New Ways to Predict Which Marriages Will Succeed

wedding pic 2A recent paper in the journal Science highlighted in the Wall Street journal, adds important insights into successful marriages. Led by James McNulty of Florida State University, researchers involved members of 135 newlywed couples and followed them over a period of four years. The couples answered a standard survey about the quality of their marriages and the researchers collected similar data over the course of the study.

What did they find? Not surprisingly, ratings of marital satisfaction declined over time, something that has been reported by previous research. In addition, the researchers also learned that the answers from newlyweds predicted nothing about marital satisfaction four years later.

However, the scientists also measured something else in those newlyweds, using what they called an “associative priming task.” This priming task involves briefly flashing a series of words like “wonderful” or “odious” on a screen and subjects have to quickly press one of two buttons, depending on whether the word has positive or negative connotations.

With this comes some subconscious manipulation: just before each word, the researchers flashed up a picture of a random face for an instant (300 milliseconds). This time was selected as the image flashed too fast for people to be consciously certain about what they saw, but was enough time for their subconscious, emotional brain circuitry to be certain.

If the face evoked positive feelings, the brain immediately took on something akin to a positive mind-set; if the word flashed up an instant later is a positive one, the brain quickly detects it as such. But if the word is negative, there is an instant of subconscious dissonance—”I was feeling great, but now I have to think about that word that means ‘inconsiderate jerk who doesn’t replace the toilet paper.’ ” And it takes a few milliseconds longer to hit the “negative” key. Conversely, display faces with negative connotations, and there is that dissonance-induced minuscule delay in identifying positive terms.

So in the study, the rapid-fire sequence of faces/words included a picture of one’s new spouse, revealing automatic feelings about the person’s beloved. That led to the key finding: the more subconscious negativity in a newlywed, the larger the decline in marital satisfaction four years later.

The subjects did not understand what the priming task was about and their automatic responses to the flashing images and words were unrelated to their answers on the questionnaire they filled out. Although it is unrealistic to expect future married couples to take this computerized test before saying “I do”, studies like this remind us that “we are subject to endless, internal biological forces of which we are unaware.”

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