Episode 50: Reading the book of love - what can you learn from relationship science? Release Date: 2/13/2018
Ty Tashiro (@tytashiro) is an author and relationship expert. He wrote Awkward: The Science of Why We're Socially Awkward and Why That's Awesome and The Science of Happily Ever After . His work has been featured at the New York Times, Time.com, TheAtlantic.com, NPR, Sirius XM Stars radio, and VICE. He received his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Minnesota, has been an award-winning professor at the University of Maryland and University of Colorado, and has addressed TED@NYC, Harvard Business School, MIT's Media Lab, and the American Psychological Association.
Rosemary Pennington : World literature is full of stories of love won, and love lost. Walls are climbed, battles fought and parents circumvented I order to reunite with one’s heart’s desire. Some lovers even venture into Hell itself. If The New York Times’ Modern Love Series is any indication, finding love in the 21st Century poses its own obstacles, even if there are no three-headed Hell hounds. The science of love and relationships is the focus of this episode of Stats & Stories. Stats & Stories is a partnership between Miami University’s Departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film, as well as The American Statistical Association. I’m Rosemary Pennington. Joining me in the studio are regular panelists John Bailer, Chair of Miami Statistics Department, and Richard Campbell, Chair of Media, Journalism and Film. Today’s guest is author and relationship expert Ty Tashiro. Tashiro received his PhD. In Psychology from the University of Minnesota, and is the author off “The Science of ‘Happily Ever After’”, and more recently “Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward, and Why That’s Awesome”. He’s also worked as a Professor at the University of Maryland, and the University of Colorado. Thanks so much for being here today Ty.
Ty Tashiro : Hey, thanks for having me.
Pennington : I just want to start with a real softball question, how did the science of relationships become your academic love?
Tashiro : It was on accident, like most things in my life, I guess. I was at the University of Minnesota to study trauma, actually, in the Psychology Department. And while I enjoyed that research and thought it was important, studying trauma is pretty heavy, as you could imagine. And, I took a course my first semester with Ellen Berscheid, and Professor Berscheid was one of the first people back in the late 1950s to study relationships using the scientific method. And I found her course to be so fascinating, especially for romantic love. This idea that you could take something that was seemingly so unpredictable and chaotic and haphazard and describe common processes and organized theory, and apply data analytic methods that helped you see patterns in how people form attraction, how they partner up, and what the trajectory of how love looks like, across the course of decades.
John Bailer : Oh, I’ve got to follow up that question Ty. Studying relationships with scientific methods… You know, that’s something that I could … that’s what a statistician would do to ruin relationships. I’m sorry go ahead.
Tashiro : That is a good question. There was push-back, quite a bit of push-back in the 1960s and 1970s, Professor Berscheid and some of her colleagues were called before congressional committees to defend their NIH Grants on the topic. There are other attacks from religious groups and other groups out there that said, “Romantic Love is a mystery”. It is better left unstudied. So, people had a very strong reaction to people applying the scientific method to romantic love.
Bailer : Can you give an example of one of the first times this was used? The first time the scientific method was used to study romantic love?
Tashiro : Yeah, they did some really elaborate studies back before Institutional Review Boards. They found some pretty interesting things in these studies. One of them that was done ethically and done well was one that the University of Minnesota Student Union and before students came to a dance to start the school year, they administered extensive personality tests, and IQ batteries and a whole host of other things that sound unromantic. So, they had all of this data on every single person that was going to intend to dance. And then they waited to see who see who would dance with whom. And who, when they left, upon exit interview, planned to ask that person out on a date. And that was really one of the early correlation studies, descriptive studies looking into this idea of assortative mating. So, do we tend to choose partners who are similar to us in demographic variables, attitudes, or personality?
Campbell : Ty, you mentioned push-back here from government and religion, but what about push-back from the academic community? That you’re studying something that is a little squishy? In your own research, and maybe early research, could you talk a little bit about the academy acceptance of applying science to emotional life?
Tashiro : Yeah, it was certainly looked upon with skepticism by other people in the academic community. In the late 1950s of course Behaviorism still had a strong hold which was amenable to a lot of basic scientific techniques, and the experimental method. And so, I think a lot of the early descriptive work and correlational studies done on relationships were seen as “a waste of time” and resources. I think the thing that got me convinced that this was a worthwhile thing to study was when Professor Berscheid said that she doesn’t study romantic love just to study romantic love. She was interested in romantic love because it like was a magnifying glass to look at basic psychological processes. And if you think about the strongest emotions you’ve had in your lifetime, a lot of those occur within the context of your romantic relationships. Or the “most obsessive thoughts”, that you’ve had in your lifetime, a lot of those occurred within the context of romantic relationships. And I found that to be true that it’s a great magnifying glass to look at more basic psychological processes.
Campbell : This is reminding me of dealing with 18 and 19-year-old students who are really smart, and just totally messed up by their romantic relationships, and all the challenges that they face.
Tashiro : Yeah, even the best of us can get tripped up by the seeming irrationality of a romantic relationship. But, that’s what makes it so interesting, right? How many psychological forces in our life can just totally take over our mind? You’re sitting there waiting for a text message back, from somebody, for hours on end and fretting. There’s very few domains in life where we experience the same kind of obsessiveness and activation.
Bailer : You’ve mentioned that some of the first studies were these observational studies, where you’re measuring and looking at correlates of certain outcomes with certain input conditions. Can you talk about one of the first experimental studies that was done to investigate this?
Tashiro : You know, one of the first experimental studies sound pretty simple, in hindsight. It was revolutionary at the time. Psychologists are really interested in studying the individual. I think that’s what we’re good at. What are you thinking in your own mind? How does a certain stimulus affect your behavior? But, most of our important interactions and most of the important outcomes in our life occur in interpersonal contexts. Whether that’s at work, with our work colleagues, or our bosses. It could be in a romantic way, certainly. Or with our friends and colleagues. So, the idea that you would study psychology and account for two people instead of just one person, was actually sort of unusual. So, they did this clever study, where they brought people in to the lab, and they introduced them to some random other participant they had brought into the lab as well. But the manipulation was really simple. They said, in one condition, the control condition, we’d like you to work on a collaborative task with this other person and it was a game theory type of task. And at the end of that you’ll be done and come back to the lab tomorrow for the next part of the study. In the experimental part of the experiment they said that “this is the person you’ll be working with all week, in all aspects of the study”. And they had them do the same task. So, what they created in that situation was what we call “outcome dependency”. Which is really just the simple idea that “this is going to be someone you have to rely on in the future”. And it had remarkably powerful effects in how fair and generous people were in the game, and of course when they were outcome-dependent, they were much more likely to be fair, and much more likely to be generous than people who thought this was just a “one shot deal”. And, I know that sounds really common sense, in hind-sight, but at the time no one was really doing research like this. Nobody was thinking about how our reliance on other people profoundly affects our own psychological decisions.
Pennington : You’re listening to Stats & Stories. The topic today is the Science of Relationships. I’m Rosemary Pennington. Joining me are panelists, Miami University Statistics Chair John Bailer, and Media, Journalism and Film Department Chair, Richard Campbell. Our special guest is author and relationship expert Ty Tashiro. Now Ty, you mentioned a little earlier that researching romantic love was seen as not as academically rigorous, or wasn't given the same kind of respect maybe, other areas of academia were in. I was listening to you talk and I was taken back to the work of Alfred Kinsey, and sort of the kind of controversies they faced when they were asking coeds about their sex lives, and they were travelling around the country interviewing people about what they were doing behind closed doors. And the fact that lawmakers want to strip money from the Kinsey Institute a number of times over the years. Has romantic relationships, this kind of work that you’re doing faced that kind of controversy? Or, is it really more people just don’t think that it’s worth investigating because it’s emotional and we tend to value emotional life less than we do other aspects of life?
Tashiro : I think the work that Kinsey did was important, of course. It continues to be. But it was more alarming on the surface. Especially given the times. I think they were certainly under much more constant duress, than people who were studying romantic love, or romantic relationships, but as you look back from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s there was a lot of opposition from a lot of different sectors about people conducting this work.
Bailer : So, what’s been the biggest surprise for you in this line of work? As you look at the literature, as you’ve done your own research…?
Tashiro : I’ve been surprised at almost every turn. It’s kind of great as a researcher, you’re always really interested and really invested and you’re so intrigued because you’re not certain what you’re going to find. Things that you think are common sense from your real-life experiences turn out to be counter-intuitive. I think one of the things that’s been most interesting to me is how strongly evolutionary forces still have an impact on the kinds of mates we think are good mates to select. And it happens in such a subconscious way that we don’t even realize it’s happening. but let’s take something like physical attractiveness. So, if you ask people what they want in a romantic partner, they’ll give you the sociably desirable response. People will say someone kind or someone with good character, all these good things to want in a partner, but if you actually watch what they do… so if you watch them in a speed-dating study or observe their online behavior, what you find is that men prioritize physical attractiveness as the number one variable that they’re going to maximize on, and for women, it’s the second-most maximized variable: physical attractiveness. So, it’s different than the self-report and then you wonder, “well, why physical attractiveness?”. And the thinking about that is that physical attractiveness was the visible indicator of underlying genetic health. So, for most of human history life expectancies were under 40 years old. And the chances of you dying or your offspring dying were very high, and so you wanted to get somebody with the best genes possible, so that your offspring had the best chances of passing along your genes to subsequent generations. And so here you see this thing where, you don’t always think about the root cause of it, but it’s sure a powerful factor in shaping how we select partners, and what we prize as the most valued traits.
Pennington : As the woman in this interview I would like to know what the number one thing that women were choosing.
Tashiro : Evolutionary psychologists would say it’s resources, which takes the form of socio-economic status.
Campbell : Very interesting. Ty, you do something that not a lot of academics do, you write for public audiences. I’ve read some of your stuff in Popular Science, and Time, talk about why you started doing that, what that was like. It’s very different writing for a public audience than it is for other academics. Talk about that change, and by the way you’re a very good writer…
Tashiro : Oh, well thank you. I appreciate that. It’s not always been the case.
Campbell : Talk about that transition…
Tashiro : Sure. I was at the University of Colorado, and I was just … could not get out of my head, that there was all of this great relationship science some of it well replicated and robust, but I thought that information could be helpful to people if they … if you just gave folks the information. That alone could be something that could help them improve their relationships. I don’t like to tell people what to with their lives. I think that most of us don’t like to be told what to do. But I do like the idea of giving people information in a way that’s really user-friendly and appealing and practical. And I guess that’s what lead to the jump, was just this pull, this feeling that was something that I needed to do, and I also to tell stories, I guess… ever since I was a kid I enjoyed hearing stories. I like to tell stories, and of course, romantic stories are full of plot tensions along the way, and sometimes highs and lows and I thought this would be a fun book to write, just to tell some romantic stories that people could relate to. The stories set up common problems that people encounter in their search for “Happily Ever After”, and they’re given some really great data. What makes me nervous is when popular press writers cite just one study, and you know as a researcher there is actually hundreds on that same topic, and so I was also interested in this idea of “how can you convey a consensus or convey “best practices” rather than just singular studies through popular press writing. So, I think those were the motivations and I think it was a hard thing to learn how to write in a way that was different than the way I wrote for journal articles. Because it’s a totally different style.
Campbell : What you say about story, this is what, you know, good journalists who write complicated stories about data, often will start with a story in order to get into the audience, you know? To hook them. That’s the way most of us understand in our experience, it’s the easiest way. So, how do you make decisions when you write about how much data you’re going to bring in, how you’re going to talk about it, where you’re going to place it, when you’re writing for a public audience?
Tashiro : I think the data is primary. So, I usually have it that, there’s an idea I need to convey at some point in this book, and it probably is a chapter. And then what I do is go back to this catalogue of ridiculous events in my life, and I’ll say, “I like that because it’s disarming” especially if it’s self-deprecating, because now you’ve got people with their defenses down. It’s not that I want to persuade anybody without them thinking about it, in fact, quite the opposite. But I do want people to relax a little bit and maybe have a little bit of a chuckle. And then, have them set up this problem like, “yeah, I have totally faced that problem of not being able to ask someone out that I’ve pined for, for months”. And then to give them this data like “yeah! Here’s some things you can do that would be helpful”. And then think about your own situation, of course. But now think about applying that. So, I think about it as – I can tell a story that opens us up, maybe the first quarter of the chapter, I think that’s pretty good. And then let’s get some data. I like to revisit the story somewhere in the middle of the chapter, what we could call “a second plot-point”, and then go back to the data… and then I usually end the chapter with a story being funny or sappy. One of the two, and I find that ties things up nicely.
Bailer : One thing you just mentioned was the idea that there’s well replicated research out there. Certainly, the American Statistical Association has published p-value statements in recent years, and there’s been a real concern about reproducibility in science. So, I think that’s something that clearly has a broad appeal, so you’re saying that this work has been reproduced with different populations and by different researchers.
Tashiro : That’s right. So, there’s some really great cross-cultural studies, some of them, including over 80 countries and you find these affects replicate across place and culture and even time. It’s maturing to a point where relationship science has been around long enough that something we can see that something found in 1960 isn’t replicating in 1980 and now in 2000s. So, there is a chance to look at that and look at meta-analyses and other ways to judge whether this is quality data where you can then give to somebody and then say “hey look, I’ve put in my due diligence here, and I’m pretty confident that this has a robust affect.”
Pennington : You’re listening to Stats & Stories. And our discussion today focuses on the Science of Love. Our guest is relationship expert and author Ty Tashiro. Richard asked the question about the way data journalist’s present information, and I wonder if you could give some advice to maybe a general assignment reporters being asked to write about a study about relationship science. How could someone who maybe isn’t well versed in this area approach the story in a way that’s thoughtful and doesn’t sensationalize the study itself or make it seem like this is a one-shot thing or doesn’t place it in its context?
Tashiro : I guess one of the things that gets me is the use of superlatives. In reporting. And you’ll see “this is the one thing you need to do to find lasting love”. That’s a feeling, sometimes even I will click on it. But, of course, that’s not true, right? And of course, even the study that had a medium affect size or sometimes even a large effect size, overall in this complex process that might have accounted for 5% of the variance at most… I think staying away from these overgeneralizations and these really dramatic statements would be the easiest thing to do. I think a great question that I encourage people to ask, is, if they do an interview with somebody just simply to say, “hey would there be somebody who is also an expert in this area who would disagree with you?” and I’ve found people to be very honest about that. Sometimes they’ll just give a much more thorough explanation and a much more balanced explanation when you push a little bit with questions like that. Other times, I guess if they didn’t I guess you could follow-up with the person that they mentioned. But, I’ve found that if you trust people a little bit, of course in a kind way, they respond well to that.
Bailer : One thing you mentioned a little earlier was the idea that some things have been changing over time. That this research has been going on long enough that it can be investigated. So, what are particular characteristics of relationships that seem to be evolving with times, and what seem to be relatively stable?
Tashiro : I think that one of the great areas to see this is with the theory that relationship scientists call Exchange Theory. It’s a really simple model. it’s the same model that they use in the Economics Department or in the Business School to predict when people will sell their house or sell a stock or buy stock or buy a house… and it’s really just three variables. It’s what do you want, what do you aspire to? What do you think you’re getting? And what are your attractive alternative options? Other things you could buy? And if you take that same model and you apply it to relationships, it actually a great predictor of when people will commit to a relationship and whether they’ll stay committed to a relationship I think one of the things that’s changed with those three variables is the prevalence of attractive alternative options. Because of online dating and because of apps. So, people have the perception, whether it’s real or not, I don’t know. But people have the perception that there’s an unlimited number of attractive alternative options, especially in urban areas like New York City. And that’s really thrown relationships a big “curve-ball”, and I think as a collective society we’re still trying to figure out how to handle this and of course the age of marriage is now around 28-29 years old, which is about 7-8 years later than it was for baby boomers. And a lot of sociologists say, “well, millennials will just marry later”, I don’t see why that would be a strong assumption to make. And so, I really think we’re in this interesting period of time where we’ll see how people decide to formalize their relationships, of if they decide to.
Bailer : We couldn’t have this interview complete without asking you what research advice would you give a listener that’s thinking about looking for a partner? So, what does science say in terms of strategies for partner selection?
Campbell : And maybe talk a little bit about online dating, which is how my daughter got married last year.
Tashiro : Yeah, I’ll try to combine that into one here. So, I think that you can, I know the term gets overused these days so I think you can “Moneyball” your dating life. And if you look at the traits that predict long term satisfaction and stability, we have a lot of data, actually about the traits that actually matter. We know that people tend to choose on physical attractiveness, and socio-economic status as two of their top three traits when they’re looking for a partner. We also know that physical attractiveness does not predict satisfaction or stability, actually the return on physical attractiveness is negative for heterosexual women. Socio-economic status only matters after you pass the poverty level. So as long as you clear that, then there’s a diminishing return. So, these aren’t great predictors so that begs the question, “which traits are?”, and its things that are totally unexciting. Getting someone who’s nice, I can’t stress how important that is. If someone gets called a nice guy or a nice woman, it’s almost insulting in our culture. But it’s one of the best things you can get. they will be generous they will be fair they will be dedicated to being empathic, about being empathically accurate about things, so they’ll actually be better at intuiting what you’re thinking or feeling. Another thing is emotional stability. And the plus side of that is neuroticism. You’re like well, “of course we could get someone who’s emotionally stable”, but if you look at these behavioral studies, you’ll find that emotional stability is like an 8-10, usually in the list of priorities. And it is the strongest predictor of relationship satisfaction and stability in any of the personality variables. So, if you just took those two variables, and prioritize those above physical attractiveness and socio-economic status you’ve all the sudden created this inflection point in your chances of finding a “happily ever after” or a satisfying and stable relationship. I just want to speak real quick too, to the online dating this happens all the time in online dating where people set filters. People think of filters as preferences, but those are hard stop choices that they’re making. So, they say that they want a man, for example, who is 6 feet or taller, they just removed 80% of their pool. Because only 20% of men in the United States are 6’ or taller. But, I think a lot of times people don’t think about the consequences of these small preferences for who that leaves available in their dating pool.
Pennington : So, it sounds like you would advocate for a dating site that has no pictures and that has a scale of emotional stability on it.
Tashiro : Yeah, boy, that’d be ideal. If you’re looking for the “Happily ever after”, then I’d give you the information you’d need, and what was it…. It was “Ok Cupid”, actually ran a study on that. It was a random assignment study where they took down the profile pictures for half of their users for a full day, and what they found was, that when the pictures were down people had more conversations back and forth. They were more likely to actually go on a date with people they were talking to and they were more likely to go on a second date with the people that they were talking to while the photos were down. So, if you removed more of these superficial variables, the suggestion is that you might be able to achieve some meaningful differences.
Cambell : That’s good stuff that we’re learning here.
Bailer: That’s really cool. So now people are going to be listening to this episode now trying to take notes.
Campbell : We were all taking notes frantically while you were talking.
Tashiro : Well, I’d say too, for people who have already chosen their partners, one of the nice things about how you prioritize the traits that you want in a partner, even if it’s post-hoc is sometimes you realize how lucky you are, that’s something that happens in long term relationships that we start to take for granted, all of these wonderful subtleties about our romantic partners, because we habituate, as humans. So it’s nice to remember “oh yeah, my partner is super nice, and really kind and generous and I seem to have forgotten that a little bit”.
Pennington : Thank you so much for being here this afternoon, this has been a really interesting conversation.
Tashiro : Thanks so much.
Pennington : That’s all the time we have for this episode of Stats + Stories. Stats + Stories is a partnership between Miami University’s Departments of Statistics, and Media, Journalism and Film, and the American Statistical Association. You can follow us on Twitter or iTunes. If you’d like to share your thoughts on the program, send your email to Statsandstories@Miamioh.edu . Be sure to listen to future editions of Stats & Stories where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.
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