activated by the brief exposure to the photo, they had a harder time switching gears to process the positive words.

Both the explicit and implicit experiments were performed only once, at the baseline, but the researchers checked in with the couples every six months and asked them to report relationship satisfaction. The researchers found that the respondents who unwittingly revealed negative or lukewarm attitudes during the implicit measure reported the most marital dissatisfaction four years later.

"I think the findings suggest that people may want to attend a little bit to their gut," McNulty said. "If they can sense that their gut is telling them that there is a problem, then they might benefit from exploring that, maybe even with a professional marriage counselor."
*  *  *  *  *
Imagine a future in which everyone has to take the test described above in order to marry someone.  Yes, Big Brother is watching, but is it for the good?  Or is taking the power to make mistakes too infringing on a person's rights? 

Story Engineering
by Larry Brooks

Story Source:  J. K. McNulty, M. A. Olson, A. L. Meltzer, M. J. Shaffer. Though They May Be Unaware, Newlyweds Implicitly Know Whether Their Marriage Will Be Satisfying. Science, 2013


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