Still Thinking About Your Ex? Why It’s Bad News for Your Current Partner

When a relationship is going wrong, it is comforting to dwell on positive memories of an ex.

When a relationship is going wrong, it is comforting to dwell on positive memories of an ex.

It’s often said that if you find yourself thinking about your ex-partner, it’s probably a sign of a problem in your current relationship. Psychological research has now backed this up:

“A longitudinal study followed individuals in relationships at three points over the course of 6 months. Participants reported their current relationship quality, emotional attachment to ex-partners, and perceived quality of relationship alternatives.” (Spielmann et al., 2012)

What they found was that…

“…increased longing for ex-partners predicted declines in relationship quality, but only when focused on one’s most recent ex-partner. This is because longing for more recent ex-partners is associated with perceptions of relationship alternatives, while longing for more distant ex-partners is not.”

So the more dissatisfied you are with your current partner, the more likely you are to think about your most recent ex-partner. Not only that but…

“…ex-partners may serve as desirable relationship alternatives, with romantic feelings for recent exes interfering with current relationship quality.”

Recent exes are seen as particularly attractive alternatives to current relationships because they are assumed to be more accessible and available. And contrary to the romantic view of love, partners are relatively interchangeable:

“The belonging substitution hypothesis suggests that close connections with others are relatively substitutable for one another, such that the loss of one connection can be tempered with another.” (Baumeister & Leary, 1995)

This is why many people go back to their most recent ex-partner when they get fed up with their current partner. It’s often the quickest and easiest way of fulfilling the strong need to belong.

Image credit: Luis Pedro

Stop Being Socially Lazy and Start Enjoying Yourself

Talking to strangers is more fun than we predict because showing off makes us feel good.

Talking to strangers is more fun than we predict because showing off makes us feel good.

Here’s an easy choice: would you rather spend 4 minutes chatting to a good friend or to a complete stranger?

It’s safe to say most of us would choose our friend. When you chat to someone you know well it’s comfortable, relaxed and familiar—with a friend we know what we’re getting. With a stranger, though, anything could happen.

The problem with strangers is that we have to make more of an effort: psychologists call it ‘impression management’. With friends we can ‘be ourselves’, which means letting it all hang out; but with strangers we control our behaviour more tightly and our impression management goes into overdrive.

It’s this effort and stress of controlling ourselves with strangers that puts us off. But according to recent research there are hidden benefits to this effort and a lesson for all of us about how we (should) treat those we know well.

Get your swagger on

In their research Dunn et al. (2007) had participants in long-term relationships predict how pleasurable it would be to interact with:

  1. Their partner.
  2. An opposite sex stranger.

They then had a quick chat and rated how good they felt afterwards. What they found was that people enjoyed talking to their romantic partner less than they predicted. On the other hand they had more fun talking to a stranger than they had predicted.

So what’s going on here? How can people be having more fun than they imagine talking to complete strangers and less with the person they are in a long-term relationship with?

What the researchers found was that it comes down to whether or not you’re making an effort. Sometimes when we talk to our friends and partners we don’t make much of an effort to entertain them, show off or to present ourselves in the best light. But we do tend to make more of an effort with strangers.

In a follow-up study the researchers told participants to make an effort with their partners and then their enjoyment of the social interaction improved in line with their predictions. This suggests we can all have more fun with our partners and friends if we make an effort.

There’s a fascinating point that comes out of this research. When we predict how fun talking to a stranger will be, we fail to factor in the extra effort we make. But when we think about our partners we fail to factor in how lazy we tend to be.

There are two morals to this story: the sad but unsurprising fact that we take our partners and friends for granted and the less intuitive idea that strangers are more fun than we imagine because showing off makes us feel good.

Image credit: Robin Geschonneck (12, 3, 4 & 5) & Traveller_40

Does Familiarity Breed Liking or Contempt?

Psych textbooks tells us that familiarity with other people breeds liking, but does it?

Psych textbooks tells us that familiarity with other people breeds liking, but does it?

Imagine I put you in a Big Brother-type house for a week with a random selection of people. Not the narcissists they choose for those shows but people from every walk of life, a real random cross-section.

Everyone mixes with each other, then afterwards everyone reports how much they like each other. On average, would people like each other more or less after the week?

For a long time psychologists have assumed that familiarity breeds liking. If you look it up in a psychology textbook, you’ll find the answer is pretty clear. The more people are exposed to each other, the more liking they report.

The assumption is that if you hang around with people for long enough, you’ll eventually get some respect for them and discover some common interests, even if they’re not your type.

A couple of years ago a study by Michael Norton and colleagues challenged this orthodoxy, finding instead that familiarity breeds contempt. You can click through for my in-depth description but the essential point was that the more people were exposed to facts about strangers, the more they came to find dissimilarities and these led to less liking.

The explanation was that we naturally assume that other people are similar to us. Unless there’s some major reason to think otherwise, we assume they have similar views, habits and tastes to ourselves. So, when we find out the truth—that they like opera, or soap opera or are very conservative or very liberal—we tend to like them less.

Controversial theory

As often happens in psychology, this sort of finding is like a red rag to bull. Challenge the orthodoxy and someone is going to try and take you down.

Those someones are Reis et al. (2011) in a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They claim that when people interact there are all sorts of things going on between them that Norton et al.’s study didn’t take into account. For example I may find you, unlike me, don’t enjoy cricket, but we discover a mutual passion for photography. In social interactions we’re likely to work together to find these sorts of mutual interests.

The big selling-point of Reis’ studies is that people are involved in live interactions rather than Norton’s study which only allowed people to view the other person’s preferences. Reis et al. found that the more people interacted face-to-face, the more they liked each other. (As always in psychology studies, these results are on average—some people may have begun to hate each other with a passion but overall the effect was positive.)

The rebels are fighting back though. Norton et al. argue that Reis et al. are using loaded dice. The two types of interaction they used were (unintentionally) more likely to encourage people to like each other. One of them is even called the ‘Relationship Closeness Induction Task’. Perhaps we’d all like each other more if we were forced to undergo the Relationship Closeness Induction Task with everyone we met. Quite naturally Reis et al. reply by saying: yes, our paradigm is flawed but it’s better than yours (you’ll appreciate that this is some seriously crude paraphrasing!).

Motivation rules

I will leave the experts to fight over the details but what we often find with psychological phenomena is that they depend on situations. In fact both studies illuminate different aspects of human nature. When motivated we often do go out of our way to find things to like in other people we come into close contact with. We learn to accommodate because our civilisation requires that, by and large, we work together.

On the other hand when there’s nothing riding on it, we notice our dissimilarities with others and this leads to less liking. So, whether familiarity leads to liking or contempt crucially depends on our motivation.

All that aside, Norton’s finding that familiarity can breed contempt—although it may not be a universal truth—still provides a healthy rejoinder to the standard psych textbook approach that mere exposure leads to liking.

Think about it: when I take you out of that Big Brother house, are you really sure you’ll like those people more, on average, or will it be the last you hope to see of them?

Image credit: Robyn Lee

Get Inspired! The Psychology of Creativity

Looking for inspiration? Start with PsyBlog’s articles and ebook on the science of creativity.

Looking for inspiration? Start with PsyBlog’s articles on the science of creativity.

Here’s a deceptively simple question: if we all have the potential to be creative, why is it so hard?

Part of the problem is that so little attention is paid to the psychological research on creativity. If we can harness what scientists already know about creativity, we can propel ourselves to new heights of achievement.

Creativity isn’t just for artists, we all need it—at home, in our relationships and, for many of us, at work. By one measure around 30% of workers in the US are members of the creative classes. Along with designers, writers and artists this includes professions like lawyers, business people and healthcare professionals; in fact it includes anyone who has to use an existing body of knowledge to reach creative solutions.

For many of us, then, our incomes rely on our creativity. Boost our creativity and the rewards will come.

Collected below are recent PsyBlog articles which explore how to be creative:

Image credit: Faith Goble

How Powerful is an Apology?

We assume saying sorry will help to mend fences, but do we overestimate the power of apology?

We assume saying sorry will help to mend fences, but do we over-estimate the power of apology?

Barely a week goes by without one or other public figure apologizing for a disaster of monumental proportions. There’s an endless parade of politicians, business leaders, celebrities and others appearing on TV and in print, to own up and say sorry for what they’ve done wrong.

We’ve come to expect this: just as night follows day, so public apology follows misdemeanor. Sometimes these apologies seem genuine and heartfelt, other times they’re perfunctory and insincere.

The penitent hope their red-faced admissions of guilt will bring absolution, but can saying sorry really be enough to restore their credibility?

High expectations

In private life we also have very high expectations of the power of saying sorry. Most of us were brought up in a culture of apology: children must say sorry when they do something wrong and grown-ups must apologize if they bump into each other in the street.

Just how high these expectations are is demonstrated by Dutch psychologist David De Cremer and colleagues in a new study published in Psychological Science (De Cremer et al., 2010). They had a hunch that receiving an apology isn’t as powerfully healing as we’d like to imagine.

In their study participants played a trust game. Each was given €10 and paired up with a partner, who was actually in on the experiment. Participants were told if they gave all the cash to their partner, it would be tripled, then their partner would decide how much of the €30 to share with them.

In fact the experimental insider only gave back €5, so the participants felt cheated. This setup meant the experimenters could test the effects of an apology. However, only half the participants received an actual apology while the rest just imagined receiving one.

Participants then rated either the imagined apology or actual apology on a scale of 1 to 7 on the basis of how “reconciling” and “valuable” it was. Participants who merely imagined the apology thought it would be an average of 5.3. But those who actually received the apology only gave it a 3.5.

This confirmed the experimenters’ suspicions that people consistently over-estimated the value of an apology. When their cheating partner actually said sorry, it was never as good as they would have imagined.

Sorry is just the start

This finding mirrors our experience of public apologies. We believe a wrong must be righted and have high expectations of an apology, but they have a tendency to disappoint.

It’s certainly not true to say that apologies are useless. Apologies acknowledge the existence of social rules and the breaking of those rules. If sincere, apologies can help restore the dignity of the victim and the standing of the transgressor.

People are much better off to apologize and take responsibility for their actions than try and make excuses or deny they’ve made a mistake. Psychological research backs up the everyday intuition that excuses and denials just irritate others.

While apologies serve a useful function as a first step, we easily over-estimate the work they can do in repairing a relationship. That is why it is so irritating when public figures apologize, and then act like the matter is finished.

It’s worse when we can clearly see that someone has been forced into apologizing and that the apology itself is insincere. We often detect this kind of attempted deception and discount the apology.

Insincere apologies

In a strange twist, though, people are less able to detect insincerity when apologies are directed at them.

According to a series of studies conducted by Risen and Gilovich (2007), observers are harsher on an insincere apology than the person at whom it is directed. Perhaps this helps explain why people almost always accept an apology aimed directly at them, whether it’s offered sincerely or not. We want to believe it’s sincere, however much we might feel afterwards that it hasn’t really worked.

It’s similar to when someone is flattering us. Those watching can tell it’s flattery, but we tend to think it’s genuine because it makes us feel good about ourselves.

In contrast, Risen and Gilovich found that observers tend to spot an insincere apology more easily and are likely to reject it. This mirrors the situation when we are watching a public figure apologizing. The slightest whiff of insincerity and we quickly discount the whole thing.

Not only do insincere apologies fail to make amends, they can also cause damage by making us feel angry and distrustful towards those who are trying to trick us into forgiving them.

Even sincere apologies are just the start of the repair process. Although we expect the words “I’m sorry” to do the trick, they don’t do nearly as much as we expect.

Image credit: Stefan Bucher

Why ‘Thank You’ Is More Than Just Good Manners

Is expressing thanks a powerful motivator or just a social nicety?

Is expressing thanks a powerful motivator or just a social nicety?

According to positive psychologists, saying ‘thank you’ is no longer just good manners, it is also beneficial to the self.

To take the best known examples, studies have suggested that being grateful can improve well-being, physical health, can strengthen social relationships, produce positive emotional states and help us cope with stressful times in our lives.

But we also say thank you because we want the other person to know we value what they’ve done for us and, maybe, encourage them to help us again in the future.

It’s this aspect of gratitude that Adam M. Grant and Francesca Gino examine in a series of new studies published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Grant & Gino, 2010).

They wanted to see what effect gratitude has on the person who is being thanked. Does it motivate and, if so, is it just by making people feel good, or is it more than that?

Double the help

In the first study 69 participants were asked to provide feedback to a fictitious student called ‘Eric’ on his cover letter for a job application. After sending their feedback through by email, they got a reply from Eric asking for more help with another cover letter.

The twist is that half of them got a thankful reply from Eric and the other half a neutral reply. The experimenters wanted to see what effect this would have on participant’s motivation to give Eric any more help.

As you might expect, those who were thanked by Eric were more willing to provide further assistance. Indeed the effect of ‘thank you’ was quite substantial: while only 32% of participants receiving the neutral email helped with the second letter, when Eric expressed his gratitude, this went up to 66%.

How gratitude works

The idea that saying thank you makes people more likely to help in the future is unsurprising, although the 100% increase is interesting, but what the researchers were interested in was why this happens.

Perhaps Eric’s gratitude made people feel better, or at least less bad? Or perhaps saying thanks boosted the helper’s self-esteem, which in turn motivated them to help again.

In fact the experimenters found that people weren’t providing more help because they felt better or it boosted their self-esteem, but because they appreciated being needed and felt more socially valued when they’d been thanked.

This feeling of social worth helps people get over factors that stop us helping. We are often unsure our help is really wanted and we know that accepting help from others can feel like a failure. The act of saying thank you reassures the helper that their help is valued and motivates them to provide more.

Pass it on

The researchers then wondered whether this effect would extend to other people. Would Eric’s thanks make participants more likely to help a different person?

In a second study Eric’s thanks (or lack of thanks in the control condition) was followed, a day later, by an email from ‘Steven’ asking for similar help. The percentage who offered to help Steven was 25% when they had received no gratitude from Eric, but this shot up to 55% when they had been thanked.

So the boost to participant’s social worth carried over from one day to the next and from one person to the next. Although the overall percentages were slightly lower, Eric’s gratitude still doubled the number of people willing to provide help.

In a third and fourth study the researchers tested their findings face-to-face rather than over email. They reached similar conclusions, with increases in prosocial behavior of 50% in the third study and 15% in the fourth study. These lower percentages show that the effect of gratitude on motivation depends on the situation.

Now, these studies mostly looked at the situation where strangers help each other. It’s likely that the effect of a thank you on prosocial behavior is more powerful on people we don’t know, because strangers are more cautious about helping each other in the first place.

Thank you!

Since, for most of us, expressing our thanks is an everyday occurrence, we tend to think nothing of it. But psychologically it has a very important role to play for both the person giving and the person receiving.

All four studies reveal that gratitude is more than just a social nicety, or a way of making the helper feel good; it reassures others their help was actually appreciated and it encourages further prosocial behavior.

So, a big public thank you to Adam M. Grant and Francesco Gino for this enlightening study, hopefully there’s more to follow.

Image credit: Paul G

Internet Dating 2.0: Why Version 1.0 is Unsatisfying and Aversive

Online daters have become disillusioned with standard profile-based sites that are now the internet dating norm.

Online daters have become disillusioned with standard profile-based sites that are now the internet dating norm. Trolling through endless profiles and reading near-identical bios often seems more like work than pleasure.

Research published in the Journal Of Interactive Marketing suggests this is because online dating interfaces tend to treat people like commodities – daters search profiles for matches using check-box categories, just as if they were shopping for a TV. Consequently the big online dating sites have seen a reduction in their growth.

Continue reading “Internet Dating 2.0: Why Version 1.0 is Unsatisfying and Aversive”

Kissing Secrets: Why Men Prefer More Saliva (And Other Revelations)

Susan Hughes and colleagues know how to spice up an academic paper.


[Photo by johncarleton]

Susan Hughes and colleagues know how to spice up an academic paper:

“Kissing between sexual and/or romantic partners occurs in over 90 percent of human cultures […]. Even in cultures where kissing is nonexistent or condemned, sex partners may blow in each other’s faces, lick, suck, or rub their partner’s face prior to intercourse.” (Hughes, Harrison & Gallup, 2007, p.612).

Now, strangely, we all want to know more, so let’s explore their study’s results question and answer style…

Continue reading “Kissing Secrets: Why Men Prefer More Saliva (And Other Revelations)”

Does Semen Have Antidepressant Properties?

If there was ever research guaranteed to make women suspicious of male researcher’s motivations it’s this one.

Semen Cafe

[Photo by gusset]

If there was ever research guaranteed to make women suspicious of male researcher’s motivations it’s this one. Pointed out to me by a kind email correspondent (thank you!), this study tests a hypothesis put forward by Ney (1986) suggesting that prostaglandins, a component of semen, may actually be useful in treating depression.

Continue reading “Does Semen Have Antidepressant Properties?”

Is Marriage Dying? No. (Well, Probably Not)

What does the future hold for the institution of marriage? I ask because we’re constantly hearing about the ‘deinstitutionalisation’ of marriage.

Wedding Rings

[Photo by Jeff Belmonte]

What does the future hold for the institution of marriage? I ask because we’re constantly hearing about the ‘deinstitutionalisation’ of marriage. Marriage no longer occupies the central, solid role it once did, divorce is on the rise and people are getting married later. All these seem to point to a weakening of marriage in many Western societies.

So, how will marriage be viewed in the future? As a quaint custom fast dying out whose proponents can only be found amongst die-hard traditionalists? As an indicator of advanced age, social backwardness and constriction? In short: is marriage dying?

Continue reading “Is Marriage Dying? No. (Well, Probably Not)”

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