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Northwestern University

Learning About Love

The self-control and relationship lab explores the complexities of human romance

Northwestern’s Self-Control and Relationships Lab is one of a number of labs within the Psychology Department, but its unique focus on romantic relationships leads Professor Eli Finkel to wonder “why anybody chooses to do anything else.”

Finkel runs the lab, based in Swift Hall on the Evanston campus, and can distinctly remember when he realized it was possible to create a career around the study of romantic relationships. “It took me less than a second,” he explains, “to know that that’s what I wanted to do with my life.” Finkel describes his professional life as “scintillating” and it’s not hard to see why, considering the lab’s research lets him focus on the details of human romantic lives, from dating to marriage, and all the conflict and challenges universal to our relationships.

One of their most surprising findings is that people cannot accurately describe what attracts them to others romantically. To study this topic, Finkel and Northwestern graduate student Paul Eastwick asked heterosexual Northwestern students to report on what qualities they want in a potential partner (warmth, earning prospects, good looks, etc.), both before attending a speed-dating event 10 days later.  After each speed-date, participants evaluated, in Finkel’s words, “the extent to which each partner possessed the relevant qualities (warmth, etc.) and their level of romantic interest in him or her.”

Hypothetical Differences Disappear

The results were remarkable: individual differences in the extent to which people self-reported that they cared about a given quality were totally unrelated to their romantic interest in potential partners’ rankings in that quality. Indeed, even though men (more than women) self-reported that they cared about a partner’s physical attractiveness, and women (more than men) self-reported that they cared about a partner’s earning prospects, Finkel noted that “these sex differences regarding hypothetical partners disappeared once they met a live, flesh-and-blood partner.”

Becoming more aware of behavior within dating and relationships also has practical applications in marriage, and research in the lab has led to interventions to improve satisfaction in marriages over time. One recent intervention has been featured in the New York Times in an op-ed written by Finkel titled Dear Valentine, I Hate It When You ... and in a TEDx talk given by Finkel at the University of Chicago called The Marriage Hack.

The intervention centered on fights—not whether to eliminate them, but rather how to navigate them more effectively. Married couples were asked to write about three fights in their relationship as if they were a neutral third-party observing and, as this observer, identify a positive aspect to the fight. Whereas couples who did not experience this intervention became less satisfied over time, couples who were assigned to implement the intervention sustained high levels of satisfaction over time.

Finkel’s research has even inspired local dance group Striding Lion to base its 2014 annual show around research he has conducted on the social psychology of “I” vs. “we” in American culture. The troupe incorporated Finkel’s research with pop culture and the concept of individualism using characters based on specific studies chosen by Finkel. The show consists of short dance and performance pieces viewed through a smartphone app within an interactive gallery setting.

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