Psychology of intimate relationships

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PS68CH15-Finkel ARI 16 November 2016 8:6

The Psychology of Close
Relationships: Fourteen
Core Principles
Eli J. Finkel,1 Jeffry A. Simpson,2

and Paul W. Eastwick3
1 Department of Psychology and Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University,
Evanston, Illinois 60208; email: [email protected]
2 Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455;
email: [email protected]
3 Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, California 95616;
email: [email protected]

Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2017. 68:383–411

First published online as a Review in Advance on
September 1, 2016

The Annual Review of Psychology is online at

This article’s doi:

Copyright c© 2017 by Annual Reviews.
All rights reserved


relationship science, core principles, attachment theory, interdependence
theory, culinary approach


Relationship science is a theory-rich discipline, but there have been no at-
tempts to articulate the broader themes or principles that cut across the
theories themselves. We have sought to fill that void by reviewing the
psychological literature on close relationships, particularly romantic rela-
tionships, to extract its core principles. This review reveals 14 principles,
which collectively address four central questions: (a) What is a relationship?
(b) How do relationships operate? (c) What tendencies do people bring to
their relationships? (d ) How does the context affect relationships? The 14
principles paint a cohesive and unified picture of romantic relationships that
reflects a strong and maturing discipline. However, the principles afford few
of the sorts of conflicting predictions that can be especially helpful in fos-
tering novel theory development. We conclude that relationship science is
likely to benefit from simultaneous pushes toward both greater integration
across theories (to reduce redundancy) and greater emphasis on the circum-
stances under which existing (or not-yet-developed) principles conflict with
one another.


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INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 384
MAJOR THEORIES IN RELATIONSHIP SCIENCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 385
EXTRACTING PRINCIPLES: A CULINARY METAPHOR . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 386
THE CORE PRINCIPLES OF RELATIONSHIP SCIENCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 388

Set 1: What Is a Relationship? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 388
Set 2: How Do Relationships Operate? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 391
Set 3: What Tendencies Do People Bring to Their Relationships? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 395
Set 4: How Does the Context Affect Relationships? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 397

Refining Existing Theories . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 401
Generating New Theories . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 402

VERSUS CONFLICT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 402

CONCLUSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 404

[R]elationships with other humans are both the foundation and the theme of the human condition:
We are born into relationships, we live our lives in relationships with others, and when we die, the
effects of our relationships survive in the lives of the living, reverberating throughout the tissue of their

—Ellen Berscheid (1999, pp. 261–262)


Poets, novelists, and philosophers have long recognized the centrality of relationships to human
existence. Yet the coalescence of an integrated science devoted to understanding human rela-
tionships dates back only to the 1980s. Today, relationship science is an interdisciplinary field
that employs diverse empirical methods to understand the initiation, development, maintenance,
and dissolution of interpersonal relationships. This field addresses the structure and trajectory of
relationships, how relationships operate, and how relationship outcomes are influenced by both
the personal characteristics that people bring to their relationships and the broader context in
which relationships are embedded. Relationship scientists investigate many types of relationships,
but the primary emphasis is on close relationships—those characterized by “strong, frequent,
and diverse interdependence that lasts over a considerable period of time” (Kelley et al. 1983,
p. 38)—especially well-established romantic relationships.1 In her classic article on the “green-
ing of relationship science,” Berscheid (1999) discussed the growing coherence and influence of
relationship science on myriad scholarly fields, presciently forecasting the growth of a

1 Close relationships researchers investigate a wide range of relationships, even within the subcase of romantic relationships.
Although there are main effect differences across relationship types (Kurdek 2005), the available evidence suggests that “the
processes that regulate relationship functioning generalize across gay, lesbian, and heterosexual couples” (Kurdek 2004,
p. 880). Thus, we have no reason to believe that the 14 principles discussed below qualitatively differ across different romantic
relationship arrangements. As such, and because the vast majority of research has examined heterosexual romantic relationships,
our examples focus on the heterosexual case.

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flourishing discipline in the twenty-first century (see also Campbell & Simpson 2013,
Reis 2007).

Researchers have written many reviews of the close relationships literature, including in pre-
vious volumes of the Annual Review of Psychology (e.g., Clark & Reis 1988, Gottman 1998). In
this review, we focus on the major theories that guide research in relationship science, with
a particular emphasis on those deriving from social and personality psychology. We seek to
understand what assumptions these theories share, the extent to which they align or conflict,
and how they could be augmented and complemented. Toward those ends, we attempt to ex-
tract from the literature a set of core principles for understanding close relationships and illus-
trate how articulating and organizing these core principles can promote theory refinement and


Relationship science has produced many strong theories, two of which—interdependence theory
and attachment theory—have been especially influential. Interdependence theory, which began as
a game-theoretic model of dyadic interaction, traces its roots to Thibaut & Kelley’s (1959) book
The Social Psychology of Groups. This theory was first applied to close relationships in the 1970s
(Kelley 1979, Levinger & Snoek 1972) and became a dominant theory of such relationships in the
1980s (Kelley et al. 1983, Rusbult 1983). According to interdependence theory, social situations
vary along several dimensions, and this variation influences relationship processes and outcomes
(Kelley et al. 2003). For example, situations in which a man is more (versus less) dependent on his
girlfriend for rewarding experiences should increase the extent to which he monitors her behavior
for signs that she loves and is committed to him. His high level of dependence puts him in a low-
power position unless she is also highly dependent upon him. High levels of mutual dependence
typically promote cooperative behavior when partners have corresponding interests but conflictual
behavior when they have noncorrespondent interests.

Attachment theory, which initially focused on infant–caregiver relationships, traces its roots to
Bowlby’s (1969, 1973, 1980) trilogy on attachment, separation, and loss. The theory was adapted
to explain the nature of close relationships between adults in the 1980s (Hazan & Shaver 1987), and
it joined interdependence theory as a dominant model of adult relationships in the 1990s (Hazan
& Shaver 1994). According to attachment theory, people develop emotional bonds with significant
others (usually romantic partners in adulthood) and are motivated to maintain these bonds over
time (Mikulincer & Shaver 2007). People seek proximity to their primary attachment figure,
especially when they are stressed, ill, or afraid, and rely on the psychological security provided by
this person when pursuing challenging activities that can promote mastery and personal growth.
Individuals vary along two dimensions of attachment insecurity: (a) anxiety, the extent to which
they need reassurance that their attachment figures love and will stay with them, and (b) avoidance,
the extent to which they are uncomfortable with emotional intimacy and being vulnerable. Secure
individuals, who score low on both dimensions, typically display the most constructive relationship
processes and have the most positive relationship outcomes.

Several other theoretical perspectives have also been influential in relationship science, in-
cluding risk regulation theory (Murray et al. 2006), self-expansion theory (Aron et al. 2013), the
communal/exchange model (Clark & Mills 2011), the interpersonal process model of intimacy
(Reis & Shaver 1988), and the vulnerability-stress-adaptation model (Karney & Bradbury 1995).
The existence of such theories, along with many others, is a major strength of relationship science:
These theories have fruitfully guided thousands of empirical investigations into how people think,
feel, and behave in close relationships. • Relationship Science 385



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Nevertheless, it is not obvious how, or whether, these theories cohere and what qualities they
have in common. Some theories overlap in intended ways. For example, risk regulation theory
(Murray et al. 2006) deliberately combines elements of attachment theory and interdependence
theory. Other theories overlap in underappreciated ways. For example, the ideal standards model
(Simpson et al. 2001) focuses on standards, whereas the suffocation model (Finkel et al. 2014a) fo-
cuses on expectations, two constructs that are almost synonymous in interdependence theory. Still
other theories discuss processes that are rarely articulated elsewhere. For example, the emphasis
in the vulnerability-stress-adaptation model on stressors external to the relationship (Karney &
Bradbury 1995) is neglected in most other theories (but see Hill 1949, McCubbin & Patterson
1983). Relationship science is fortunate to have this rich assemblage of theories, but their col-
lective depiction is murky because the degree to which the field’s core principles complement,
circumscribe, overlap with, or conflict with one another remains unclear.2


The primary goal of this review is to articulate the principles that cut across many of the theories
in relationship science. Consider a culinary metaphor in which each theory is a dish (e.g., a curry)
composed of discrete ingredients (e.g., a grain, a protein, a vegetable, several spices). We set
ourselves the task of extracting the core principles—the basic ingredients—and determining which
principles emerge repeatedly across different theories. Our approach, in other words, involves
temporarily setting the theories aside in order to identify and organize a set of core principles that
characterize relationship science in general. Subsequently, we illustrate how theorists might use
these principles in theory refinement and novel theory development.

In general, the goal of the extraction process is not to replace current theories, nor to generate a
comprehensive list of every theoretical idea ever introduced within the relevant research domain.
Rather, the goal is to identify the key—most widespread and influential—principles that have
influenced theory development and hypothesis generation in the field. This assessment can help
determine whether and how various theories align, perhaps through redundancy or by emphasizing
different features of a phenomenon (akin to the proverbial blind men examining different parts
of an elephant). Additionally, it fills the theoretical pantry with the main ingredients required for
the theory development (cooking) process.

In applying this culinary approach to relationship science, we began by examining psycholog-
ically oriented handbook volumes, textbooks, and review articles to identify the major theories
and models within the research domain and to extract an initial list of core principles. We then
obtained feedback from 16 leading relationship scientists in psychology to refine this initial list,
ultimately producing the 14 core principles discussed below (see Table 1).

Each principle is described at a fairly high level of abstraction so that it can align with mul-
tiple theories; our goal is to capture the general thrust of how each theory characterizes a given
principle, even if there is minor variation across theories in the principle’s precise specification.
Each principle can be used to develop empirical hypotheses, but no one principle specifies how
particular constructs should be operationalized (i.e., there is no gold-standard measure required
by a particular principle). Reflecting the current state of the field, the principles exist at somewhat

2 The evolutionary psychology of human mating (Buss 2008) developed alongside mainstream relationship science. By and
large, however, these two fields have developed in parallel. They address some overlapping topics but tend to employ different
research methods and exhibit modest cross-fertilization of ideas (see Durante et al. 2016, Eastwick 2016). Toward the end
of this review (see Optimizing Relationship Science: Theoretical Cohesion Versus Conflict), we address some ways in which
relationship science could benefit from greater incorporation of ideas from evolutionary psychology.

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Table 1 The 14 principles extracted from the psychology literature on relationship science

Seta Number Name Definition

1 Uniqueness Relationship outcomes depend not only on the specific qualities of each partner but also
on the unique patterns that emerge when the partners’ qualities intersect

2 Integration Opportunities and motivations for interdependence tend to facilitate cognitive, affective,

motivational, or behavioral merging between partners

3 Trajectory The long-term trajectories of relationship dynamics are affected by each partner’s
continually updated perceptions of the couple’s relationship-relevant interactions and

4 Evaluation People evaluate their relationships and partners according to a set of positive and negative
constructs, which tend to be moderately negatively correlated

5 Responsiveness Responsive behaviors promote relationship quality for both the self and the partner

2 6 Resolution The manner in which partners communicate about and cope with relationship events
affects long-term relationship quality and stability

7 Maintenance Partners in committed relationships exhibit cognitions and behaviors that promote the
relationship’s persistence over time, even if doing so involves self-deceptive biases

8 Predisposition People bring certain basic qualities of personality and temperament to their relationships,
some of which influence their own and their partners’ relationship wellbeing

9 Instrumentality People bring certain goals and needs to their relationships, and the dynamics between the

two partners affect the extent to which they succeed in achieving these goals and meeting
these needs

10 Standards People bring certain standards to their relationships and tend to experience greater
relationship wellbeing when their relationships exceed these standards

11 Diagnosticity Situations vary in the extent to which they afford opportunities to evaluate a partner’s true
goals and motives regarding the relationship

12 Alternatives The presence of attractive alternatives to a current relationship—including the option of
not being in a relationship at all—threatens relationship quality and persistence

13 Stress High demands external to the relationship predict worse relationship outcomes, especially

if the demands exceed the two partners’ (individual or combined) resources for coping

14 Culture Relationships are embedded in social networks and a cultural milieu—including norms,
practices, and traditions—that shape the nature and trajectory of those relationships

a Set refers to the four major theoretical questions that the principles address: (1) What is a relationship? (2) How do relationships operate? (3) What
tendencies do people bring to their relationships? (4) How does the context affect relationships?.

different levels of analysis. Some, for example, apply to a person at a single moment in time, whereas
others apply to a person in general or across time; some imply a particular causal process (e.g.,
responsive behaviors increase relationship quality), whereas others specify only that a construct
accounts for variance in a process or outcome (e.g., culture accounts for variance in the quality
of relationship functioning).3 Consistent with the culinary metaphor, most theories incorporate
or address only some of the 14 principles, in the same way that specific dishes do not use all the
ingredients in the pantry; it is unlikely that a cogent theory could incorporate all 14 principles,
especially at this rather early stage of the field’s development.

By necessity, our extraction process involved many subjective judgments. For example, what
counts as a theory? Which theories are most relevant to relationship science? Is a given principle

3 All of the principles we discuss can be disconfirmed, though it may be easier to disconfirm principles that specify a particular
causal process than principles that specify that a construct should predict an outcome in general. • Relationship Science 387



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sufficiently core to warrant inclusion? Thus, we make no claim that our conclusions reflect the
absolute truth regarding the key principles that define relationship science from a psychological
perspective; other scholars might make different decisions or draw different conclusions about
the discipline’s core principles. However, the subjectivity of this approach does not render the
conclusions arbitrary. The conclusions are constrained by the theories in our research domain,
which means that all competent extraction efforts ought to generate principles that are reasonably
compatible with one another. We hope that our synthesis starts a dialogue about the core principles
that anchor relationship science and about how these principles might be used both to refine
current theories and to generate new ones.


Once we extracted the 14 principles (see Table 1), we embedded them within a sensible, albeit
post hoc, organizational structure. We settled on a four-set structure in which each set was built
around a central theoretical question in relationship science: (a) What is a relationship? (b) How
do relationships operate? (c) What tendencies do people bring to their relationships? (d ) How does
the context affect relationships? Figure 1 depicts an organizational framework for conceptualizing
the 14 principles within this four-set structure.

Set 1: What Is a Relationship?

Relationship scientists have written extensively about the definitions of terms such as close and
relationship (e.g., Berscheid & Regan 2005, Kelley et al. 1983). One pervasive concept that char-
acterizes all attempts to define close relationships is that partners are dependent on one another to
obtain good outcomes and facilitate the pursuit of their most important needs and goals (see Finkel

Set 1: What is a relationship?

Set 4: How does the context affect relationships?

Set 3: What tendencies do people
bring to their relationships?

8. Predisposition
9. Instrumentality

10. Standards

1. Uniqueness 2. Integration 3. Trajectory

4. Evaluation
5. Responsiveness

6. Resolution
7. Maintenance

Set 2: How do relationships operate?

13. Stress
14. Culture

11. Diagnosticity
12. Alternatives

Figure 1
A psychological perspective of the core principles in relationship science. Although the image depicts a
heterosexual couple, the available evidence suggests that all 14 core principles generalize to other relationship
structures, including those involving gay men or lesbians (see Footnote 1). Picture credit: Pixabay.

388 Finkel · Simpson · Eastwick



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& Simpson 2015). Beyond these broad definitional efforts, theories have extensively explored the
nature of close relationships. Set 1 contains three core principles that address how and why a re-
lationship becomes more than the sum of its parts (the uniqueness principle), the merging of two
partners into a single psychological entity (the integration principle), and the way relationships
change over time (the trajectory principle).

Uniqueness. Relationship outcomes depend not only on the specific qualities of each partner but also on
the unique patterns that emerge when the partners’ qualities intersect.

According to relationship scientists, a relationship functions as its own entity that is distinct
from and irreducible to the two constituent partners (Berscheid 1999). For example, even if two
individuals tend to be low self-disclosers, their idiosyncratic personal characteristics may mesh in
a unique way that leads both of them to self-disclose a great deal to each other. From a statistical
standpoint, uniqueness effects are evident in the degree of relationship variance in social relations
model studies and in actor × partner interaction effects in actor–partner interdependence model
studies (Kenny & Kashy 2011).

Various theories address the uniqueness principle in distinct ways, with most emphasizing
certain characteristics of relationship partners or specific interpersonal outcomes. Interdependence
theory (Kelley et al. 2003) proposes that the qualities of each partner influence how the two partners
interact in particular situations and, consequently, the outcomes they reap from those interactions.
Transactive goal dynamics theory (Fitzsimons et al. 2015) argues that successful goal attainment
depends on features of the self (e.g., a man’s desire to lose weight) in conjunction with those of
the partner (e.g., his wife’s training as a dietician). Relational regulation theory (Lakey & Orehek
2011) posits that the extent to which social interaction successfully regulates affect, behavior, and
cognition depends on the idiosyncratic traits, preferences, and personal tastes of each partner (e.g.,
the two partners find it soothing if she plays guitar while he cooks).

There are many empirical examples of uniqueness. For example, relationship variance explains
most of the total variance in perceptions of mate value and long-term attraction, indicating that
beauty (as well as other desirable qualities of a mate) really is largely in the eye of the beholder
(Eastwick & Hunt 2014). Mutuality of commitment—the degree to which both partners report
comparable levels of commitment to the relationship—predicts unique variance in relationship
wellbeing above and beyond the two partners’ levels of commitment (Drigotas et al. 1999). Capital-
ization discussions—in which one partner attempts to savor positive news with the other (Gable &
Reis 2010)—tend to be especially difficult and unsatisfying if the person sharing the news is high
in attachment anxiety and the partner is high in attachment avoidance (Shallcross et al. 2011). De-
pressive symptoms during the transition to parenthood are particularly pronounced when highly
neurotic individuals have highly disagreeable spouses (Marshall et al. 2015). In short, relationships
cannot be understood fully by studying main effects involving the two partners; consideration of
the unique dyadic context generated by the two partners is also required.

Integration. Opportunities and motivations for interdependence tend to facilitate cognitive, affective,
motivational, or behavioral merging between partners.

In many close relationships, the psychological boundaries that separate partners are blurry,
making it difficult to discern where one partner ends and the other begins. The self component
in terms such as self-concept and self-regulation takes on a less individualistic focus. Consider
the self-concept, which is often deeply embedded in and possibly altered by close relationships
(Andersen & Chen 2002). As a relationship develops and the desire to maintain it increases, an in-
dividual’s self-concept usually becomes increasingly intertwined with the partner and relationship.
In unstructured relationship thought-listing tasks, for example, higher relationship commitment • Relationship Science 389



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predicts greater spontaneous use of plural pronouns such as we, us, and our (Agnew et al. 1998).
Individuals also become confused about whether they or their partner has a given attribute (e.g.,
extraversion), as illustrated by research showing that participants are slower and less accurate
when making me/not me decisions under time pressure if either they or their partner possesses
the relevant attribute than if neither or both of them do (Mashek et al. 2003). Similar effects are
also found in newly formed relationships when an individual desires high interdependence with
his or her potential partner (Slotter & Gardner 2009). Perhaps due to this merging of identities,
the tendency for individuals to exhibit self-enhancing biases generalizes to their close (but not
nonclose) relationship partners (Sedikides et al. 1998).

Self-regulation is also embedded within close relationships. According to transactive goal dy-
namics theory (Finkel et al. 2016, Fitzsimons et al. 2015), relationship partners form a single
self-regulating unit that involves a complex web of goals, pursuits, and outcomes. The optimal
unit of analysis for understanding goal dynamics is the dyad or group, not the individual. For
instance, Alice might set a goal for John, such as losing weight; she might then pursue this goal by
buying healthier snacks, or John might pursue it by forgoing desserts. Alice might also set a goal
for herself, such as submitting a work project on time, which John helps her pursue by doing some
solo parenting so she can complete her project. Depending on how efficiently partners coordinate
their goals and pursuits, goal interdependence can either bolster or undermine each person’s goal
success. When goal coordination is strong, partners can achieve a level of goal success that would
have been impossible if they were single or had a less compatible partner. In fact, research has
shown that individuals assigned to think about ways in which their romantic partner is helpful in
their pursuit of a goal work less hard at pursuing that goal (Fitzsimons & Finkel 2011), which frees
resources for other goal pursuits.

When performing joint tasks, people who desire a communal rather than an exchange relation-
ship tend to behave in ways that obscure rather than accentuate their independent contributions,
which makes overall performance function as a shared dyadic contribution rather than as a com-
bination of two independent contributions. Even at a physiological level, the line separating close
relationship partners is fuzzy (Beckes & Coan 2011, IJzerman et al. 2015, Sbarra & Hazan 2008).
Romantic partners performing laboratory interaction tasks, for example, exhibit increased align-
ment over time in their respiratory sinus arrhythmia (a biomarker of feeling safe), an effect that is
stronger among individuals who are more satisfied with their relationship (Helm et al. 2014).

Trajectory. The long-term trajectories of relationship dynamics are affected by each partner’s continually
updated perceptions of the couple’s relationship-relevant interactions and experiences.

Relationships change over time. Close relationships models from the 1960s and 1970s posited
that change reflected a normative series of stages or filters. For example, the intersection model of
pair relatedness (Levinger & Snoek 1972) proposes that relationship partners move through stages
of escalating interdependence as they become aware of each other, interact, and eventually form a
relationship characterized by a couple-level identity. The relational development model (Knapp
et al. 2014) suggests that couples move through a series of stages both when beginning a relation-
ship (e.g., initiating, then intensifying, then bonding) and when ending a relationship (e.g., differen-
tiating, then stagnating, then terminating). Shifts between stages are often marked by transitions—
turning points where partners’ levels of commitment become explicit (Loving et al. 2009) or life
events that change the relationship, such as the transition to parenthood (Rholes et al. 2011).

Other models focus on how specific relationship constructs ebb and flow across time. Accord-
ing to social penetration theory (Altman & Taylor 1973), relationship partners develop intimacy
as they gradually increase the depth and breadth of their self-disclosures. Attachment theorists
propose that the three behavioral systems associated with pair-bonding develop at different rates,

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with the sexual mating system being particularly important early in a relationship and the at-
tachment and caregiving systems taking on greater importance once the relationship has become
established (Zeifman & Hazan 2008). Interdependence theorists have focused on how the situa-
tions encountered by a given couple produce relationship-specific behavioral tendencies, which
often become reified as injunctive norms (Thibaut & Kelley 1959). For example, if one partner
likes action films and the other likes screwball comedies, the couple might develop a strong turn-
taking norm, which would not exist in couples in which partners had identical film preferences.
People also update their internal working models over time (Bretherton & Munholland 2008).
Research has confirmed that events that produce feelings of greater attachment security lead to
changes in partner-specific attachment models (e.g., expectations that one’s current partner is
reliable), which subsequently change global attachment models (e.g., expectations that partners
in general are reliable) (Fraley 2007, Pierce & Lydon 2001).

Many of the events and experiences that cause relationships to change occur in simple, or-
dinary interactions and commonplace situations. Indeed, relational regulation theory (Lakey &
Orehek 2011) suggests that people’s perceptions of social support originate mainly from everyday
conversations and shared activities with partners rather than in response to major life stressors.
Consequently, relationship outcomes are challenging to predict before a relationship begins, even
if one has considerable knowledge of each partner’s personal characteristics (Finkel et al. 2012).
The ReCAST model (Eastwick et al. 2016) posits that relationships that turn out to be long-term,
committed relationships are often indistinguishable from those that turn out to be short-term and
casual in the early stages as two people get to know each other. Long-term and short-term rela-
tionships prove difficult to differentiate primarily because people do not know if they want to be in
a committed relationship with a specific person until they can fully gauge the relationship’s emo-
tional and sexual chemistry. However, relationships do not remain unpredictable forever: Once
relationship partners progress to advanced relationship stages (e.g., marriage), latent strengths
and vulnerabilities presage whether partners’ evaluations of relationship quality will remain high
or deteriorate (Lavner et al. 2012).

Set 2: How Do Relationships Operate?

Besides examining existential and temporal features of relationships, relationship scientists also
investigate how individuals think, feel, and behave with regard to their experiences and interactions
with their partners. Set 2 encompasses four core principles, which address how individuals evaluate
their partners and relationships (the evaluation principle); how partners respond to each other’s
needs (the responsiveness principle); how partners react dyadically to conflict and other important
relationship events (the resolution principle); and how partners (typically) manage to sustain their
relationship, despite challenges (the maintenance principle).

Evaluation. People evaluate their relationships and partners according to set of positive and negative
constructs, which tend to be moderately negatively correlated.

People constantly evaluate the world around them, and their relationships and partners are no
exception. Most people make relationship evaluations on separable positivity and negativity dimen-
sions (Gable & Reis 2001); researchers have used this two-dimensional conceptualization to exam-
ine the effects of ambivalence—simultaneous highly positive and highly negative evaluations—on
relationship processes and outcomes (e.g., Uchino et al. 2013).

Typically, however, individuals who evaluate a relationship more positively also evaluate it
less negatively, so most evaluative variables are bipolar and labeled according to their positive
endpoint (e.g., satisfaction, commitment, trust, etc.). Each of these constructs has its own • Relationship Science 391



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definition, timecourse, and measure, and various theoretical perspectives have attempted to
explain how and why these constructs are related or distinct.

According to the triangular theory of love (Sternberg 1986), for example, love has three ele-
ments, which can be present or absent to varying degrees: intimacy (warm feelings of connect-
edness), passion (romantic and sexual attraction), and commitment (the decision to maintain the
relationship). Other scholars have focused on the timecourse of passion and intimacy, finding
that passion is a function of the first derivative of intimacy over time: When intimacy is increas-
ing, passion is high; when it is stable (regardless of its level), passion is low (Rubin & Campbell
2012). These and other positive evaluative constructs are conceptually distinct, but they are often
positively correlated, sometimes quite highly. Although six of the major evaluative constructs in
relationship science—commitment, trust, love, passion, intimacy, and satisfaction—are distinct,
they share considerable variance and form a single, broad dimension reflecting overall relationship
quality (Fletcher et al. 2000a,b).

Most and perhaps all of these constructs include not only reflective/consciously accessible
components but also impulsive/automatic components (Murray et al. 2013). Using distinct mea-
surement approaches (e.g., explicit versus implicit priming), both kinds of components can be
assessed; depending on the context, either explicit or implicit measures may account for more
of the variance in predicting a given relationship process or outcome (Banse & Kowalick 2007,
McNulty et al. 2013).

Responsiveness. Responsive behaviors promote relationship quality for both the self and the partner.
Individuals’ assessments of relationship quality are strongly influenced by their interactions

with their partners, including their degree of mutual responsiveness—the extent to which they
are “cognizant of, sensitive to, and behaviorally supportive of ” each other’s core needs and values
(Reis 2007, p. 9; see also Clark & Lemay 2010, Reis & Clark 2013). Studies have confirmed that
partners’ responsive behaviors across a wide range of negative and positive experiences predict
greater personal and relationship wellbeing (Debrot et al. 2012, Gable et al. 2012), above and
beyond the positive effects of other more general forms of support (Otto et al. 2015).

This emphasis on responsiveness to the partner’s core needs and values indicates that one cannot
be responsive by simply learning a set of techniques and applying them in all situations (Finkel
et al. 2014b). Rather, responsiveness requires tailoring one’s actions to the unique needs of one’s
partner in a particular situation. Consider this classic example: Having someone immediately repay
your favor is responsive if you want an exchange relationship with him or her, but it is unresponsive
if you desire a communal relationship (Clark & Mills 1979).

When individuals believe their partner is responsive to their needs, they typically feel good
about themselves and are more willing to place themselves in emotionally vulnerable positions,
which can enhance the quality of their relationship (Murray et al. 2006). People vary, of course, in
how comfortable they are being emotionally vulnerable, an individual difference that influences
not only how responsive they are but also how they are likely to react to responsive behavior from
their partner. When in a support-provision role, insecurely attached individuals tend to provide
less responsive support when their partners are upset (Feeney & Collins 2001, Simpson et al. 1992).
When in a support-recipient role, such individuals report feeling greater insecurity and display
relationship-destructive behaviors, although receiving more responsive support tailored to their
needs buffers them from experiencing these adverse states (Lemay & Dudley 2011, Simpson &
Overall 2014). Responsiveness, in other words, plays a crucial role—frequently in conjunction
with the partners’ individual qualities—in social support contexts in which one partner helps the
other cope with negative experiences or stressors. The extent to which individuals perceive that

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they have high-quality support available predicts greater wellbeing and better health outcomes
(Robles et al. 2014).

Responsiveness is also important in capitalization situations (Gable & Reis 2010) in which
responsive reactions typically involve active, constructive behaviors such as excitement or enthu-
siasm (Feeney & Collins 2015). These reactions often yield positive outcomes, such as increases
in the discloser’s positive mood or self-esteem, which in turn lead the discloser to feel closer to
the responsive partner. Conversely, passive or destructive responses such as apathy or envy signal
a lack of responsiveness and frequently elicit distancing responses from disclosers.

Resolution. The manner in which partners communicate about and cope with relationship events affects
long-term relationship quality and stability.

Certain relational events stand out, reverberating with psychological resonance for one or both
partners. These events may be commonplace, such as the fifteenth fight over chores in a month,
or infrequent, such as the birth of a child. The ways in which these events affect a relationship
often hinge on how both partners behave in response to them (Overall & McNulty 2017).

The range of these resonant events is vast, but because negative relational events have stronger
consequences for relationship wellbeing than do positive events (Gottman 1998), conflictual inter-
action tends to be especially significant. Communication often becomes fraught during conflict,
and relationship satisfaction and stability largely depend on how partners construe and respond
to each other’s behavior. In addition, the effectiveness and pace with which partners recover from
conflict episodes independently predict relationship satisfaction and stability (e.g., Gottman &
Levenson 1999).

The response options to conflict reside within a constructive/destructive × active/passive be-
havioral space (Rusbult et al. 1982; for a similar model, see Overall & McNulty 2017). Responses
within this space have downstream effects on relationship quality; active/constructive responses,
for example, tend to predict higher satisfaction and lower breakup likelihood (Rusbult et al. 1982).
Observational research has documented four conflict-relevant behavioral patterns that forecast
relationship distress and propensity to divorce: globally criticizing your partner’s personality, re-
sponding defensively to your partner’s criticism, conveying the belief that your partner is beneath
you, and refusing to engage with your partner’s concerns (Gottman 1998).

Major relationship problems must sometimes be directly addressed to resolve persistent,
nagging issues that, if left unattended, could further destabilize the relationship. For example,
compared to partners who are more passive or destructive, partners who directly and openly
confront major problems in active, constructive ways experience greater distress during and im-
mediately following conflict discussions, but they and their partners are more likely to resolve
these problems and have happier relationships over time (Overall et al. 2009). It appears that
direct opposition is beneficial when serious problems must be addressed and when partners can
make changes, but it is often harmful when partners do not have the traits or skills to be ade-
quately responsive to one another (Overall & McNulty 2017). Indirect (i.e., passive) cooperative
communication, on the other hand, appears to be harmful when major problems must be resolved
but can be beneficial when (a) problems are minor, (b) things cannot be changed, or (c) one or
both partners are too defensive to resolve the problem effectively.

Forgiveness research has revealed that the ways in which both partners behave and react follow-
ing major interpersonal transgressions alter how resolution unfolds. If, for example, transgressors
make stronger amends and victims forgive them more wholeheartedly following a major rela-
tionship transgression, victims tend to develop greater self-respect and clearer self-views (Luchies
et al. 2010), which should result in better and more constructive interactions later on. Indeed,
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conflict resolution and greater long-term relationship stability across time (Fincham et al. 2004).
If, however, transgressors fail to make adequate amends or are verbally aggressive, victims who
are highly (versus modestly) forgiving tend to respect themselves less and feel less satisfied in the
marriage (Luchies et al. 2010, McNulty 2008).

Maintenance. Partners in committed relationships exhibit cognitions and behaviors that promote the
relationship’s persistence over time, even if doing so involves self-deceptive biases.

Forgiveness is one of many processes that protect and promote relationships over time; these
processes are collectively called relationship maintenance mechanisms. Many of these mechanisms
involve a transformation process in which partners override their immediate self-interests in favor
of behaviors that are more beneficial to the partner or the relationship (Kelley & Thibaut 1978).
One of the most robust predictors of the tendency to enact relationship maintenance mechanisms
is relationship commitment, which emerges from feelings of satisfaction and investment in the
relationship and from the belief that the alternatives to involvement in the relationship are less
desirable (Le & Agnew 2003). Greater relationship commitment, in turn, is associated with en-
acting relationship-maintaining cognitions and behaviors, such as perceiving one’s relationship
as better than others’ (including in the sexual arena; see de Jong & Reis 2015), ignoring or men-
tally derogating romantic alternatives, making sacrifices to benefit the relationship, and forgiving
partner transgressions (Rusbult et al. 2001).

Some of the relationship-promoting effects of commitment stem from motivated biases. For
example, the positive association of commitment with perceptions that one’s relationship is better
than others’ relationships is stronger when one’s relationship is threatened (Rusbult et al. 2000).
The negative association of commitment with the assessment of romantic alternatives as desirable
is stronger when alternatives are objectively more appealing; in fact, the negative association
disappears when alternatives are objectively unappealing, presumably because they do not threaten
the relationship and do not require derogation ( Johnson & Rusbult 1989, Simpson et al. 1990).
Similarly, although romantically unattached men tend to find a novel woman more desirable when
she is at the most fertile stage of her ovulatory cycle, men who are involved in a committed romantic
relationship show the opposite pattern (Miller & Maner 2010). That is, men in relationships
actually find a woman other than their partner less attractive when she is highly fertile, presumably
because she is especially tempting and threatening to their existing relationship and they are
therefore motivated to perceive her negatively.

When engaged in relationship maintenance activities, one partner’s commitment becomes
more closely tied to the other’s trust (Wieselquist et al. 1999). It is, after all, fairly easy to trust
someone who forgives your transgressions and derogates attractive alternatives. Trust, in turn,
is associated with less monitoring of the partner’s behavior as the trusting individual develops
more faith that the partner has his or her best interests at heart (Holmes & Rempel 1989). Indeed,
individuals who place greater trust in their partners exhibit relationship-promoting biases in which
they misremember their partner’s relationship transgressions as being more benign than they
actually were (Luchies et al. 2013).

Relationship scientists have also drawn from other theoretical frameworks to identify rela-
tionship maintenance mechanisms. For example, research has shown that positive illusions about
the partner predict salutary relationship outcomes over time (Murray et al. 2011), and making
more generous attributions about the causes of a partner’s behavior predicts higher relationship
satisfaction (Bradbury & Fincham 1990). Of course, reality does act as a constraint on an individ-
ual’s rose-colored glasses (Fletcher & Kerr 2010, West & Kenny 2011), and biases may be more
or less pronounced depending on the specific features of a situation. For example, the strength of
a person’s positive biases is more pronounced when he or she is pursuing important relationship

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goals rather than deliberating about which goals to pursue (Gagné & Lydon 2004). Relationship-
promoting effects are also found when partners engage in novel and arousing (rather than merely
pleasant) activities with each other (Aron et al. 2000) and when they adopt the perspective of a
neutral, benevolent third party when thinking about relationship conflict (Finkel et al. 2013).

Set 3: What Tendencies Do People Bring to Their Relationships?

Thus far, our discussion has focused predominantly on relationship functioning. We have largely
sidestepped both the normative or idiosyncratic tendencies that individuals bring to their relation-
ships (Set 3) and the contextual factors that might influence relationship processes (Set 4). Set 3
contains three core principles that address how and why relationship functioning is influenced
by the partners’ personality qualities (the predisposition principle), their needs and goals (the in-
strumentality principle), and the benchmarks they use to evaluate the relationship (the standards

Predisposition. People bring certain basic qualities of personality and temperament to their relationships,
some of which influence their own and their partners’ relationship wellbeing.

The most basic tendencies that people bring to their relationships are tied to their personality
and temperament. The effects of personal strengths (e.g., high self-esteem, attachment security,
approach goals) or vulnerabilities (e.g., neuroticism, rejection sensitivity, avoidance goals) can be
amplified by events that transpire within relationships or in the wider environment. For exam-
ple, John, who has low self-esteem and adopts avoidance goals in his relationship (e.g., avoiding
conflict), may not worry much about the status of his relationship with Alice if they are getting
along well and everything is fine at work. However, when either the relationship or work generates
stress, his personal vulnerabilities may rise to the fore and make him think, feel, and behave in
relationship-damaging ways, which adversely affect Alice and their later interactions (Gable &
Impett 2012, Murray et al. 2006).

Several relationship theories are relevant to the predisposition principle. Attachment theory
(Bowlby 1973), for instance, proposes that the ways in which an individual is treated by significant
others (attachment figures) across the course of his or her life—and especially during childhood—
produce internal working models of the self and others, which then guide how he or she thinks,
feels, and behaves in later interpersonal contexts, particularly stressful ones. Securely attached
individuals, who have received nurturing and sensitive care, develop positive models of the self and
others and, therefore, behave more positively and constructively toward their partners (Mikulincer
& Shaver 2007), especially when one or both of them are upset (Collins & Feeney 2004, Simpson
et al. 1992). Anxiously attached individuals, who have received unpredictable or inconsistent care,
develop negative models of the self (viewing themselves as unworthy of love), which motivates
them to be hypervigilant to signs that their partner might be pulling away. Avoidantly attached
individuals, who have been rebuffed or rejected, develop negative models of others (viewing others
as uncaring), which motivates them to keep their attachment systems deactivated by being self-
reliant, especially in stressful situations (Simpson & Rholes 2012).

The predisposition principle is prominent in other theories and bodies of research, as well.
For example, according to evolutionary models of social development (reviewed in Simpson &
Belsky 2016), stressful circumstances (e.g., early unpredictable environments) result in poorer
parenting, which creates enduring vulnerabilities (e.g., attachment insecurity) that eventually affect
the quality and stability of an individual’s romantic relationships years later (Szepsenwol et al.
2016). According to the communal/exchange model (Clark & Mills 2011), people who bring
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costly to themselves. According to the intimacy process model (Reis & Shaver 1988), the degree to
which an individual discloses important personal information to his or her partner—and how the
partner then perceives this information and reacts to it—is shaped by the unique motives, needs,
goals, and fears (the working models) that each partner brings to the relationship (Laurenceau et al.
1998). Certain personality traits—especially neuroticism, which develops early in life—predict a
host of negative relationship outcomes later in life (McNulty 2013).

Instrumentality. People bring certain goals and needs to their relationships, and the dynamics between
the two partners affect the extent to which they succeed in achieving these goals and meeting these needs.

Beyond personality differences, people also bring many needs and goals to relationships. Some
of these motivational elements are species typical. Attachment theory, for example, contends that
humans have an innate need to develop attachment bonds (Bowlby 1969), whereas self-expansion
theory suggests that humans have an innate need to expand the self (Aron et al. 2013). Applications
of self-determination theory in the domain of relationships indicate that people look to their sig-
nificant others to help them achieve their innate psychological needs for autonomy, competence,
and relatedness (La Guardia et al. 2000). Other goals, such as the desire to reduce carbohydrate
consumption, are more idiosyncratic. Relationship scientists investigate the ways in which
relationships influence how much individuals are able to fulfill these needs and achieve their goals.

One foundational need relevant to the formation and maintenance of close relationships is
attachment, the need to establish an emotionally close relationship that fosters feelings of secu-
rity (Baumeister & Leary 1995, Bowlby 1969). Attachment theory’s central idea is that human
adults (in contrast to adults of our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos) evolved to
form deep, long-term emotional attachments with other adults, presumably because such bonds
promoted survival of our species’ altricial infants ancestrally (Eastwick 2009, Finkel & Eastwick
2015, Fletcher et al. 2015). Human adults also seek out their primary attachment figures (e.g.,
romantic partners) for subsidiary attachment-related needs, such as comfort when they are upset
or strength when pursuing challenging goals (Feeney & Collins 2015). Brain imaging research
reveals that people subjected to physical pain exhibit stronger reductions in the activation of neural
systems supporting emotional and behavioral threat responses when they are randomly assigned
to hold their spouse’s hand, especially if they have a higher-quality marriage (Coan et al. 2006).
Other studies demonstrate that merely viewing a photo of one’s romantic partner when enduring
physical pain activates brain regions linked to safety signaling, especially among those who believe
their partner is highly supportive (Eisenberger et al. 2011).

Close others influence an individual’s goal pursuit processes in diverse ways. For example, when
the opportunity arises, people tend to outsource their goal-related activities to their significant
others, which may reduce the effort they exert when pursuing their goals (Fitzsimons & Finkel
2011), and they draw closer to those who help them achieve their high-priority goals (Fitzsimons &
Shah 2008). As noted in the section Integration, above, the degree to which goal interdependence
bolsters or undermines an individual’s goal success is partially determined by how effectively
partners can coordinate, such as by pooling and efficiently allocating their goal-relevant resources
across the many goals that both partners possess (Fitzsimons et al. 2015). When things go well,
partners not only achieve better goal-related outcomes on a daily basis but also move toward their
ideal selves across time (Rusbult et al. 2009).

Close others also play a major role in existential outcomes. Perhaps the most remarkable
evidence of this is that both marital status (married versus single) and marital quality (higher
versus lower) predict lower morbidity and mortality rates (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2010, Robles et al.

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Standards. People bring certain standards to their relationships and tend to experience greater relationship
wellbeing when their relationships exceed these standards.

A third tendency that people bring to relationships is their personal standards, a construct that
assumes a prominent role in many relationship theories. Thibaut & Kelley (1959) express this
idea in their concept of comparison level (CL), which refers to individuals’ overall assessments of
the outcomes they believe they deserve in a particular relationship. According to interdependence
theory (Kelley & Thibaut 1978, Thibaut & Kelley 1959) and its offshoots (Rusbult 1983), people
are more satisfied with a relationship when the outcomes (rewards minus costs) it provides exceed
their CL.

Many domain-specific relationship theories also focus on standards or on similar concepts, such
as expectations, ideals, or preferences. For example, the triangular theory of love posits that greater
relationship quality is indexed by smaller discrepancies between an individual’s ideal level of each
component of love (intimacy, passion, commitment) and the actual amount of love that he or
she experiences in each component (Sternberg 1986). The ideal standards model (Simpson et al.
2001) claims that individuals should experience higher relationship quality when they perceive
greater alignment between their ideals for particular traits in a romantic partner (warmth/loyalty,
vitality/attractiveness, and status/resources) and their partner’s actual traits. The suffocation model
(Finkel et al. 2014a,b) suggests that people have varied historically in the degree to which they
expect their spouses to fulfill needs that are low (e.g., safety) versus high (e.g., self-actualization)
in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; the extent to which their relationships meet these expectations is
theorized to predict marital quality more strongly for higher-level than lower-level needs.

High standards bode poorly for relationship wellbeing when they are unattainable (McNulty
2016a,b); people tend to be less happy when their actual partners and relationships do not fulfill
their lofty standards. Conversely, high standards bode well for relationship wellbeing when such
standards motivate individuals to engage in behaviors that improve relationship outcomes, such
as when molding a less-than-ideal partner into an ideal one (Murray et al. 1996). Although high
standards often motivate prorelationship cognitions and behaviors in people who have strong
relationship skills, they also produce disappointment in those with poor relationship skills
(McNulty & Karney 2004).

People sometimes deviate from strict veridicality when comparing their standards with reality.
For example, people who are in a relationship characterized by aggression but nonetheless remain
committed to the relationship adopt more tolerant standards for partner aggression (Arriaga et al.
2016). In addition, an individual’s ideal partner preferences change over time to match the desirable
qualities possessed by his or her current partner (Fletcher et al. 2000a,b; Neff & Karney 2003).
People also have difficulty comparing, on a trait-by-trait basis, the concrete features of a flesh-
and-blood partner with their abstract standards. Consequently, the match between ideals and a
partner’s traits is typically irrelevant to relationship outcomes if ideals are measured on single traits
(e.g., attractiveness) isolated from the partner’s complete suite of traits (Eastwick et al. 2014a,b).

Set 4: How Does the Context Affect Relationships?

Consistent with classic person × situation models (e.g., Lewin 1936), the close relationships liter-
ature complements its analysis of the tendencies that people bring to their relationships with an
analysis of the situational and contextual factors that influence relationship processes and outcomes
(McNulty 2016a,b). Set 4 includes four core principles, which range from the micro to the macro
level of analysis. These principles address how and why partners navigate situations in which their
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alternatives principle), how stressors affect relationship dynamics (the stress principle), and how
the broader social network and culture influence relationship dynamics (the culture principle).

Diagnosticity. Situations vary in the extent to which they afford opportunities to evaluate a partner’s
true goals and motives regarding the relationship.

Some situations provide better opportunities than others for revealing a partner’s relationship-
relevant goals and motives. For example, an individual’s behavior in noncorrespondent situations
such as strain tests—in which a good outcome for one partner produces a bad outcome for the other
partner—can reveal his or her relationship goals, motives, and orientations more clearly than does
his or her behavior in correspondent situations (Holmes 1981, 2002; Kelley & Thibaut 1978). If
John agrees to quit his dream job and leave his friends and family so Alice can pursue her dream job
in a faraway city, his willingness to make these sacrifices reveals how much he cares about her and is
committed to their relationship. Alice’s ability to make relatively unambiguous attributions about
John’s motives would have been diminished if the situation were more correspondent, as would
be the case if he disliked his current job and did not have close social ties where they were living.
Because highly noncorrespondent situations allow individuals to demonstrate their willingness to
make significant sacrifices for their partner and relationship, such prorelationship behavior from
one partner tends to promote the other partner’s trust (Shallcross & Simpson 2012, Wieselquist
et al. 1999), among other relationship benefits (Simpson 2007).

Diagnostic situations are central to several theories in relationship science. According to inter-
dependence theory (Holmes 1981, 2002; Rusbult & Van Lange 2003), when relationship partners
find themselves in noncorrespondent situations such as strain tests, the partner being asked to
make a sacrifice must try to set aside his or her personal desires and transform his or her moti-
vation to do what is best for the partner and relationship. He or she must then coordinate plans
and actions with his or her partner to help achieve the partner’s important goals. This explains
why strain tests in particular are such powerfully diagnostic situations: They leave little attribu-
tional ambiguity regarding the extent and nature of the sacrificing partner’s transformation of
motivation. But if partners fail strain tests because they do not engage in prorelationship trans-
formation of motivation, relationships run the risk of becoming unstable (Rusbult et al. 2001).

Diagnosticity is also a key element of both the risk regulation model (Murray et al. 2006) and
the mutual responsiveness model (Murray & Holmes 2009). Individuals are typically motivated
to connect emotionally with their partners while protecting the self from excessive vulnerability.
Compared to correspondent situations, noncorrespondent situations highlight the fundamental
conflict between (a) seeking connection and allowing the self to be vulnerable and (b) protecting
the self and avoiding potential rejection. This is a basic conflict that both partners must struggle
to resolve because relationships cannot fully develop unless the two of them are willing to take
leaps of faith (Murray et al. 2006) and reciprocally disclose intimate information (Reis & Shaver
1988), actions that make them vulnerable to possible exploitation (Cavallo et al. 2009).

Alternatives. The presence of attractive alternatives to a current relationship—including the option of
not being in a relationship at all—threatens relationship quality and persistence.

The existence and extent of options that make it desirable for an individual to leave an existing
relationship play a vital role in interdependence theory (Kelley & Thibaut 1978, Thibaut & Kelley
1959) and the investment model (Rusbult 1983). Specifically, the comparison level for alternatives
(CLAlt) concept reflects the outcomes that individuals would experience in their best alternative to
being in the current relationship, including being single. Interdependence theorists hypothesize
that relationship stability is more closely aligned with CLAlt (the extent to which a person can

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achieve better outcomes in another relationship) than with CL (the extent to which a person’s
current relationship outcomes exceed his or her standards). That is, CLAlt determines the extent
to which a person is dependent on his or her partner to achieve his or her needs, goals, and other
desirable outcomes.

Most CLAlt studies have emphasized individuals’ subjective (rather than objective) perceptions
of the degree to which current alternatives are appealing. Research has shown, for example, that
the better people perceive their alternatives to be, the more likely their relationships are to dissolve
(Le et al. 2010). Research has also tested this association using experimental manipulations: When
participants are randomly assigned to believe that their own sex is in the numerical minority (versus
majority), they report lower relationship quality with their current partners, presumably because
the abundance of opposite-sex people suggests that better options may be available (Kim 2013).

Most relationship models characterize desirable alternatives as threats that individuals should
be motivated to ignore, downplay, or derogate to mitigate negative effects on their relationships
(Durante et al. 2016, Lydon & Karremans 2015). This process is evident in controlled, conscious
responses to attractive alternatives, such as the explicit evaluation of the desirability of opposite-sex
alternative partners ( Johnson & Rusbult 1989, Simpson et al. 1990). However, it is also evident
in automatic, spontaneous responses, such as the amount of time individuals spend looking at
attractive alternatives (Maner et al. 2009, Miller 1997) or displaying affiliative nonverbal behaviors
in response to them (Karremans & Verwijmeren 2008).

Some theoretical analyses linked to these findings adopt an evolutionary perspective. Pair-
bonds most likely evolved in humans because such relationships offer adaptive benefits for offspring
(Eastwick 2009). However, it takes considerable time and energy to cultivate a strong pair-bond,
which suggests that the derogation process may be an evolved adaptation that motivates commit-
ted romantic partners to train their attention on each other to preserve the existing pair-bonded
relationship (Maner et al. 2008). The process of derogating desirable alternatives is also consis-
tent with cognitive dissonance perspectives: Once people have made a difficult-to-reverse choice
(e.g., committing to a partner), they become motivated to perceive nonchosen alternatives as less
desirable (Brehm 1956).

However, in some cases, people can sustain committed relationships while also pursuing sexual,
even loving, relationships with other partners, as in the case of polyamory, a relationship structure
in which individuals have “consensual loving and romantic relationships with more than one
partner” (Conley et al. 2012, p. 126). In fact, polyamorous relationships may be stable precisely
because people do not construe their additional sexual partners as true alternatives that would
replace a current partner.

Stress. High demands external to the relationship predict worse relationship outcomes, especially if the
demands exceed the two partners’ (individual or combined) resources for coping.

Beyond the immediate situation and romantic alternatives, external factors, especially stressors,
can also affect relationship functioning. It is difficult to sustain a high-quality relationship when
confronting acute or chronic stress external to the relationship (Karney & Bradbury 1995). A
broad spectrum of stressors—including job loss, financial strain, incarceration, chronic illness,
infertility, and natural disasters—predicts myriad adverse relationship outcomes, including low
satisfaction and breakup (Karney & Neff 2015, Randall & Bodenmann 2009).

Research has shown that some couples manage stress better than others. One major factor
in explaining this variation is the level of coping-relevant resources (Hill 1949, McCubbin &
Patterson 1983). According to stress buffering perspectives (Cohen & Wills 1985), the adverse
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sufficient money or when one or both partners feel psychologically depleted due to work-related
stress. However, among couples who have good problem-solving skills, navigating moderate levels
of stress early on strengthens the relationship over time, as long as they responded to those stressors
effectively (Neff & Broady 2011).

The most influential framework for conceptualizing the impact of stress on relationship func-
tioning is Karney & Bradbury’s (1995) vulnerability-stress-adaptation model, which emphasizes
the role of interpersonal processes in mediating the effects of stress and resources on relationship
outcomes. According to this model, stress exerts its adverse influence on relationship processes
and outcomes via two routes (Karney & Neff 2015). First, stress alters how much time partners
have for each other and how they use that time. Partners who encounter high levels of stress
have less time to engage in tasks that might increase emotional or physical intimacy, and they use
more of their winnowed time dealing with stressful, challenging situations (Neff & Karney 2009).
Second, stress depletes the self-regulatory resources that partners need to respond constructively
to relationship challenges (Repetti 1989). Partners whose self-regulatory resources have been de-
pleted are especially prone to retaliation in response to provocation (Finkel et al. 2009), and the
subjective experience of self-regulatory depletion mediates the association of stress with both neg-
ative marital behaviors and diminished marital satisfaction (Buck & Neff 2012). These effects are
particularly strong when individuals are tempted to lash out at their partners but are smaller or
nonexistent in the absence of such temptation (Finkel et al. 2012).

Culture. Relationships are embedded in social networks and a cultural milieu—including norms, practices,
and traditions—that shape the nature and trajectory of those relationships.

As we broaden the contextual lens to consider cultural and subcultural effects on relationships,
we turn to social ecological models, which posit that environmental contexts have nested layers
(e.g., Bronfenbrenner 1986). More specifically, individuals live within social networks of friends
and family whose approval or disapproval of a given relationship might affect its trajectory. These
social networks are themselves embedded in cultural contexts consisting of norms, values, and
scripts, and relationships are also shaped by these socially shared constructs. Finally, cultures are
embedded in national and historical contexts that can cause relationships to differ across time and

At the level of the social network, approval from friends and family members predicts greater
relationship satisfaction and stability (Felmlee 2001). In some cases, friends and family members
may engage in specific behaviors that help a relationship flourish or flounder; in other cases, simply
hearing a loved one’s positive reaction about one’s current partner can reduce uncertainty and
increase the likelihood of investing more in the relationship (Sprecher 2011).

People also share knowledge about sexual scripts and norms within the local culture, which sub-
sequently guide behavior (Simon & Gagnon 2003). Fraternity membership, for example, predicts
the extent to which sexual activity is part of the script that undergraduates use when describing
a typical date (Bartoli & Clark 2006), and norms about appropriate sexual behaviors vary as a
function of regional levels of education and religiosity (Laumann et al. 1994).

Finally, relationships can be influenced by the national and historical context. For example,
the degree to which individuals are willing to engage in casual sexual activity is linked to national
indicators such as the rate of infectious diseases and women’s economic power (Schaller & Murray
2008, Schmitt et al. 2005). People in the United States expect their marriage to help them fulfill
certain needs, but these needs have varied over time; Americans were especially likely to prioritize
needs like safety and food production circa 1800, needs like intimacy and sexual fulfillment circa
1900, and needs like self-discovery and self-expression circa 2000 (Finkel et al. 2014a). The rise of

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the postindustrial economy in Western cultures during the second half of the twentieth century
facilitated a “grand gender convergence” (although certainly not an equalization) in men’s and
women’s social roles (Goldin 2014), which profoundly influenced relationship dynamics, especially
in marriages (Finkel et al. 2014a).

Evolutionary models of culture connect these different context levels to specific psychological
processes. Transmitted cultural models, for instance, explore how and why people share beliefs,
practices, and knowledge, usually emphasizing the processes of adopting, changing, and improving
these products of shared culture (Richerson & Boyd 2005). As an example, college administrators
frequently hold workshops that increase students’ sensitivity to issues surrounding sexual consent
and that change how the students engage in sexual behavior. Evoked cultural models posit that
encountering a particular environmental cue that was prevalent in our ancestral past, such as the
presence versus absence of a responsive caregiver (Simpson & Belsky 2016), triggers adaptive
cognitive and behavioral responses. For example, environments containing more pathogens may
trigger preferences for romantic partners who carry genes associated with better health (Gangestad
et al. 2006). These two forms of culture may influence psychological functioning in tandem or
independently (Eastwick 2013).


Scholars can use these 14 core principles from the psychological literature on relationships (see
Figure 1 and Table 1) to clarify and refine existing theories and perhaps generate new ones.
Using the metaphoric terminology of the culinary approach, the cook (the theorist) can canvas
the pantry (the collection of principles) for particular ingredients (specific principles), prepare the
recipe (select and arrange the ingredients), and then cook the dish (develop the theory).

Refining Existing Theories

To refine an existing theory, theorists might first map each of the 14 principles onto a theory,
retaining the principles that overlap or fit with this theory and setting aside those that do not.
Theorists can then determine whether the addition of one or more of the extra principles—those
that were not part of the original theory—might broaden the explanatory power of the theory
enough to offset the additional complexity that comes with including more principles.

We illustrate this process using transactive goal dynamics theory (Finkel et al. 2016, Fitzsi-
mons et al. 2015). We focus on this theory because we are familiar with it and because it was
developed within the past few years, which means that there are few published articulations of the
core principles. Transactive goal dynamics theory contains elements of integration (Principle 2),
evaluation (Principle 4), responsiveness (Principle 5), predisposition (Principle 8), instrumentality
(Principle 9), and alternatives (Principle 12). Specifically, it proposes that: (a) relationship part-
ners form a shared system of goal pursuits (integration), (b) subjective assessments of relationship
commitment predict increased merging (evaluation), (c) goal success is maximized when partners
support each other in ways tailored to each partner’s idiosyncratic goals and needs (responsive-
ness), (d ) each partner has certain skills and preferences that can be leveraged for optimal goal
functioning at the dyadic level (predisposition), (e) partners influence each other’s degree of goal
success (instrumentality), and ( f ) the relationship is more likely to continue if it results in goal
success that exceeds what the two partners would otherwise experience (alternatives). In short,
we can formulate much of the content of transactive goal dynamics theory with just these six
ingredients. • Relationship Science 401



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As with most theories, transactive goal dynamics theory also contains important elements that
do not rise to the level of a core principle. For example, one tenet of the theory is that stronger
goal interdependence in a relationship should predict poorer goal-related recovery following a
breakup. Such idiosyncratic elements are crucial in defining the unique terrain that a given theory
seeks to address.

Transactive goal dynamics theory, however, leaves eight core principles unused. Thus, a scholar
seeking to refine or expand the theory might consider whether adding any additional principles
might benefit or improve the theory enough to offset the complexity of doing so, or whether
incorporating additional principles might generate novel hypotheses. For example, transactive
goal dynamics theory is not a theory of goal content; it primarily takes the two partners’ goals
as a given rather than investigating how or why they adopted these particular goals. By adding
the perspective of culture (Principle 14), a theorist might wonder whether the goal contents that
people bring to their relationships—for example, the desired level or type of interdependence
in the relationship—differ in important ways across cultural or historical contexts and whether
such variation has implications for relationship quality and longevity. This analysis might lead to
the novel hypothesis that emotional responsiveness is more important for such outcomes in the
twenty-first century United States than in Jane Austen’s England (Light & Fitzsimons 2014).

Generating New Theories

Other scholars might want to use the principles not to refine or expand an existing theory but
to guide theory development in a bottom-up manner. Although this process can begin in various
ways (e.g., one might start with observations about relationship dynamics in the surrounding
world), it is likely to entail a systematic consideration of whether each of the principles can inform
thinking, which would lead to the generation of new insights and hypotheses. For example, a
scholar might wish to develop a new theoretical perspective on the circumstances under which
sexual intercourse draws partners closer together versus pushes them apart. Merely looking at the
list of core principles will not yield a new theoretical perspective, but it might be a productive
first step. A scholar can consider whether each principle is likely to yield a deeper, better, or
more nuanced understanding of a topic and can then explore how the most relevant principles
interrelate in theoretically interesting ways. To facilitate this process, he or she might generate
a path diagram that specifies precisely how the variables should interrelate, including processes
such as mediation, moderation, and feedback loops. Because the principles are cast at a relatively
high level of abstraction, they can be exported readily to different research domains. For example,
the researcher might find it easier to apply two or three principles—rather than an entire theory
of relationships—to an existing evolutionary perspective on how sex affects relationship partners.


What has this exercise taught us? Among other things, we have learned that there are few instances
in which a notable principle used in one theory clearly conflicts with a notable principle used in
another.4 Many relationship scientists recall interdependence theorists whispering the objection

4 One reason for this cohesion may be the abstract nature of the 14 principles. When different theories operationalize, test, and
combine constructs associated with specific principles in novel ways, they may generate different or competing predictions. For
example, although scholars agree that the principle of standards (Principle 10) matters, there is debate about the circumstances
under which standards influence relationship outcomes (Eastwick et al. 2014a,b; Schmitt 2014). There could also be conflict

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that attachment theory is too focused on individual differences. However, as attachment theory
complemented research on individual differences with research on normative attachment processes
(Mikulincer & Shaver 2007), the whispers dissipated. Many currently prominent relationship
models derive specific hypotheses on the basis of ideas borrowed from different theories. When
developing the risk regulation model, for example, Murray and colleagues (2006) extracted several
key features of interdependence theory and attachment theory, combined them in novel ways,
and added new theoretical components to generate an important process model that tied together
several major ideas in the field.

In many ways, such strong theoretical cohesion is marvelous. Although relationship scientists
have many theories and models that address distinct relationship processes, we appear to have
something approximating a consensual theoretical paradigm. This paradigm, which encompasses
the 14 principles reviewed above, is compelling and generative. Recent edited volumes (e.g.,
Simpson & Campbell 2013) and journal special issues (e.g., Finkel & Simpson 2015) indicate that
relationship science is thriving.

However, there are also downsides to having such a cohesive discipline. Science often benefits
from competition between conflicting ideas. Although it is pleasant to work in an environment
characterized by consensus, it sometimes takes friction to generate forward motion. We believe
that the current theoretical paradigms in relationship science are excellent, but the field might
benefit from some theoretical conflicts—alternative accounts that might sharpen and hone one
another. For example, our field could explore whether the dominant view that people are best
served by being in a secure relationship with a romantic partner is misguided, at least under
some circumstances, such as when close friends provide a better option (DePaulo & Morris
2005). We could also reexamine the widespread, albeit implicit, assumption that relationship
stability is a good outcome (with abusive relationships being one exception) and breakups are a
bad outcome. Perhaps we could challenge this dominant view by examining the circumstances
under which people are best served by leaving their relationship or seeking to trade up for a
partner who is more compatible. Revisiting broad questions and assumptions such as these ac-
centuates the fact that many relationship scientists have focused quite heavily on the life cycle of
one relationship rather than the multiple relationships that many people develop throughout their

Evolutionary psychology, for example, potentially poses some serious challenges to certain
theories and models in relationship science, particularly in the realm of mate selection. The evo-
lutionary psychology of human mating adopts foundational assumptions that differ from many
of those in relationship science (Durante et al. 2016, Eastwick 2016). In particular, evolution-
ary perspectives highlight not only the adaptive value of strong pair-bonds but also the potential
adaptive value of behaviors such as sexual infidelity, trading up, and stalking (Buss & Shackelford
1997). If a scholar extracted the core principles in the evolutionary psychological literature on
mating, one of these principles might be that people evolved to seek opportunistic copulations
outside of long-term, committed relationships. The hypotheses that follow from this principle
seem to fundamentally conflict with hypotheses that follow from the maintenance principle dis-
cussed above (Durante et al. 2016). If ancestral humans enjoyed a survival advantage from such
relationship-destructive behaviors, how can relationship scientists reconcile this with the field’s
strong emphasis on the benefits—including the survival benefits—of exclusive romantic relation-
ships (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2010, Robles et al. 2014)? And if humans are best served by having

at the level of abstraction of the 14 principles, but our extensive literature review unearthed minimal evidence of any such
conflict within relationship science. • Relationship Science 403



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accurate insights about their partner’s romantic attraction to others so that they can guard against
mate poaching, why do they shield themselves from the truth precisely in those circumstances
when the threat of one’s partner’s extrarelationship temptation is strongest ( Johnson & Rusbult
1989, Simpson et al. 1995)?

By posing these and other questions, evolutionary psychology directly challenges some of
the foundational assumptions and principles in relationship science. If those assumptions and
principles withstand the challenge, the current relationship science paradigm will be solidi-
fied. If they do not, it will need to be altered. Regardless of the outcome, our discipline will


Relationship science has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. It has become a rich
discipline characterized by strong theories and highly generative research paradigms. According to
our analysis, the field has 14 core principles that address what a relationship is, how relationships
operate, what tendencies people bring to their relationships, and how contextual factors affect
relationship processes and outcomes. At present, the major theories in our field largely align and
rarely conflict.

As we look to the future, it will be interesting to see whether various theories gradually merge
into a single, unified theory of relationships or whether some major disagreements will enter
mainstream relationship science. As the field continues to mature, it is likely to benefit from
simultaneous trends toward greater theoretical unification on the one hand and greater theoretical
disagreement on the other. Such trends should refine, deepen, and extend our understanding of
how and why relationships function as they do in daily life, potentially providing clinicians and
policymakers with more effective tools for helping people achieve deeper and more fulfilling


1. This review presents the first attempt to discern the core principles that cut across the
major theories in relationship science, especially the theories within psychology.

2. This review of the major theories used a novel procedure called the culinary approach,
which seeks to extract the core principles (the basic theoretical building blocks or ingre-
dients) from a given discipline and address how theorists can use them to refine existing
theories or develop new theories.

3. Applying the extraction process to relationship science revealed 14 core principles, which
help to answer four basic questions in the literature: (a) What is a relationship? (b) How
do relationships operate? (c) What tendencies do people bring to their relationships?
(d ) How does the context affect relationships?

4. The literature review revealed a cohesive discipline with few notable conflicts among the
core theoretical principles.

5. We suggest that relationship science would benefit from both (a) greater recognition of
the principle-level overlap or redundancy across theories and (b) greater effort to adopt
novel perspectives on relationship dynamics, ideally perspectives that raise important
challenges to the dominant paradigm.

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The authors are not aware of any affiliations, memberships, funding, or financial holdings that
might be perceived as affecting the objectivity of this review.


The authors, who contributed equally to this review, thank Galen Bodenhausen, Jim McNulty,
and Nickola Overall for their insightful feedback on a previous draft, as well as the 16 leading
relationship scientists who provided constructive feedback on an early outline of this paper.


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Annual Review of

Volume 68, 2017

Eavesdropping on Memory

Elizabeth F. Loftus � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 1

Memory: Organization and Control
Howard Eichenbaum � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � �19

Neural Mechanisms of Selective Visual Attention
Tirin Moore and Marc Zirnsak � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � �47

Learning, Reward, and Decision Making
John P. O’Doherty, Jeffrey Cockburn, and Wolfgang M. Pauli � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � �73

Reinforcement Learning and Episodic Memory in Humans and Animals:
An Integrative Framework
Samuel J. Gershman and Nathaniel D. Daw � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 101

Social Learning and Culture in Child and Chimpanzee
Andrew Whiten � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 129

Survival of the Friendliest: Homo sapiens Evolved via Selection for
Brian Hare � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 155

Numerical Development
Robert S. Siegler and David W. Braithwaite � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 187

Gene × Environment Interactions: From Molecular Mechanisms to
Thorhildur Halldorsdottir and Elisabeth B. Binder � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 215

The Structure of Social Cognition: In(ter)dependence of Sociocognitive
Francesca Happé, Jennifer L. Cook, and Geoffrey Bird � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 243

Toward a Social Psychophysics of Face Communication
Rachael E. Jack and Philippe G. Schyns � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 269

Social Motivation: Costs and Benefits of Selfishness and Otherishness
Jennifer Crocker, Amy Canevello, and Ashley A. Brown � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 299

Attitude Strength
Lauren C. Howe and Jon A. Krosnick � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 327

How Power Affects People: Activating, Wanting, and Goal Seeking
Ana Guinote � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 353




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PS68-FrontMatter ARI 7 November 2016 13:25

The Psychology of Close Relationships: Fourteen Core Principles
Eli J. Finkel, Jeffry A. Simpson, and Paul W. Eastwick � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 383

Moving Beyond Correlations in Assessing the Consequences of Poverty
Greg J. Duncan, Katherine Magnuson, and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 413

Culture Three Ways: Culture and Subcultures Within Countries
Daphna Oyserman � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 435

Learning from Errors
Janet Metcalfe � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 465

Mindfulness Interventions
J. David Creswell � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 491

Hidden Wounds? Inflammatory Links Between Childhood Trauma and
Andrea Danese and Jessie R. Baldwin � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 517

Adjusting to Chronic Health Conditions
Vicki S. Helgeson and Melissa Zajdel � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 545

Health Behavior Change: Moving from Observation to Intervention
Paschal Sheeran, William M.P. Klein, and Alexander J. Rothman � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 573

Experiments with More than One Random Factor: Designs, Analytic
Models, and Statistical Power
Charles M. Judd, Jacob Westfall, and David A. Kenny � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 601

Interactions with Robots: The Truths We Reveal About Ourselves
Elizabeth Broadbent � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 627


Cumulative Index of Contributing Authors, Volumes 58–68 � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 653

Cumulative Index of Article Titles, Volumes 58–68 � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � � 658


An online log of corrections to Annual Review of Psychology articles may be found at

Contents vii



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  • Annual Reviews Online
  • Search Annual Reviews
  • Annual Review of Psychology
    • Most Downloaded Psychology Reviews
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    • Annual Review of Psychology Errata
    • View Current Editorial Committee
  • All Articles in the Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 68
    • Eavesdropping on Memory
    • Memory: Organization and Control
    • Neural Mechanisms of Selective Visual Attention
    • Learning, Reward, and Decision Making
    • Reinforcement Learning and Episodic Memory in Humans and Animals:
      An Integrative Framework
    • Social Learning and Culture in Child and Chimpanzee
    • Survival of the Friendliest: Homo sapiens Evolved via Selection for
    • Numerical Development
    • Gene × Environment Interactions: From Molecular Mechanisms to
    • The Structure of Social Cognition: In(ter)dependence of Sociocognitive
    • Toward a Social Psychophysics of Face Communication
    • Social Motivation: Costs and Benefits of Selfishness and Otherishness
    • Attitude Strength
    • How Power Affects People: Activating,
      Wanting, and Goal Seeking
    • The Psychology of Close Relationships: Fourteen Core Principles
    • Moving Beyond Correlations in Assessing the Consequences of Poverty
    • Culture Three Ways: Culture and Subcultures Within Countries
    • Learning from Errors
    • Mindfulness Interventions
    • Hidden
      Wounds? Inflammatory Links Between Childhood Trauma and Psychopathology
    • Adjusting to Chronic Health Conditions
    • Health Behavior Change: Moving from Observation to Intervention
    • Experiments with More than One Random Factor: Designs, Analytic
      Models, and Statistical Power
    • Interactions with Robots: The Truths
      We Reveal About Ourselves

Psychological Bulletin
1995, Vol. 117, No. 3, 497-529

Copyright 1995 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.

The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a
Fundamental Human Motivation

Roy F. Baumeister
Case Western Reserve University

Mark R. Leary
Wake Forest University

A hypothesized need to form and maintain strong, stable interpersonal relationships is evaluated in
light of the empirical literature. The need is for frequent, nonaversive interactions within an ongoing
relational bond. Consistent with the belongingness hypothesis, people form social attachments
readily under most conditions and resist the dissolution of existing bonds. Belongingness appears to
have multiple and strong effects on emotional patterns and on cognitive processes. Lack of attach-
ments is linked to a variety of ill effects on health, adjustment, and well-being. Other evidence, such
as that concerning satiation, substitution, and behavioral consequences, is likewise consistent with
the hypothesized motivation. Several seeming counterexamples turned out not to disconfirm the
hypothesis. Existing evidence supports the hypothesis that the need to belong is a powerful, funda-
mental, and extremely pervasive motivation.

The purpose of this review is to develop and evaluate the hy-
pothesis that a need to belong is a fundamental human motiva-
tion and to propose that the need to belong can provide a point
of departure for understanding and integrating a great deal of
the existing literature regarding human interpersonal behavior.
More precisely, the belongingness hypothesis is that human be-
ings have a pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a min-
imum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal
relationships. Satisfying this drive involves two criteria: First,
there is a need for frequent, affectively pleasant interactions
with a few other people, and, second, these interactions must
take place in the context of a temporally stable and enduring
framework of affective concern for each other’s welfare. Interac-
tions with a constantly changing sequence of partners will be
less satisfactory than repeated interactions with the same
person (s), and relatedness without frequent contact will also be
unsatisfactory. A lack of belongingness should constitute severe
deprivation and cause a variety of ill effects. Furthermore, a
great deal of human behavior, emotion, and thought is caused
by this fundamental interpersonal motive.

The hypothesis that people are motivated to form and maintain
interpersonal bonds is not new, of course. John Donne (1975) has
been widely quoted for the line “No [person] is an island.” In psy-
chology, the need for interpersonal contact was asserted in several
ways by Freud (e.g., 1930), although he tended to see the motive
as derived from the sex drive and from the filial bond. Maslow

Roy F. Baumeister, Department of Psychology, Case Western Reserve
University; Mark R. Leary, Department of Psychology, Wake Forest

We thank Bob Hogan, Ned Jones, Richard Moreland, Dave Myers,
Len Newman, Paula Pietromonaco, Harry Reis, Dan Wegner, and Di-
anne Tice for comments on preliminary drafts.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Roy
F. Baumeister, Department of Psychology, Case Western Reserve Uni-
versity, 10900 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44106-7123. Electronic
mail may be sent via Internet to [email protected]

(1968) ranked “love and belongingness needs” in the middle of his
motivational hierarchy; that is, belongingness needs do not emerge
until food, hunger, safety, and other basic needs are satisfied, but
they take precedence over esteem and self-actualization. Bowlby’s
(e.g., 1969,1973) attachment theory also posited the need to form
and maintain relationships. His early thinking followed the Freud-
ian pattern of deriving attachment needs from the relationship to
one’s mother; he regarded the adult’s need for attachment as an
effort to recapture the intimate contact that the individual had, as
an infant, with his or her mother.1 Horney (1945), Sullivan
(1953), Fromm (1955, 1956), de Rivera(1984), Hogan (1983),
Epstein (1992), Ryan (1991), Guisinger and Blatt (1994), and
others have made similar suggestions. The existence of a need to
belong is thus a familiar point of theory and speculation, although
not all theorists have anticipated our particular formulation of this
need as the combination of frequent interaction plus persistent
caring. Moreover, most theorists have neglected to provide system-
atic empirical evaluation of this hypothesis. For example, Mas-
low’s (1968) influential assertion of a belongingness need was ac-
companied by neither original data nor review of previous find-
ings. Thus, despite frequent, speculative assertions that people
need to belong, the belongingness hypothesis needs to be critically
evaluated in light of empirical evidence. A main goal of the present
article is to assemble a large body of empirical findings pertinent
to the belongingness hypothesis to evaluate how well the hypothe-
sis fits the data.

Another goal of this article is to demonstrate the broad appli-
cability of the need to belong for understanding human motiva-
tion and behavior. Even though many psychological theorists
have noted human affiliative tendencies in one form or another,
the field as a whole has neglected the broad applicability of this

1 His later thinking may, however, have moved beyond this view to
regard attachment needs as having a separate, even innate basis rather
than being derived from the contact with one’s mother; in this later
view, he treated the relationship to one’s mother as simply an influential
prototype of attachment.



need to a wide range of behaviors. Thus, for example, the mo-
tive literature has been dominated by research on the respective
needs for power, achievement, intimacy, approval, and, to a
lesser extent, affiliation. But the need for power may well be
driven by the need to belong, as we suggest later. Likewise, peo-
ple prefer achievements that are validated, recognized, and val-
ued by other people over solitary achievements, so there may
be a substantial interpersonal component behind the need for
achievement. And the needs for approval and intimacy are un-
doubtedly linked to the fact that approval is a prerequisite for
forming and maintaining social bonds, and intimacy is a denn-
ing characteristic of close relationships. The need to belong
could thus be linked to all of them.

Furthermore, even a quick glance at research on social be-
havior from the perspective of the belongingness hypothesis
raises the possibility that much of what human beings do is done
in the service of belongingness. Thus, the belongingness hypoth-
esis might have considerable value for personality and social
psychology and even for psychology as a whole. As a broad in-
tegrative hypothesis, it might help rectify what some observers
have criticized as fragmentation and atomization in the concep-
tual underpinnings of the field (see Vallacher & Nowak, 1994;
West, Newsom, & Fenaughty, 1992).

At the interdisciplinary level, the belongingness hypothesis
might help psychology recover from the challenge posed by cul-
tural materialism. Cultural materialism (e.g., Harris, 1974,
1978, 1979) is based on the assumption that human culture is
shaped primarily by economic needs and opportunities, and so
historical, anthropological, sociological, and other cultural pat-
terns should mainly be analyzed with reference to economic
causes. In that framework, psychology is reduced to a vastly
subordinate role; psychological phenomena are regarded
merely as symptoms or coping mechanisms that follow from
economic realities. In contrast, the belongingness hypothesis
would suggest that human culture is at least partly adapted to
enable people to satisfy the psychological need to live together
(along with economic needs, to be sure), thereby assigning
some fundamental causal power to psychological forces. We
suggest that belongingness can be almost as compelling a need
as food and that human culture is significantly conditioned by
the pressure to provide belongingness.

Modern personality and social psychologists have shown a
pervasive reluctance to entertain sweeping generalizations and
broad hypotheses. This reluctance may well be a response to
speculative excesses of earlier generations of theorists, who sup-
posedly rushed to formulate broad theories from intuition and
impression. Today there may be a sense that it is more appro-
priate to await the passing of a substantial interval, until con-
siderable empirical work has been done. We propose that such
an interval has passed, however, making it possible to begin con-
sidering broad hypotheses in light of the evidence accumulated
through the last three decades. That is what we undertake here.

Conceptual Background

Fundamental Motivations: Metatheory

Before proceeding with our examination of the need to be-
long, we must consider briefly the metatheoretical requirements

of our hypothesis. That is, what criteria must be satisfied to con-
clude that the need to belong, or any other drive, is a fundamen-
tal human motivation? We suggest the following. A fundamen-
tal motivation should (a) produce effects readily under all but
adverse conditions, (b) have affective consequences, (c) direct
cognitive processing, (d) lead to ill effects (such as on health or
adjustment) when thwarted, (e) elicit goal-oriented behavior
designed to satisfy it (subject to motivational patterns such as
object substitutability and satiation), (f) be universal in the
sense of applying to all people, (g) not be derivative of other
motives, ( h ) affect a broad variety of behaviors, and ( i ) have
implications that go beyond immediate psychological function-
ing. We consider each of these criteria in turn.

The first criterion is that a fundamental motivation should
operate in a wide variety of settings: any motive that requires
highly specific or supportive circumstances to produce effects
cannot properly be called fundamental. Certain circumstances
may retard or prevent its operation, but in general the more
widely it can produce effects, the stronger its claim to being a
fundamental motivation.

The second and third criteria refer to emotional and cognitive
patterns. Cognitive and emotional responses reflect subjective
importance and concern, and a motivation that fails to guide
emotion and cognition (at least sometimes) can hardly be con-
sidered an important one. In addition, most motivational and
drive systems involve hedonic consequences that alert the indi-
vidual to undesired state changes that motivate behavior to re-
store the desired state and whose removal serves as negative re-
inforcement for goal attainment.

The fourth criterion is that failure to satisfy a fundamental
motivation should produce ill effects that go beyond temporary
affective distress. A motivation can be considered to be funda-
mental only if health, adjustment, or well-being requires that it
be satisfied. Also, motivations can be sorted into wants and
needs, the difference being in the scope of ill effects that follow
from nonsatisfaction: Unsatisfied needs should lead to pathol-
ogy (medical, psychological, or behavioral), unlike unsatisfied
wants. Thus, if belongingness is a need rather than simply a
want, then people who lack belongingness should exhibit patho-
logical consequences beyond mere temporary distress.

Substitution and satiation are two familiar hallmarks of mo-
tivation. If the need to belong is a fundamental need, then be-
longing to one group should satisfy it and hence obviate or re-
duce the need to belong to another group. People may be driven
to form social bonds until they have a certain number, whereaf-
ter the drive to form attachments would presumably subside.
Furthermore, attachment partners should be to some degree in-
terchangeable. Of course, this does not mean that a 20-year
spouse or friend can be simply replaced with a new acquain-
tance. In the long run, however, a new spouse or friend should
do as well as the previous one.

The sixth and seventh criteria involve universality and non-
derivativeness. Any motivation that is limited to certain human
beings or certain circumstances, or any motivation that is de-
rived from another motive, cannot be regarded as fundamental.
Universality can be indicated by transcending cultural bound-
aries. Establishing that a motive is not derivative is not easy,
although path-analytic models can suggest derivative patterns.
Satisfying the first criterion may also help satisfy the seventh,


because if the motivation operates in a broad variety of situa-
tions without requiring particular, favorable circumstances,
then it may be presumed to be fundamental. Meanwhile, if the
evidence contradicts evolutionary patterns or fails to indicate
physiological mechanisms, then the hypothesis of universality
or innateness would lose credibility.

The eighth criterion is the ability to affect a wide and diverse
assortment of behaviors. The more behaviors that appear to be
influenced by a particular motive, the stronger its case for being
one of the fundamental motives. Lastly, we suggest that a fun-
damental motive should have implications that go beyond psy-
chological functioning. If a motivation is truly fundamental, it
should influence a broad range of human activity, and hence it
should be capable of offering viable and consistent inter-
pretations of patterns observed in historical, economic, or so-
ciological studies.

Falsification is only one relevant approach to evaluating a
broad hypothesis about belongingness being a fundamental mo-
tivation. The belongingness hypothesis could indeed be falsified
if it were shown, for example, that many people can live happy,
healthy lives in social isolation or that many people show no
cognitive or emotional responses to looming significant changes
in their belongingness status. In addition to such criteria, how-
ever, hypotheses about fundamental motivations must be evalu-
ated in terms of their capacity to interpret and explain a wide
range of phenomena. Part of the value of such a theory is its
capacity to provide an integrative framework, and this value is
a direct function of the quantity and importance of the behavior
patterns that it can explain in a consistent, intelligible fashion.
We therefore pay close attention to the potential range of im-
plications of the belongingness hypothesis, in addition to exam-
ining how many falsification tests the hypothesis has managed
to survive.

The Need to Belong: Theory

In view of the metatheoretical requirements listed in the pre-
vious section, we propose that a need to belong, that is, a need
to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of interper-
sonal relationships, is innately prepared (and hence nearly
universal) among human beings. Thus, unlike the Freudian
(1930) view that regarded sexuality and aggression as the major
driving psychological forces, and unlike the most ambitious be-
haviorist views that considered each newborn a tabula rasa, our
view depicts the human being as naturally driven toward estab-
lishing and sustaining belongingness. The need to belong should
therefore be found to some degree in all humans in all cultures,
although naturally one would expect there to be individual
differences in strength and intensity, as well as cultural and in-
dividual variations in how people express and satisfy the need.
But it should prove difficult or impossible for culture to eradi-
cate the need to belong (except perhaps for an occasional, seri-
ously warped individual).

The innate quality presumably has an evolutionary basis.
It seems clear that a desire to form and maintain social bonds
would have both survival and reproductive benefits (see Ains-
worth, 1989; Axelrod & Hamilton, 1981; Barash, 1977;
Bowlby, 1969; D. M. Buss, 1990, 1991; Hogan, Jones, &
Cheek, 1985; Moreland, 1987). Groups can share food, pro-

vide mates, and help care for offspring (including orphans).
Some survival tasks, such as hunting large animals or main-
taining defensive vigilance against predatory enemies, are
best accomplished by group cooperation. Children who de-
sired to stay together with adults (and who would resist being
left alone) would be more likely to survive until their repro-
ductive years than other children because they would be more
likely to receive care and food as well as protection. Cues that
connote possible harm, such as illness, danger, nightfall, and
disaster, seem to increase the need to be with others (see also
Rofe, 1984), which again underscores the protective value of
group membership. Adults who formed attachments would
be more likely to reproduce than those who failed to form
them, and long-term relationships would increase the
chances that the offspring would reach maturity and repro-
duce in turn (see also Shaver, Hazan, & Bradshaw, 1988).2

Competition for limited resources could also provide a pow-
erful stimulus to forming interpersonal connections. There are
several potential, although debatable, advantages to forming a
group under conditions of scarcity. For example, groups may
share resources and thus prevent any individual from starving
(although sharing deprives other group members of some of
their resources), and groups may appropriate resources from
nonmembers (although there is the problem of how to distrib-
ute them in the group). What appears less debatable is the se-
vere competitive disadvantage of the lone individual confront-
ing a group when both want the same resource. When other
people are in groups, it is vital to belong to a group oneself,
particularly a group of familiar, cooperative people who care
about one’s welfare. Thus, an inclination to form and sustain
social bonds would have important benefits of defending oneself
and protecting one’s resources against external threats.

The likely result of this evolutionary selection would be a set
of internal mechanisms that guide individual human beings
into social groups and lasting relationships. These mechanisms
would presumably include a tendency to orient toward other
members of the species, a tendency to experience affective dis-
tress when deprived of social contact or relationships, and a ten-
dency to feel pleasure or positive affect from social contact and
relatedness. These affective mechanisms would stimulate learn-
ing by making positive social contact reinforcing and social de-
privation punishing.

Our version of the belongingness hypothesis does not regard
the need as derived from a particular relationship or focused on
a particular individual. In this, it differs from the early, Freudian
version of Bowlby’s work, in which the relationship to the
mother was regarded as the cause of the desire for attachment.
Thus, Bowlby suggested that adult attachments to work organi-
zations, religious groups, or others are derived from the child’s
tie to mother and revolve around personal attachment to the
group leader or supervisor (Bowlby, 1969, p. 207). In contrast,

2 A possible sex difference could be suggested in the mode of express-
ing this need, however, in that men may be more oriented toward form-
ing relationships, whereas women may be more oriented toward main-
taining them. Men can reproduce many times by forming many brief
relationships, whereas women can reproduce only about once per year,
and so their most effective reproductive strategy would be to enable each
child to receive maximal care and protection (D. M. Buss, 1991).


we propose that the need to belong can, in principle, be directed
toward any other human being, and the loss of relationship with
one person can to some extent be replaced by any other. The
main obstacle to such substitution is that formation of new re-
lationships takes time, such as in the gradual accumulation of
intimacy and shared experience (see Sternberg, 1986, on the
time course of intimacy). Social contact with a long-term inti-
mate would therefore provide some satisfactions, including a
sense of belonging, that would not be available in interactions
with strangers or new acquaintances.

The belongingness hypothesis can be distinguished from a hy-
pothesized need for mere social contact in terms of whether in-
teractions with strangers or with people one dislikes or hates
would satisfy the need. It can be distinguished from a hypothe-
sized need for positive, pleasant social contact in terms of
whether nonhostile interactions with strangers would satisfy it.
The need to belong entails that relationships are desired, so in-
teractions with strangers would mainly be appealing as possible
first steps toward long-term contacts (including practicing so-
cial skills or learning about one’s capacity to attract partners),
and interactions with disliked people would not satisfy it.

Additional differences between the belongingness hypothesis
and attachment theory could be suggested, although it may be a
matter of interpretation whether these are merely differences of
emphasis or fundamental theoretical differences. In our under-
standing, the (very real) strengths of attachment theory are two-
fold. First, attachment theory has emphasized the task of elab-
orating individual differences in attachment style (e.g., Hazan
&Shaver, 1994a, 1994b; Shaver etal., 1988), whereas we focus
on the commonality of the overarching need to belong. Second,
attachment theory has emphasized certain emotional needs and
satisfactions implicit in certain kinds of relationships, whereas
we regard it as at least plausible that the need to belong could
be satisfied in other ways. For example, one might imagine a
young fellow without any family or intimate relationships who
is nonetheless satisfied by being heavily involved in an ideologi-
cally radical political movement. There are undoubtedly strong
emotional mechanisms associated with belongingness, as we
show later, but these could be understood as mediating mecha-
nisms rather than as essential properties.

Asa fundamental motivation, the need to belong should stim-
ulate goal-directed activity designed to satisfy it. People should
show tendencies to seek out interpersonal contacts and cultivate
possible relationships, at least until they have reached a mini-
mum level of social contact and relatedness. Meanwhile, social
bonds should form easily, readily, and without requiring highly
particular or conducive settings. (Indeed, if social attachments
form through shared unpleasant experiences, contrary to what
simple association models might predict, this would be espe-
cially compelling support for the belongingness hypothesis.)
Cognitive activity should reflect a pervasive concern with form-
ing and maintaining relationships. Emotional reactions should
follow directly from outcomes that pertain to the need to be-
long. More precisely, positive affect should follow from forming
and solidifying social bonds, and negative affect should ensue
when relationships are broken, threatened, or refused.

If belongingness is indeed a fundamental need, then aver-
sive reactions to a loss of belongingnsss should go beyond
negative affect to include some types of pathology. People

who are socially deprived should exhibit a variety of ill
effects, such as signs of maladjustment or stress, behavioral or
psychological pathology, and possibly health problems. They
should also show an increase in goal-directed activity aimed
at forming relationships.

In addition, the belongingness hypothesis entails that people
should strive to achieve a certain minimum quantity and qual-
ity of social contacts but that once this level is surpassed, the
motivation should diminish. The need is presumably for a cer-
tain minimum number of bonds and quantity of interaction.
The formation of further social attachments beyond that mini-
mal level should be subject to diminishing returns; that is, peo-
ple should experience less satisfaction on formation of such ex-
tra relationships, as well as less distress on terminating them.
Satiation patterns should be evident, such that people who are
well enmeshed in social relationships would be less inclined to
seek and form additional bonds than would people who are so-
cially deprived. Relationships should substitute for each other,
to some extent, as would be indicated by effective replacement
of lost relationship partners and by a capacity for social related-
ness in one sphere to overcome potential ill effects of social de-
privation in another sphere (e.g., if strong family ties compen-
sate for aloneness at work).

We propose that the need to belong has two main features.
First, people need frequent personal contacts or interactions
with the other person. Ideally, these interactions would be affec-
tively positive or pleasant, but it is mainly important that the
majority be free from conflict and negative affect.

Second, people need to perceive that there is an interpersonal
bond or relationship marked by stability, affective concern, and
continuation into the foreseeable future. This aspect provides a
relational context to one’s interactions with the other person,
and so the perception of the bond is essential for satisfying the
need to belong. When compared with essentially identical in-
teractions with other people with whom one is not connected, a
strictly behavioral record might reveal nothing special or re-
warding about these interactions. Yet an interaction with a per-
son in the context of an ongoing relationship is subjectively
different from and often more rewarding than an interaction
with a stranger or casual acquaintance. To satisfy the need to
belong, the person must believe that the other cares about his or
her welfare and likes (or loves) him or her.

Ideally this concern would be mutual, so that the person has
reciprocal feelings about the other. M. S. Clark and her col-
leagues (e.g., Clark, 1984; Clark & Mills, 1979; Clark, Mills, &
Corcoran, 1989; Clark, Mills, & Powell, 1986) have shown that
a framework of mutual concern produces a relationship quali-
tatively different from one based on self-interested social ex-
change. Still, it is plausible that mutuality is merely desirable
rather than essential. The decisive aspect may be the perception
that one is the recipient of the other’s lasting concern.

Viewed in this way, the need to belong is something other than
a need for mere affiliation. Frequent contacts with nonsup-
portive, indifferent others can go only so far in promoting one’s
general well-being and would do little to satisfy the need to be-
long. Conversely, relationships characterized by strong feelings
of attachment, intimacy, or commitment but lacking regular
contact will also fail to satisfy the need. Simply knowing that
a bond exists may be emotionally reassuring, yet it would not


provide full belongingness if one does not interact with the other
person. Thus, we view the need to belong as something more
than either a need for affiliation or a need for intimate

The notion that people need relationships characterized by
both regular contact and an ongoing bond has been anti-
cipated to some degree by Weiss (1973; see also Shaver &
Buhrmester, 1983), who suggested that feelings of loneliness
can be precipitated either by an insufficient amount of social
contact (social loneliness) or by a lack of meaningful, inti-
mate relatedness (emotional loneliness). Weiss’s distinction
has been criticized on conceptual and empirical grounds
(e.g., Paloutzian & Janigian, 1987; Perlman, 1987), and
efforts to operationalize and test the distinction have met with
mixed results (DiTommaso & Spinner, 1993; Saklofske &
Yackulic, 1989; Vaux, 1988). In our view, the difficulty with
this distinction arises from the assumption that people have a
need for mere social contact and a separate need for intimate
relationships. Rather, the need is for regular social contact
with those to whom one feels connected. From an evolution-
ary perspective, relationships characterized by both of these
features would have greater survival and reproductive value
than would relationships characterized by only one. Accord-
ingly, the need to belong should be marked by both aspects.

Review of Empirical Findings

We searched the empirical literature of social and personality
psychology for findings relevant to the belongingness hypothe-
sis. The following sections summarize the evidence we found
pertaining to the series of predictions about belongingness.

Forming Social Bonds

A first prediction of the belongingness hypothesis is that so-
cial bonds should form relatively easily, without requiring spe-
cially conducive circumstances. Such evidence not only would
attest to the presence and power of the need to belong but would
suggest that the need is not a derivative of other needs (insofar
as it is not limited to circumstances that meet other require-
ments or follow from other events).

There is abundant evidence that social bonds form easily. In-
deed, people in every society on earth belong to small primary
groups that involve face-to-face, personal interactions (Mann,
1980). The anthropologist Coon (1946) asserted that natural
groups are characteristic of all human beings. Societies differ in
the type, number, and permanence of the groups that people
join, but people of all cultures quite naturally form groups.

The classic Robbers Cave study conducted by Sherif, Harvey,
White, Hood, and Sherif (1961/1988) showed that when pre-
viously unacquainted boys were randomly assigned to newly
created groups, strong loyalty and group identification ties en-
sued rapidly. In fact, later in that study, the two strongly opposed
groups were recombined into a single group with cooperative
goals, and emotional and behavioral patterns quickly accom-
modated to the new group (although the prior antagonistic
identifications did hamper the process).

The tendency for laboratory or experimentally created
groups to quickly become cohesive has also been noted in the

minimal intergroup situation (Brewer, 1979). Tajfel and his
colleagues (Billig&Tajfel, 1973; Tajfel, 1970; Tajfel &Billig,
1974; Tajfel, Flament, Billig, & Bundy, 1971) showed that
assigning participants to categories on a seemingly arbitrary
basis was sufficient to cause them to allocate greater rewards
to in-group members than to out-group members. Indeed,
the original goal of Tajfel et al. ( 1 9 7 1 ) was not to study group
formation but to understand the causes of in-group favorit-
ism. To do this, they sought to set up an experimental group
that would be so trivial that no favoritism would be found,
intending then to add other variables progressively so as to
determine at what point favoritism would start. To their sur-
prise, however, in-group favoritism appeared at once, even in
the minimal and supposedly trivial situation (see also Turner,

This preferential treatment of in-group members does not
appear to be due to inferred self-interest or to issues of novelty
and uncertainty about the task (Brewer & Silver, 1978; Tajfel,
1970; Tajfel & Billig, 1974). Inferred similarity of self to in-
group members was a viable explanation for many of the early
findings, but Locksley, Ortiz, and Hepburn (1980) ruled this
out by showing that people show in-group favoritism even when
they have been assigned to groups by a random lottery. Thus,
patterns of in-group favoritism, such as sharing rewards and
categorizing others relative to the group, appeared quite readily,
even in the absence of experiences designed to bond people to
the group emotionally or materially.

Several other studies suggest how little it takes (other than
frequent contact) to create social attachments. Bowlby (1969)
noted that infants form attachments to caregivers very early in
life, long before babies are able to calculate benefits or even
speak. Festinger, Schachter, and Back (1950) found that mere
proximity was a potent factor in relationship formation; people
seemed to develop social bonds with each other simply because
they lived near each other. Nahemow and Lawton (1975) repli-
cated those findings and also showed that pairs of best friends
who differed by age or race were particularly likely to have lived
very close together, suggesting that extreme proximity may over-
come tendencies to bond with similar others. Wilder and
Thompson (1980) showed that people seem to form favorable
views toward whomever they spend time with, even if these oth-
ers are members of a previously disliked or stereotyped out-
group. In their study, intergroup biases decreased as contact
with members of the out-groups increased (and as in-group
contact decreased).

We noted that the formation of social attachments under ad-
verse circumstances would be especially compelling evidence
because it avoids the alternative explanations based on classical
conditioning (i.e., that positive associations breed attraction).
Latane, Eckman, and Joy (1966) found that participants who
experienced electric shock together tended to like each other
more than control participants who did not experience shock,
although the effect was significant only among firstborns. Ken-
rick and Johnson (1979) found that participants rated each
other more positively in the presence of aversive than nonaver-
sive noise. Elder and Clipp (1988) compared the persistence of
attachments among military veterans and found that the great-
est persistence occurred among groups that had undergone
heavy combat resulting in the deaths of some friends and com-


rades. Although it would be rash to suggest that all shared neg-
ative experiences increase attraction, it does appear that posi-
tive bonding will occur even under adverse circumstances.

The development of interpersonal attraction under fearful
circumstances has been explained in terms of both
misattribution (i.e., people may misinterpret their anxious
arousal as attraction to another person) and reinforcement
theory (i.e., when the presence of some other person reduces
one’s distress, a positive emotional response becomes associ-
ated with that person; Kenrick & Cialdini, 1977). The mis-
attribution explanation is largely irrelevant to the belong-
ingness hypothesis, but the reinforcement explanation is ger-
mane. Specifically, although others may reduce one’s distress
through various routes (such as distraction, humor, or
reassurance), evidence suggests strongly that the mere pres-
ence of other people can be comforting (Schachter, 1959).
Such effects may well be conditioned through years of experi-
ence with supportive others, but they also may indicate that
threatening events stimulate the need to belong.

The fact that people sometimes form attachments with for-
mer rivals or opponents is itself a meaningful indicator of a gen-
eral inclination to form bonds. Cognitive consistency pressures
and affective memories would militate against forming positive
social bonds with people who have been rivals or opponents.
Yet, as we have already noted, the Robbers Cave study (Sherif
et al., 1961 /1988) showed that people could join and work to-
gether with others who had been bitterly opposed very recently,
and Wilder and Thompson (1980) showed that social contact
could overcome established intergroup prejudices and stereo-
types. Orbell, van de Kragt, and Dawes (1988) likewise showed
that impulses toward forming positive attachments could over-
come oppositional patterns. In their study using the prisoner’s
dilemma game, having a discussion period led to decreased
competition and increased cooperation, as a result of either the
formation of a group identity that joined the potential rivals
together or explicit agreements to cooperate. Thus, belong-
ingness motivations appear to be able to overcome some antag-
onistic, competitive, or divisive tendencies.

Similar shifts have been suggested by M. S. Clark (1984,
1986; Clark, Mills, & Powell, 1986; Clark, Ouellette, Powell, &
Milberg, 1987), who showed that people move toward a com-
munal orientation when there is a chance to form a relation-
ship. When participants were confronted with a person who
seemingly would not be amenable to relationship formation
(i.e., because she was already married), they interacted with
her on the basis of norms of equitable exchange and individual-
ity; when they believed she would be a possible relationship
partner, however, they interacted with her on a communal basis
(i.e., mutuality and sharing, without respect to individual eq-
uity concerns).

Critical assessment. The remarkable ease with which social
bonds form has been shown with experimental methods and
confirmed by other methods. The main limitation would be
that people do not always form relationships with all available
or proximal others, which could mean that satiation processes
limit the number of relationships people seek and which also
indicates that other factors and processes affect the formation
of relationships. Some patterns (e.g., in-group favoritism in

minimal groups) have been well replicated with careful efforts
to rule out alternative explanations.

Conclusion. In brief, people seem widely and strongly in-
clined to form social relationships quite easily in the absence of
any special set of eliciting circumstances or ulterior motives.
Friendships and group allegiance seem to arise spontaneously
and readily, without needing evidence of material advantage or
inferred similarity. Not only do relationships emerge quite nat-
urally, but people invest a great deal of time and effort in foster-
ing supportive relationships with others. External threat seems
to increase the tendency to form strong bonds.

Not Breaking Bonds

The belongingness hypothesis predicts that people should
generally be at least as reluctant to break social bonds as they
are eager to form them in the first place. A variety of patterns
supports the view that people try to preserve relationships and
avoid ending them. In fact, Hazan and Shaver (1994a, p. 14)
recently concluded that the tendency for human beings to re-
spond with distress and protest to the end of a relationship is
nearly universal, even across different cultures and across the
age span.

Some relationships are limited in time by external factors,
and so these are logically the first place to look for evidence that
people show distress and resistance to breaking bonds. En-
counter groups and training groups, for example, are often con-
vened with the explicit understanding that the meetings will stop
at a certain point in the future. Even so, it is a familiar observa-
tion in the empirical literature (e.g., Egan, 1970; Lacoursiere,
1980; Lieberman, Yalom, & Miles, 1973) that the members of
such groups resist the notion that the group will dissolve. Even
though the group’s purpose may have been fulfilled, the partici-
pants want to hold on to the social bonds and relationships they
have formed with each other. They promise individually and
sometimes collectively to stay in touch with each other, they
plan for reunions, and they take other steps to ensure a continu-
ity of future contacts. In actuality, only a small minority of these
envisioned reunions or contacts take place, and so the wide-
spread exercise of making them can be regarded as a symptom
of resistance to the threatened dissolution (Lacoursiere, 1980,

Other relationships are limited in time by external transitions
such as graduating from college, moving to a different city, or
getting a new job. As such transitions approach, people com-
monly get together formally and informally and promise to re-
main in contact, to share meals or other social occasions to-
gether, to write and call each other, and to continue the relation-
ship in other ways. They also cry or show other signs of distress
over the impending separation (Bridges, 1980). These patterns
seem to occur even if the dissolving relationship (e.g., with
neighbors) had no important practical or instrumental func-
tion and there is no realistic likelihood of further contact.

More generally, many social institutions and behavior pat-
terns seem to serve a need to preserve at least the appearance of
social attachment in the absence of actual, continued interac-
tion. Reunions constitute an occasion for people to see former
acquaintances. The massive exchange of greeting cards during
the Christmas holiday season includes many cases in which the


card is the sole contact that two people have had during the
entire year, but people still resist dropping each other’s name
from the mailing list because to do so signifies a final dissolution
of the social bond. In fact, most people will send Christmas
cards to perfect strangers from whom they receive cards (Kunz
& Woolcott, 1976). People seem not to want to risk damaging
a relationship even if they do not know the identity of the other

Likewise, social rituals involving greetings and farewells serve
to assure others of the continuation of one’s relationships with
them. Many greetings, particularly those directed at family
members and close friends, seem designed to indicate that one’s
relationship has remained intact since the last contact, and fare-
wells often include some hint that the relationship will be main-
tained until the people see one another again (Goffman, 1971).
The importance of such rituals in the maintenance of belong-
ingness is reflected in the distress people sometimes experience
when they feel that another’s greeting is inadequately warm or
that the other’s farewell expresses insufficient concern about the
impending separation.

In many cases, people seem reluctant to dissolve even bad or
destructive relationships. The apparent unwillingness of many
women to leave abusive, battering spouses or boyfriends (Roy,
1977; Strube, 1988) has prompted several generations of spec-
ulative explanations, ranging from masochistic or self-destruc-
tive liking for abuse to calculations of economic self-interest
that supposedly override considerations of physical harm. The
belongingness hypothesis offers yet one more potential perspec-
tive: The unwillingness to leave an abusive intimate partner is
another manifestation of the strength of the need to belong and
of the resulting reluctance to break social bonds. The fact that
people resist breaking off an attachment that causes pain attests
to how deeply rooted and powerful the need to belong is.

Moreover, when people do decide to break off an intimate
relationship, they typically experience considerable distress
over the dissolution (which we cover in more detail in the later
section on emotion). This is ironic: Although goal attainment
is usually marked by positive affect such as satisfaction and joy,
attaining the goal of getting a divorce is generally accompanied
by negative affect. To be sure, in some cases the distress over
divorce is accompanied by an admixture of positive affect, but
the negative affect nonetheless indicates the resistance to break-
ing the bond.

It is also relevant and noteworthy that the social bond often
continues despite the divorce. In her study on divorce, Vaughan
(1986) concluded that “in most cases [marital] relationships
don’t end. They change, but they don’t end” (p. 282). Weiss
(1979) also found that some form of (often ambivalent) attach-
ment persists after divorce. The persistence of intimate relation-
ships past the occasion of mutually agreed and formally institu-
tionalized dissolution may be yet another indication of people’s
reluctance to break social bonds.

Critical assessment. Because ethical and practical con-
straints prevent laboratory experimentation on the ending of
significant relationships, the evidence in this section was drawn
from observational studies and other methods, and so the hy-
pothesis of resistance to relationship dissolution is not as con-
clusively supported as might be desired. Alternative explana-
tions exist for some of the findings. For example, the persistence

of relatedness after divorce is partly due to ongoing practical
concerns, such as joint responsibility for child care; although
Vaughan (1986) was emphatic in asserting that such pragmatic
concerns fall far short of explaining the extent of continuing
attachments, she was vague about the evidence to back up her
assertion. Also, as we noted, the tendency for battered women
to return to their abusive partners has been explained in many
ways, and the hypothesized reluctance to break off a relation-
ship is only one of them.

On the positive side, however, the persistence of such bonds
has been observed by a variety of researchers. The fact that
these researchers are from different disciplines suggests that
these conclusions do not stem from a single methodological or
theoretical bias. More systematic research on possible bound-
ary and limiting conditions of the resistance to dissolve bonds
would be desirable.

Conclusion. Despite some methodological weaknesses and
ambiguities, the weight of the evidence does favor the conclu-
sion that people strongly and generally resist the dissolution of
relationships and social bonds. Moreover, this resistance ap-
pears to go well beyond rational considerations of practical or
material advantage.


Intelligent thought is generally recognized as the most impor-
tant adaptive trait among human beings, and so it seems rea-
sonable to assume that issues of fundamental concern and im-
portance are likely to be the focus of cognitive activity. The be-
longingness hypothesis therefore would predict that people will
devote considerable cognitive processing to interpersonal in-
teractions and relationships.

Basic patterns of thought appear to reflect a fundamental
concern with social relationships. Sedikides, Olsen, and Reis
(1993) showed that relationships are natural categories; that is,
people spontaneously classify incoming information in terms
of social relationships. Participants stored information about
relationship partners together, and they did this more for strong,
close relationships (marriage) than for weak or distant ones
(e.g., acquaintanceship). Pryor and Ostrom (1981) showed
that people use the individual person as a cognitive unit of anal-
ysis for familiar people more than for unfamiliar people. These
researchers began by questioning the basic assumption that the
person is the fundamental unit of social perception. That is,
information is not necessarily or inherently processed and
stored in memory on a person-by-person basis, but it is, in fact,
processed and stored on such a basis when it pertains to signifi-
cant others. Ostrom, Carpenter, Sedikides, and Li (1993) pro-
vided evidence that information about out-group members
tends to be stored and organized on the basis of attribute cate-
gories (such as traits, preferences, and duties), whereas in-
group information is processed on the basis of person catego-
ries. Thus, social bonds create a pattern in cognitive processing
that gives priority to organizing information on the basis of the
person with whom one has some sort of connection.

Several studies have pursued the notion that people process
information about close relationship partners differently
from the way they process information about strangers or dis-
tant acquaintances. For example, research has shown that,


when a group of people take turns reading words aloud, they
each have high recall for the words they personally speak but
have poor recall for the words preceding and following their
performance. Brenner ( 1 9 7 6 ) found that this next-in-line
effect occurs not only for one’s own performance but also for
words spoken by one’s dating partner (and the words imme-
diately preceding and following).

In a series of studies, Aron, Aron, Tudor, and Nelson (1991)
showed that close relationship partners, unlike strangers, have
cognitive effects similar to those of the self. Thus, when people
form an image of themselves or their mothers interacting with
some object, they have more difficulty recalling that object than
if they imagined a famous but personally unacquainted person
interacting with that same object. In another study, participants
had more difficulty in making me-not me judgments about
traits on which they differed from their spouse than in making
judgments about traits on which they resembled the spouse.
These results suggest that cognitive processes tend to blur the
boundaries between relationship partners and the self, in the
form of “including [the] other in the self” (p. 241). In short,
these studies confirm that information about relationship part-
ners is singled out for special processing, and they raise the pos-
sibility that the need to belong leads to a cognitive merging of
self with particular other people. Such patterns of subsuming
the individual in the interpersonal unit indicate the importance
of these relationships.

Many of the special biases that people exhibit for processing
information in ways that favor and flatter themselves are ex-
tended to partners in close relationships. Fincham, Beach, and
Baucom (1987) showed that self-serving biases that take credit
for success and refuse blame for failure operate just as
strongly—or even more strongly—when people interpret their
spouses’ outcomes as when they interpret their own outcomes.
That is, events are interpreted in a way that is maximally flat-
tering to the spouse, just as they are interpreted in ways that
enhance and protect the self. (These patterns are extended only
to partners in good, strong, happy relationships, however; high
marital distress is correlated with a breakdown in these partner-
serving attributions.)

Likewise, the “illusion of unique invulnerability” (Perloff
& Fetzer, 1986) turns out not to be as unique as first thought.
Although people are more extremely and unrealistically
optimistic about themselves than about some vague target
such as the average person, they are equally optimistic about
their closest friends and family members. That is, they think
that bad things are not as likely to happen either to them-
selves or to their close friends as to strangers or to a hypothet-
ical average person.3 Along the same lines, Brown (1986)
showed that people (particularly those with high self-esteem)
tend to extend self-serving biases to their friends. Specifically,
people rate both self and a same-sex friend more favorably
than they rate people in general.

Group memberships also appear to exert important influ-
ences on cognitive patterns. People expect more favorable and
fewer objectionable actions by their in-group than by out-group
members, and these expectations bias information processing
and memory, leading people to forget the bad things (relative to
good things) that their fellow in-group members do (Howard &
Rothbart, 1980). People also make group-serving or “sociocen-

tric” attributions for the performance of the groups to which
they belong. Members of a successful group may make group-
serving attributions that put the entire group in a good light,
whereas, after failure, group members may join together in ab-
solving one another of responsibility (Forsyth & Schlenker,
1977; Leary & Forsyth, 1987; Zander, 1971).

Linville and Jones (1980) showed that people tend to process
information about out-group members in extreme, black-and-
white, simplistic, polarized ways, whereas similar information
about members of their own group is processed in a more com-
plex fashion. Thus, the mere existence of a social bond leads to
more complex (and sometimes more biased) information

Of broader interest is evidence that belongingness can affect
how people process information about nearly all categories of
stimuli in the social world. Wegner (1986) noted the irony that
traditional theories of the “group mind” tended to assume that
all members would essentially think the same thing, because
much more far-reaching advantages could be realized through
a group mind if each member was responsible for different in-
formation, thereby enabling the group to process considerably
more information than any one person could. Wegner went on
to propose that transactive memory processes operate in close
relationships and groups by assigning each person a significant
category of expertise, with the result that each person becomes
expert in one or a few areas and simply consults others when
alternative areas come up. An empirical study conducted by
Wegner, Erber, and Raymond (1991) supported the transactive
memory hypothesis by showing that partners in close relation-
ships apparently have established procedures for determining
which person should remember which information. Partici-
pants were people in dating couples who were paired either with
their partner or with a stranger. The preexisting couples showed
better memory for experimental stimuli than the impromptu
assigned couples, except when the researchers assigned people
at random to be the expert responsible for various categories
of stimuli. In this latter condition, apparently, the assignment
disrupted the couples’ preexisting system and hence impaired
the processing of information.

Another broad and very basic issue is how often interpersonal
belongingness is used as an interpretive category. C. A. Ander-
son (e.g., 1991) sought to establish the fundamental dimensions
people use for making attributions about the causes of events.
His study coded participants’ attributional activity along 13 di-
mensions, including all of the ones featured in the major attri-

3 Perloff and Fetzer (1986) favored an interpretation for their results
in terms of the vagueness of the comparison target over the motivational
explanation that people want to regard their closest relationship part-
ners as equally invulnerable (equal to themselves). Their discrimina-
tion between the two hypotheses rested on the “one of your friends”
condition in their second study: They found that the “closest friend”
was seen as being highly invulnerable, whereas when participants chose
one of their other friends, this person was seen as more vulnerable. Their
findings suggested that participants in that condition selected a friend
who seemed most likely to have the problem asked about, so it is diffi-
cult to evaluate the motivational hypothesis. Thus, the interpretation
emphasized here is consistent with all of Perloff and Fetzer’s findings, as
they acknowledged, even though their own interpretations tended to
favor explanation in terms of vague versus specific targets.


butional theories (e.g., locus, stability, globality, and
controllability). To his surprise, however, the strongest single
dimension was what he called interpersonalness, which was de-
nned as the degree to which the causes of the focal event re-
flected on the relationship between the individual attributor and
other people (e.g., doing something because one is married).
Thus, although interpersonalness was not a central concern of
his investigation (because the major attribution theories had
largely ignored it), it emerged as a major dimension in the way
people normally think about and interpret the causes of events.
The unexpected emergence of interpersonalness as a powerful
fundamental dimension of causal attribution is consistent with
the view that belongingness is one of humanity’s basic concerns.

Thus far we have provided evidence that interpersonal rela-
tionships are centrally important in the way people think. Ad-
ditional predictions about cognitive activity can be derived from
the belongingness hypothesis. Although the evidence is consis-
tent with these predictions, it tends to be subject to alternative
explanations based on short-term, pragmatic concerns, so it is
less compelling for present purposes. We include brief coverage
for the sake of thoroughness.

Clearly, one would predict, on the basis of a need to belong,
that people should tend to think particularly about actual and
potential relationship partners more than about other people.
This would be reflected in increased cognitive processing
caused by the expectation of future or further interactions, be-
cause these conditions hold the possibility of forming a relation-
ship. Devine, Sedikides, and Fuhrman (1989) confronted par-
ticipants with advance information about various stimulus per-
sons and found that this information received more thorough
and detailed processing when it pertained to a future interaction
partner. Monson, Keel, Stephens, and Genung (1982) found
that people made more extreme—and more valid—trait attri-
butions from identical information when it pertained to a fu-
ture interaction partner than when it pertained to someone with
whom no interaction was anticipated. Erber and Fiske (1984)
showed that interpersonal dependency (outcome dependency)
overcame the usual tendency to ignore information that runs
counter to expectations. When participants were outcome de-
pendent on the confederate, they paid extra attention to incon-
sistent information about the confederate and seemed to think
more in terms of dispositional attributions about the partner.
Thus, belonging to another person changes the way one pro-
cesses information about that person.

Some of these interaction effects could be interpreted as
guided by short-term concerns. Still, the prospect of forming a
relationship with a recently met person appears to be sufficient
to alter the way people process the interaction. M. S. Clark
(1984) showed that people keep track of information differently
when the interaction partner is a potential relationship partner.
Furthermore, recent work by Tice, Butler, Muraven, and Still-
well (1994) showed that when people were interacting with
friends as opposed to strangers, they changed the way they pre-
sented information about themselves (i.e., they became more
modest). Moreover, the way they encoded and recalled the in-
teraction depended on the relationship: Memory was best if one
had been modest with friends or self-enhancing with strangers,
and otherwise it was impaired.

Critical assessment. The evidence that interpersonal con-

cerns affect cognitive processing is methodologically strong and
extensive. A broad variety of experimental procedures has been
involved in demonstrating such effects. For present purposes,
the main critique would be that some of the studies have not
been directly concerned with close relationships. Some have
shown that the expectation of interaction with a stranger or new
acquaintance is sufficient to alter cognitive processing. Al-
though it is reasonable to infer that people regard meeting new
people as the first step in possible relationship formation
(perhaps especially among the young adult populations who
constitute most of the experimental samples), this inference re-
quires further validation before one can have full confidence in
interpreting those findings as evidence for the need to belong,
because short-term concerns of practical or material advantage
may also play a role in some such situations.

Nonetheless, many of the findings reviewed in this section do
pertain to close relationship partners, and there is evidence that
information pertaining to interaction partners is processed
differently depending on its relevance to lasting relationships. It
is thus quite clear that relatedness affects cognitive processing;
only the extent of that influence and some of its processes are
still open to debate.

Conclusion. Concern with belongingness appears to be a
powerful factor shaping human thought. People interpret situa-
tions and events with regard to their implications for relation-
ships, and they think more thoroughly about relationship (and
interaction) partners than about other people. Moreover, the
special patterns of processing information about the self are
sometimes used for information about relationship partners as
well. Thus, both actual and potential bonds exert substantial
effects on how people think.


The main emotional implication of the belongingness hy-
pothesis is that real, potential, or imagined changes in one’s be-
longingness status will produce emotional responses, with posi-
tive affect linked to increases in belongingness and negative
affect linked to decreases in it. Also, stable or chronic conditions
of high belongingness should produce a general abundance of
positive affect, whereas chronic deprivation should produce a
tendency toward abundant negative affect.

Positive affect. In general, the formation of social bonds is
associated with positive emotions. Perhaps the prototype of re-
lationship formation is the experience of falling in love, which
is typically marked by periods of intense bliss and joy, at least
if the love is mutual (e.g., Steinberg, 1986). When love arises
without belongingness, as in unrequited love, the result is typi-
cally distress and disappointment (Baumeister & Wotman,
1992). Belongingness is thus crucial if love is to produce bliss.

Likewise, occasions such as new employment, childbirth, fra-
ternity or sorority pledging, and religious conversion, all of
which are based on the entry into new relationships and the
formation of new social bonds, are typically marked by positive
emotions and celebrated as joyous. Childbirth is especially sig-
nificant in this regard because the data show that parenthood
reduces happiness and increases stress, strain, and marital dis-
satisfaction (e.g., S. A. Anderson, Russell, & Schumm, 1983;
Campbell, Converse, & Rodgers, 1976; Glenn & McLanahan,


1982; for reviews, see Baumeister, 1991; Bernard, 1982; Camp-
bell, 1981; Spanier & Lewis, 1980), yet people nonetheless re-
tain a positive image of it, celebrate it, and feel positive about
it, both in advance and in retrospect. It is plausible that the
formation of the new social bond is directly responsible for the
joy and positive feelings, whereas the negative aspects and feel-
ings associated with parenthood arise indirectly from the has-
sles, conflicts, and stresses that accompany the social bond.

If the formation of bonds is one occasion for joy, a second
occasion comes when the bond is formalized into a more recog-
nizably permanent status. A wedding, for example, does not
create a new relationship, at least in modern Western cultures,
because the bride and groom typically have known each other
intimately for some time. The wedding does, however, signify an
increase in commitment to maintaining the relationship per-
manently, and the joyful celebration of the wedding can be re-
garded as an affective consequence of solidifying the social
bond. It is noteworthy that many traditional wedding vows in-
clude an actuarially implausible pledge that the marriage will
never end (“till death do us part”). In essence, such vows are
an institutionalized mechanism for committing people to meet
their spouse’s belongingness needs.

Although we have emphasized the view of affect as a result
of attachment, positive affect may in turn help solidify social
attachment. Probably the most influential view of this sort was
developed by Shaver et al. (1988), who portrayed romantic love
as a kind of glue designed by nature to solidify the attachment
between two adults whose interaction is likely to lead to parent-
ing. In their view, love elaborates on sexual attraction in a way
that will hold the couple together when their sexual intercourse
leads to reproduction. Along the same lines, various studies
have found that positive affective experiences increase attrac-
tion and solidify social bonds (L. A. Clark & Watson, 1988;
Gouaux, 1971; May & Hamilton, 1980; Veitch & Griffitt,
1976). Moreland (1987) concluded that the development of
shared emotions is one of the principal causes of the formation
of small groups.

More generally, happiness in life is strongly correlated with
having some close personal relationships. Research suggests
that it does not seem to make a great deal of difference what sort
of relationship one has, but the absence of close social bonds is
strongly linked to unhappiness, depression, and other woes
(e.g.,Argyle, 1987; Freedman, 1978; Myers, 1992). People with
high levels of intimacy motivation tend to enjoy higher levels
of happiness and subjective well-being (McAdams & Bryant,
1987), which is likely a result of their tendency to form and
maintain a rich network of friendships and other social bonds
(McAdams, 1985). Having some intimate bond appears to be
important and perhaps even necessary for happiness. Social iso-
lation is practically incompatible with high levels of happiness.

Negative affect. Threats to social attachments, especially
the dissolution of social bonds, are a primary source of negative
affect. People feel anxious at the prospect of losing important
relationships, feel depressed or grief stricken when their con-
nections with certain other people are severed, and feel lonely
when they lack important relationships (Leary, 1990; Leary &
Downs, in press; Tambor & Leary, 1993).

Anxiety is often regarded as the extreme or prototype of neg-
ative affect, and it is clearly linked to damaged, lost, or threat-

ened social bonds. In fact, social exclusion may well be the most
common and important cause of anxiety (Baumeister & Tice,
1990). Horney (1945) identified the source of “basic anxiety”
as the feeling of “being isolated and helpless in a potentially
hostile world” (p. 41); of course, that formula mixes two
different sources, insofar as isolation is a function of the belong-
ingness need, whereas helplessness is a frustration of control
(which is probably another fundamental motivation). Anxiety
and general distress seem to be a natural consequence of being
separated from important others. Children as young as 1 year
old show extreme distress—separation anxiety—on being sep-
arated from their mothers (Bowlby, 1973), and adults show
similar reactions when they must leave loved ones for an ex-
tended period of time. Furthermore, people’s memories of past
rejections are tainted with anxiety (Tambor & Leary, 1993),
and even just imagining social rejection increases physiological
arousal (Craighead, Kimball, & Rehak, 1979).

Consistent with the social exclusion theory of anxiety,
Barden, Garber, Leiman, Ford, and Masters (1985) found that
anxiety ensues if people are excluded from social groups, but
experiences of social inclusion appear to counteract the effects
of exclusion and remove the anxiety. Mathes, Adams, and Da-
vies (1985) predicted that a threat to self-esteem would mediate
the link between jealousy and anxiety, but their results did not
support their hypothesis. Instead, they found that the loss of
relationship led directly to anxiety.

Like anxiety, depression may be precipitated by a variety of
events, but failing to feel accepted or included is certainly one
of them. Both general depression and social depression (i.e.,
dysphoria about the nature of one’s social relationships) are
inversely related to the degree to which one feels included and
accepted by others (Tambor & Leary, 1993). Hoyle and Craw-
ford (in press) found that both depression and anxiety were sig-
nificantly correlated (negatively) with students’ sense of belong-
ing to their university.

Jealousy is another negative affective state that is a com-
mon response to threats to one’s relationships. Pines and Ar-
onson (1983) reported that, in a series of surveys, some ex-
perience of jealousy was essentially universal, in the sense
that everyone experiences it sooner or later. Moreover, more
than half of their respondents described themselves as being
“a jealous person” and correctly estimated that slightly more
than half of the other participants would respond in that
same way; however, they also said that the true incidence of
jealous people was even higher, because some jealous people
deny their jealousy. Pines and Aronson emphasized that
“feeling excluded” is a major cause of jealousy.

Regarding jealousy, perhaps the most relevant finding for our
purposes was that of Reiss( 1986), who concluded that jealousy
is cross-culturally universal. Reiss carefully investigated the ex-
travagant claims made by some observers and anthropologists
that, in certain cultures, people are able to exchange sexual
partners and intimate partners without any possessiveness or
jealousy, and in every case the claim turned out to be unwar-
ranted. Cultures may indeed vary as to which particular actions
or signs of affection are regarded as justifying jealous reactions,
and they may differ in how people express their jealousy, but
sexual jealousy is found in all cultures.

Loneliness reflects “an individual’s subjective perception of


deficiencies in his or her social relationships” (Russell, Cu-
trona, Rose, & Yurko, 1984, p. 1313). In other words, people
feel lonely when their belongingness needs are being insuffi-
ciently met. Moreover, it appears that belongingness, rather
than mere social contact, is the crucial factor. Mere social con-
tact does not, by itself, buffer people against loneliness. Lonely
and nonlonely people do not differ markedly in the amount of
time they spend with other people. However, lonely people
spend less time with friends and family—those who are most
likely to fulfill their needs to belong—than nonlonely people
(Jones, 1981). Furthermore, loneliness is much more strongly
related to one’s sense of social isolation than to objective in-
dexes of one’s social network, such as one’s sheer number of
friends (Williams & Solano, 1983). In one study, the correla-
tion between self-reported loneliness and the degree to which
people felt included and accepted by others was found to be
-.71 (Spivey, 1990). Generally, loneliness seems to be a matter
more of a lack of intimate connections than of a lack of social
contact (Reis, 1990; Wheeler, Reis, & Nezlek, 1983).

Yet another highly aversive emotional state is guilt. Despite a
long tradition of analyzing guilt in terms of self-evaluation accord-
ing to abstract moral standards, recent work has increasingly em-
phasized the interpersonal structure of guilt (Baumeister, Stillwell,
& Heatherton, 1994; Cunningham, Steinberg, & Grev, 1980;
Jones & Kugler, in press; Jones, Kugler, & Adams, 1995; Miceli,
1992; Tangney, 1992). Empirical studies of how people induce
guilt in others have found that such inductions are almost entirely
confined to close interpersonal relationships and that a major rea-
son for inducing guilt is to cause one’s partner to exert himself or
herself more to maintain the interpersonal relationship (e.g., by
spending more time with or paying more attention to oneself;
Baumeister, Stillwell, & Heatherton, in press; Vangelisti, Daly, &
Rudnick, 1991). Many episodes of guilt can thus be understood as
responses to disturbances or threats to interpersonal attachments.

Two specific events that thwart people’s need to belong are
divorce and death. Divorce is not generally recognized as an
occasion for joyful celebration, even if the divorce was desired
more fervently than the wedding had been. Divorce produces
varied forms of distress, including anger, depression, desolation,
and loneliness, in nearly everyone. Weiss (1979) concluded that
some “emotional upset. . . appears to be a nearly inevitable
accompaniment to marital separation” (p. 210) and is found
“even though [the] marriage had become unhappy” (p. 202).
In contrast, Spanier and Casto (1979) and Goode (1956) did
find a minority of participants who reported relatively little dis-
tress in response to divorce. Spanier and Casto (1979) thought
that one possible explanation for the discrepancy was that their
single interview technique (in contrast to Weiss’s multiple
sessions) was less sensitive to some deep or occasional feelings.
Consistent with this, they concluded that certain forms of dis-
tress, such as regret, yearning, and bitterness, “actually may in-
crease over time” (p. 226). Price and McKenry (1988) sug-
gested another reason that one-time measures may fail to find
universal distress after divorce: Many couples may have passed
through the most distressing phase before the researchers col-
lect their data.

Spanier and Casto (1979) listed the emotional turmoil after
divorce as mixed from among

feelings about the (former) spouse, such as love, hate, bitterness,
guilt, anger, envy, concern, and attachment; feelings about the mar-
riage, such as regret, disappointment, bitterness, sadness, and fail-
ure; and more general feelings, such as failure, depression, eupho-
ria, relief, guilt, lowered self-esteem, and lowered self-confidence.
( p . 2 1 3 )

Price and McKenry (1988) summarized the common emo-
tional reactions to divorce as including “extreme stress, includ-
ing feelings of rejection, depression, hostility, bitterness, loneli-
ness, ambivalence, guilt, failure, confusion, disorganization,
and sometimes relief” (p. 42). It is clear that plenty of negative
affect accompanies divorce.

Perhaps the strongest emotional reactions human beings ex-
perience involve death, both the death of oneself and the death
of other people. The death of a spouse, child, or close friend
ranks among the most stressful events that people experience
(T. H. Holmes & Rahe, 1967; Weiss, 1979). Grief often takes
the form of an especially severe depression. Some conceptual-
izations of grief portray it not as a reaction to the loss of the
person but as a reaction to the loss of a linkage with another
person (Lofland, 1982). It is interesting that people even grieve
deeply over the death of spouses with whom they had had trou-
bled marriages. As Weiss (1979) observed, “Apart from minor
variations,. . . nearly disabling grief was the rule, even among
individuals who could say about the preceding marriage, as one
widow did, ‘Ours wasn’t the best marriage in the world'” (p.

Anxiety about death, whether of oneself or others, can be re-
garded as stemming (at least in part) from a threat to belong-
ingness (Baumeister & Tice, 1990). As Lofland (1982) pointed
out, when people die, relationships end. Along these lines,
Conte, Weiner, and Plutchik (1982) linked death anxiety to fear
of loneliness (see also Mijuskovic, 1980). In a study of death
anxieties, Bednarski and Leary (1994) found that a primary
basis of people’s fears about death involved concerns with being
separated from friends and family. These interpersonal con-
cerns appeared to be a more important source of death anxiety
than fears about no longer existing or uncertainty about what
happens after death. This link between death anxiety and sepa-
ration anxiety may explain why most positive depictions of life
after death have emphasized togetherness with family and loved
ones, with a broad community of like-minded believers, with a
loving deity, or with all of the above (e.g., Baumeister, 1991). If
death anxiety is rooted in threats to belongingness and social
inclusion, then fears of death can best be soothed by emphasiz-
ing that death will involve a continuation or even an improve-
ment in one’s belongingness status.

Indirect effects. Although we have emphasized emotional
consequences of changes in belongingness, there may also be
indirect ways in which belongingness affects emotion. As shown
earlier with cognitive processes, emotional processes may
change when the situation involves a close friend or intimate
partner. Tesser (1991) has reviewed a number of such effects.
The main implication is that emotional responses to the relative
outcomes of self and other depend heavily on whether the other
person is a close relationship partner such as a good friend.
When the performance involves a domain that is important to
the self, it is upsetting to be outperformed by another person,
and the emotional distress is magnified if the other person is a


close friend (see also Tesser, Millar, & Moore, 1988). In con-
trast, if the performance involves some ability that is not im-
portant to self-definition, then superior performances by
friends (but not strangers) produce positive affect. One key
difference is what Tesser (1991) called the reflection process:
The positive achievements of one’s relationship partners reflect
favorably on the self (as long as they do not make the self look
bad by comparison in some important way). Similar achieve-
ments by strangers do not reflect on the self, of course, and so
they do not produce positive affect. Meanwhile, it appears that
the positive accomplishments of close others in domains rele-
vant to one’s own identity have a special capacity to generate
distress by threatening one’s cherished views of one’s own im-
portant abilities. Thus, the existence of a close relationship with
another person changes the way one responds emotionally to
that person’s performance outcomes in complex but predict-
able ways.

Critical assessment. The evidence reviewed in this section
was drawn from sociology, anthropology, and several subfields
of psychology, and it is based on a variety of methods including
surveys, observational studies, cross-cultural comparisons, au-
tobiographical narratives, and experiments. Although several
of these methods are generally regarded as less conclusive than
experimentation, the consistency of the conclusion across
multiple methodologies is itself a source of confidence. Thus,
for example, one could dispute Pines and Aronson’s (1983) de-
termination about the pervasiveness of jealousy by noting that
their sample was possibly skewed to include a high proportion
of people who were interested in jealousy, but the very high
(indeed, universal) incidence of jealousy across different cul-
tures, as attested by Reiss’s (1986) review, makes it seem un-
likely that Pines and Aronson were wrong in concluding that
jealousy is very common.

Probably the greatest ambiguity in this section’s evidence at-
taches to the discussion of death. To be sure, it is implausible to
dispute that emotional distress very typically attends the death
of a loved one or relationship partner. Still, there are alternate
explanations for this distress that could possibly dispense with
the need to belong. A partner’s death may have effects on mate-
rial and pragmatic concerns (e.g., loss of income), may create
distressing uncertainty about one’s own future, may affect the
self-concept, and may activate worries about one’s own death.

Conclusion. Many of the strongest emotions people experi-
ence, both positive and negative, are linked to belongingness.
Evidence suggests a general conclusion that being accepted, in-
cluded, or welcomed leads to a variety of positive emotions
(e.g., happiness, elation, contentment, and calm), whereas be-
ing rejected, excluded, or ignored leads to potent negative feel-
ings (e.g., anxiety, depression, grief, jealousy, and loneliness).
The near universality of distress associated with divorce and be-
reavement is consistent with the belongingness hypothesis; in-
deed, there is no firm evidence in those literatures that signifi-
cant social bonds can ever be broken without suffering or dis-
tress, even though (as noted) not every recently divorced or
bereaved person will necessarily be suffering acutely when the
interviewer happens to call.

Although the evidence was not equally abundant or equally
strong for all emotions, the consistency across multiple emo-
tions was impressive. It seems quite safe to conclude that both

positive and negative emotional reactions are pervasively linked
to relationship status. The existence of an interpersonal bond
changes the way one responds emotionally to the performances
and actions of a relationship partner and indeed intensifies
many emotional reactions. Moreover, actual or possible changes
in belongingness status constitute an important cause of emo-
tions. The evidence is sufficiently broad and consistent to sug-
gest that one of the basic functions of emotion is to regulate
behavior so as to form and maintain social bonds.

Consequences of Deprivation

The general argument is that deprivation of belongingness
should lead to a variety of affiliative behaviors and cause various
undesirable effects, including decrements in health, happiness,
and adjustment. We have already documented (in the preceding
section) that loss of social bonds causes emotional distress,
which is sufficient to show that belongingness is something peo-
ple want. To regard it as a need, however, it is necessary to show
effects that go beyond mere frustration and emotional distress.

Considerable research shows that people who do not have ad-
equate supportive relationships experience greater stress than
those who do. In part, this is because having other people avail-
able for support and assistance can enhance coping and provide
a buffer against stress. However, evidence suggests that simply
being part of a supportive social network reduces stress, even
if other people do not provide explicit emotional or practical
assistance (Cohen & Wills, 1985). Although this finding has
been interpreted in terms of the stress-reducing effects of social
support, an equally plausible explanation is that the deprivation
of the need to belong is inherently stressful.

Direct evidence that deprivation of belongingness is maladap-
tive was provided by DeLongis, Folkman, and Lazarus (1988).
They found that happily married couples were less likely to ex-
perience psychological and somatic health problems, both on
and after stressful days, than other participants. Medical re-
search has suggested that these beneficial effects extend beyond
mere health complaints. Lynch (1979) summarized the evi-
dence from many studies by stating that “U.S. mortality rates
for all causes of death . . . are consistently higher for divorced,
single, and widowed individuals” than for married individuals
(p. 38). Lynch’s own data showed the greater incidence of fatal
heart attacks among unattached individuals than among mar-
ried people, but he noted that similar effects can be found for
tuberculosis, cancer, and many other illnesses, as well as overall
patterns. Of course, there are multiple possible explanations for
such an effect that might have nothing to do with belongingness,
but efforts to control for these variables have often found a per-
sistent, independent, robust effect of social relations. Goodwin,
Hunt, Key, and Samet (1987) found that married participants
survived cancer better than single ones even after the timing of
diagnosis, likelihood of receiving treatment, and cigarette
smoking had been controlled, and they cited other evidence that
the effect remains after family income has been controlled.

Indeed, being deprived of belongingness may have direct
effects on the immune system. Kiecolt-Glaser, Garner, et al.
(1984) found that loneliness was associated with a decrease in
immunocompetence, specifically in natural killer cell activity,
and this effect was independent of changes in perceived distress.


Kiecolt-Glaser, Ricker, et al. (1984) replicated this effect and
also found elevated urinary cortisol levels among lonely partic-
ipants. Kiecolt-Glaser et al. (1987) found poorer immune func-
tion on several measures among women suffering from marital
disruption, including divorce, separation, and unhappy

The effects of belongingness on mental illness parallel those
on physical illness. Rejected children have a higher incidence of
psychopathology than other children (Bhatti, Derezotes, Kim,
& Specht, 1989; Hamachek, 1992). Children who grow up
without receiving adequate attention from caregivers show
emotional and behavioral pathologies, as demonstrated experi-
mentally by Harlow, Harlow, and Suomi (1971) with animals
and as corroborated by observations of human children by
Bowlby(1969,1973;seealsoRutter, 1979).4

Marital status also has strong correlations with mental ill-
ness. Bloom, White, and Asher (1979) reviewed the literature
and concluded that, in all studies, mental hospital admission
rates are highest among divorced and separated people, inter-
mediate among never-married people, and lowest among mar-
ried people. In fact, as measured by admissions to mental
hospitals,5 mental illness is at least 3 and possibly up to 22 times
higher among divorced people than among married people.

Even problems that might at first seem unrelated to social
interaction and relationships are sometimes found to have so-
cial deprivation or failed belongingness as an underlying cause.
Problems with attachment have been identified as a major fac-
tor in eating disorders. Sours (1974), for example, noted that
patients with eating disorders tended to have been (as children)
overly sensitive to separation from their mothers. Armstrong
and Roth (1989) found that women with eating disorders had
significantly more intense and severe separation and attach-
ment difficulties than a normal comparison group.

Combat-related stress is also moderated by belongingness.
Veterans who perceive that they have a high degree of social
support are significantly less likely to experience post-traumatic
stress disorder than those who have lower perceived support
(Hobfall & London, 1986; Solomon, Waysman, & Mikulincer,
1990). In fact, the authors of one study concluded that loneli-
ness “is the most direct antecedent of psychopathology and so-
cial dysfunction” in combat stress reactions (Solomon et al.,
1990, p. 468).

Crime may also be affected by belongingness. Sampson and
Laub (1993) showed that having a good marriage and a stable
job each had a strong negative effect on adult crime, consistent
with other evidence. Other evidence suggests that social bonds
to other criminals or to criminal groups may foster crime. Re-
cent news coverage of gangs has repeatedly suggested that a need
to belong attracts unattached young people to join violent
gangs, which tend to serve as a surrogate “family” (Olmos,
1994; cf. Jankowski, 1991). Sampson and Laub likewise found
that having social relationships with delinquent peers was one
of the strongest independent predictors of juvenile delinquency,
consistent with plenty of previous evidence. They did, however,
caution that this well-established link is based on largely corre-
lational data and that ambiguities about the direction of causal-
ity remain to be addressed. Still, for present purposes, the link
is important evidence that belongingness needs are important
among deviants, regardless of whether the link arises because

having delinquent peers causes delinquent activity or because
delinquent activity leads to bonding with delinquent peers.

Meanwhile, in laboratory experimentation, Geis and Moon
(1981) sought to involve participants in lying, cheating, and
stealing at the behest of an assigned group partner (a
confederate). They found that 67% of a sample of college stu-
dents acquiesced in an act of cheating and in a monetary theft
by their partner and that they actively lied to conceal the theft.
Thus, it appears that even recently formed group bonds may be
strong enough to overcome some salient prohibitions of tradi-
tional morality. (It is noteworthy that the group loyalty in that
study may have been intensified by the presence of a hostile rival
group.) More extreme versions of the phenomenon of going
along with objectionable actions by fellow group members be-
cause of loyalty have been commonly observed as central fac-
tors in group violence, such as spontaneous atrocities commit-
ted by the Ku Klux Klan (Wade, 1987), Nazi police guards
(Browning, 1992), and others (Staub, 1989; see also Groth,
1979, on gang rape).

The relevance of belongingness to suicide was suggested
nearly a century ago by Durkheim (1897/1963). His seminal
work proposed that suicide could be explained as a result of a
failure of social integration. People who are well integrated into
society by multiple and strong relationships are unlikely to
commit suicide, whereas unintegrated people are much more
likely to kill themselves. Durkheim’s hypothesis has held up far
better than most social science hypotheses over the decades, and
the evidence continues to show that a lack of social integration
increases the likelihood of suicide (Trout, 1980). For example,
single, divorced, and widowed people are more likely to commit
suicide than married people (e.g., Rothberg & Jones, 1987).
Those who are unemployed have a higher suicide rate than
those who are employed. People who belong to subcultural
groups that are shrinking have increased suicide rates. People
who work in occupations that are shrinking are also more likely
than others to commit suicide. Indeed, the main criticism that
can be leveled against Durkheim’s hypothesis is that it is incom-
plete in the sense that it does not explain everything about sui-
cide (e.g., Baumeister, 1990; Douglas, 1967), but it is correct as
far as it goes. For present purposes, the important point is that
strong social ties are associated with a lower risk of suicide,
probably because such ties help restrain people from killing

Social support research is relevant to the belongingness hy-
pothesis because social support is based on relationships and

4 Several studies have shown that physically unattractive people have
a higher incidence of psychopathology than attractive people (e.g., Ba-
rocas & Vance, 1974; Cash, 1985; Farina, Burns, Austad, Bugglin, &
Fischer, 1986; O’Grady, 1989). One reason may be that they tack be-
longingness, because society tends to reject unattractive individuals
(Berscheid & Walster, 1974).

5 Admittedly, hospital admissions is an imprecise measure. One
might object that married people can stay out of institutions because
they have someone at home to take care of them. On the other hand,
many people are admitted to such institutions at the behest of family
members, and so one could argue that the true difference is even larger.
Given the size and consistency of the effect, it seems reasonable to con-
clude that marital status is related to mental illness, although further
and methodologically better evidence is needed.


positive interactions with others, and so any benefits of such
support would constitute further confirmation of the belong-
ingness hypothesis. The benefits of social support appear to be
well established. Thus, for example, Cohen, Sherrod, and Clark
(1986) showed that the availability of social support—which
can be restated as the existence of social bonds—buffers people
against the ill effects of stress. Cutrona (1989) showed that so-
cial support reduced depression during pregnancy and postpar-
tum depression among adolescent girls. Responding to method-
ological criticisms that had attacked social support research as
merely self-report bias, Cutrona’s study included ratings of each
girl’s support network by an adult informant who knew the girls
well, and these external informants’ ratings predicted health
outcomes (in some cases, even better than the girls’ own ratings
of their support). Thus, the benefits of belongingness in coping
with major life stress appear to go beyond mere self-report bias.

Older adults who have a close, intimate friend (i.e., a
“confidant”) maintain higher morale in the face of life stresses
such as retirement and spousal death than individuals who lack
such a relationship. For example, Lowenthal and Haven (1968)
found that widows who have a confidant have been found to
be only slightly more depressed than married women, whereas
those without a confidant have been found to be much more
dysphoric. These researchers also found that the majority of
older adults who recently lost a confidant were depressed, but
the majority who currently had a confidant were satisfied.

Rook (1987b) distinguished between social support and
companionship. Social support was in this case rather narrowly
interpreted in terms of direct help, whereas companionship
meant the expressive aspects of social interaction. Both were
found to be important and beneficial, but companionship may
be the more important of the two, especially for psychological
well-being, social satisfaction, and coping with minor stress.
These data are particularly important for the relevance of social
support research to the belongingness hypothesis because one
could conceivably argue that belongingness per se is irrelevant
and that the practical, material help that people derive from
their social networks is solely responsible for the benefits of so-
cial support. Rook’s data suggested, on the contrary, that the
practical help is secondary (except in extreme circumstances
in which major assistance is needed), whereas belongingness is
highly beneficial by itself.

Perhaps most generally, general well-being and happiness in
life depend on having some close social ties. Social isolation is
strongly related to various patterns of unhappiness (for reviews,
see Argyle, 1987; Baumeister, 1991; Freedman, 1978; Myers,
1992). Indeed, Baumeister (1991) noted that it is about the
only objective factor that shows a substantial correlation with
subjective well-being. Happiness also appears to be fairly stable
across time and circumstance (e.g., Costa, McCrae, & Zonder-
man, 1987), leading many to conclude that it is linked to per-
sonality factors. The broad trait of extraversion appears to be
strongly related to happiness and positive affectivity (see Costa
& McCrae, 1980, 1984), and extraversion encompasses several
factors, such as sociability, gregariousness, warmth, and social
involvement, that seem likely to enhance the tendency to form
and maintain social ties. Moreover, belongingness appears to
be sufficient to overcome the relative deficit in happiness that
introverts suffer. Hotard, McFatter, McWhirter, and Stegall

(1989) found that introverts who have a good network of social
relationships are just as happy as extraverts. Thus, introverts’
deficit in happiness may be a result of their experiencing less

Further support for the importance of belongingness to psy-
chological well-being is provided by the fact that the psychother-
apeutic process is facilitated by close personal bonds. Numer-
ous therapeutic orientations stress the importance of the rela-
tionship between the therapist and the client. Rogers (1959),
for example, urged psychotherapists to display a willingness to
accept and support the client regardless of his or her behavior or
contribution to the relationship. Such “unconditional positive
regard” is perhaps the ultimate way to fulfill another person’s
belongingness needs. From the standpoint of the belongingness
hypothesis, however, the essential ingredient in client-centered
therapy is not unconditional positive regard (i.e., appraisal) but
unconditional social acceptance (i.e., belongingness).6

Furthermore, some have suggested that one goal of psycho-
therapy should be to enhance clients’ ability to elicit social sup-
port in their everyday lives (Brehm, 1987). To the extent that
people who have strong connections with others are happier,
healthier, and better able to cope with the stresses of everyday
life, most clients would presumably benefit from enhancing
their belongingness.

The psychotherapeutic usefulness of belonging can also be
seen in the effectiveness of group therapy. As Lewin ( 1 9 5 1 )
flatly stated, “It is easier to change individuals formed into a
group than to change them separately” (p. 228). In part, the
effectiveness of group therapy seems to depend on engendering
a sense of belongingness, as some authors have asserted (Larkin,
1972; Yalom, 1985). Forsyth (1991), in his review of research
on group therapy, observed that therapeutic groups provide the
member “with a sense of belonging, protection from harm, and
acceptance” (p. 675).

People differ, of course, in the degree to which they believe
that their belongingness needs are being met irrespective of the
extensiveness of their social networks or the strength of social
support they receive. Lakey and Cassady (1990) provided data
suggesting that perceived social support operates much like a
cognitive schema. People have relatively stable, organized be-
liefs about the extent and quality of their interpersonal relation-
ships. These belief systems lead to biased interpretation of so-
cial interactions, as well as to a biased recall of past interper-
sonal events. As a result, some people have a predisposition to
perceive others as unsupportive, leading them to experience be-
longingness deprivation even when others are in fact being

Critical assessment. The diversity of methodologies and the
multiplicity of disciplines that have furnished the evidence re-
viewed in this section make it highly implausible to suggest that
all such evidence can be explained away as the result of con-
founds or artifacts. At worst, some of the findings have alternate
explanations. Not all studies have maintained careful distinc-
tions between the pragmatic benefits of certain relationships
and the direct benefits of belongingness. The fact that happily

6 The two overlap in many ways, of course. Cutrona (1986) has noted
that esteem support is an important element of social support, particu-
larly for helping people avoid depressive reactions to stressful events.


married people commit fewer crimes than other adults, for ex-
ample, might be partly (or even wholly) due to the material
benefits of being married. Even so, researchers who have main-
tained such distinctions (such as several of the social support
researchers) have found pragmatic benefits to be a secondary
factor. Belongingness thus has important and direct benefits.

A more serious limitation is that several of the findings are
correlational. The higher rates of mental and physical illness
among loners could reflect a tendency for people to reject
deviants as potential relationship partners. By the same to-
ken, the higher levels of life satisfaction found among happily
married people could be partly due to a tendency for chroni-
cally unhappy people to be rejected as marriage partners.
Still, those studies that have provided evidence about the di-
rection of causality have consistently identified belongingness
as the causal factor.

Conclusion. Deprivation of stable, good relationships has
been linked to a large array of aversive and pathological conse-
quences. People who lack belongingness suffer higher levels of
mental and physical illness and are relatively highly prone to a
broad range of behavioral problems, ranging from traffic acci-
dents to criminality to suicide. Some of these findings may be
subject to alternative explanations, and for some the direction
of causality has not been established; however, the weight of ev-
idence suggests that lack of belongingness is a primary cause of
multiple and diverse problems. It therefore seems appropriate
to regard belongingness as a need rather than simply a want.

Partial Deprivation: Relatedness Without Interaction

We have proposed that the need to belong has two aspects:
People require frequent interactions with the same person, and
people want a stable, enduring context of concern and caring.
This section examines some instances in which people have the
first of these while being deprived of the second, and the next
section examines the opposite case. These cases are important
for establishing whether the need to belong does indeed involve
both aspects. To confirm this version of the belongingness hy-
pothesis, a rather precise pattern of comparisons is needed, one
based on the assumption that satisfying only one of the compo-
nents should bring only partial satisfaction. People with only
one of the two components should presumably be slightly better
off than people who have neither, but they should be worse off
than people who have both.

One example of relatedness without interaction involves peo-
ple in prison. Many prisoners have families or loved ones on
the outside, but interactions with them are severely restricted.
Although systematic, quantitative data are scarce, works on
prison life appear to be in emphatic agreement that prisoners
treasure and cling to these ties yet suffer greatly over the lack of
interaction (Baunach, 1985; Isenberg, 1991; Toch, 1977). At
least some efforts at prison reform and the cultivation of al-
ternatives to standard imprisonment emphasize that increasing
contact with family members is beneficial to the prisoner
(Scudder, 1952). Toch (1977) documented the extensive an-
guish suffered by prisoners over lack of contact with family and
romantic partners, although he noted that the perceived threat
of losing the bond was often a source of suffering, which suggests

that the deprivation of interaction is not fully responsible for
the distress.

One group that might be relatively immune to this fear would
be imprisoned mothers, insofar as mother-child bonds cannot
be broken through divorce or other mechanisms (unlike ro-
mantic ties and friendships). Baunach (1985) and Giallom-
bardo (1966) both reported that imprisoned mothers lamented
the loss of interaction with their children and used every avail-
able means to maximize contact. They noted that these efforts
were especially impressive in that both the prison institution
and the collective wisdom of the prison subculture stress the
need to suspend all emotional interest in events outside the
prison, because such concerns produce frustration and helpless-
ness. Thus, these women’s efforts to maintain such ties are op-
posed by pervasive situational pressures, but they remain strong
anyway, suggesting that the bonds continue to offer satisfaction
of some powerful need despite the effort and frustration in-
volved in maintaining them.

Noncustodial divorced parents represent another group re-
strained from interacting with their children. Wilbur and Wil-
bur (1988) observed that most such parents refused to accept
that the bond to their children was severed or even damaged,
even when their lawyers advised them to abandon efforts to con-
tinue the relationship. Thus, the bond is apparently very impor-
tant to these parents even if it is mainly associated with frustra-
tion, aggravation, and disappointment. Meanwhile, the lack of
interaction and contact with the children was often very upset-
ting to these noncustodial parents, and indeed most of the di-
lemmas that Wilbur and Wilbur associated with noncustodial
parenthood revolved around a lack of contact and interaction.

Children of divorce are often in a similar position of losing
interaction access to the noncustodial parent. R. Rosen (1979)
found that children who had free, unlimited access to interact
with the noncustodial parent were least likely to perceive the
divorce as traumatic, although that finding was based on corre-
lational data and both variables (access and trauma) could have
been confounded with how well the parents got along with each
other after the divorce. Rosen also found that most children ex-
pressed a clear preference for such free access to the noncusto-
dial parent, and a large minority indicated that they had less
contact than they wanted to have with that parent. Thus, even
if the relational bond continues to exist, many children seem to
suffer from the reduction in interaction. A later study by Drill
(1987) concluded strongly that most children want to maintain
the bond despite the reduced interaction. Drill observed that
children of divorce were most prone to depression if they per-
ceived the noncustodial parent as being lost, in the sense of hav-
ing the bond severed. Fortunately, most children apparently
perceive the bond to remain in existence, which presumably
accounted for Drill’s finding that children of divorced parents
were no more likely overall than children of non-divorced par-
ents to be depressed.

Weiss (1973) reported that housewives who had recently
moved to the Boston area often reported loneliness despite hav-
ing a strong marital bond. They were lonely because they were
deprived of interactions most of the time: They had no local
friends, and their husbands were away all day and preoccupied
with their new jobs. Hoyle and Crawford (in press) found that
students’ sense of belonging to their university involved more


than mere identification with the institution; it also had a strong
component of behavioral involvement. This sense of belonging
was heavily correlated (.65) with their involvement in univer-
sity activities, suggesting that daily interactions are an impor-
tant part of belongingness. Although alternative explanations
for these findings cannot be ruled out, the findings are consis-
tent with the general pattern that a bond alone is not enough to
satisfy the need to belong.

Long-distance relationships and commuter marriages offer
another set of circumstances in which people have an interper-
sonal bond but are relatively deprived of interaction. Gerstel
and Gross (1982) observed that people cling to these relation-
ships, which suggests that they are positively valued and provide
some rewards, but also find them stressful, consistent with the
view that relationship without interaction is less than fully sat-
isfactory. Similarly intermediate results were reported by Go-
vaerts and Dixon (1988): Commuters did not show any sig-
nificant drop in overall marital satisfaction, but they did express
dissatisfaction with time spent together and affectional commu-
nication. Gerstel and Gross found that the stressful aspect of
commuter marriage was significantly reduced by regular week-
end visits; thus, the opportunity for regular and fairly frequent
interactions was very beneficial (see also Holt & Stone, 1988).
They also found that couples who had been married longer and
therefore had a greater sense of stability suffered less from the
stress of separation than other commuter couples, presumably
because they could remain more secure and confident that the
attachment to the spouse would survive. Thus, these people
have a solid bond but still express a strong need for interactions.

In a later work, Gerstel and Gross (1984) reported that com-
muter couples valued the bond but suffered over the loss of in-
teraction. Couples seemed to find it ironic that small talk over
trivial matters would turn out to be something they missed, but
as Gerstel and Gross noted, these seemingly insubstantial in-
teractions are believed to be an important aspect without which
the marital bond is not fully satisfactory or fulfilling. Frequent
(long-distance) telephone conversations were a common but
not fully satisfactory solution to the deprivation of interaction.
Respondents in that study noted that telephone conversations
seemed adequate for sharing information and discussing prac-
tical affairs but were frequently deficient for producing pleasant
social interactions or enjoying one another’s company. This sug-
gests that regular interactions do have something to offer that is
not contained in merely knowing that the social bond exists and
exchanging information. In addition, loss of shared leisure ac-
tivities was a common complaint.7

Winfield’s (1985) study of commuter marriages confirmed
many of Gerstel and Gross’s (1982, 1984) conclusions. In ad-
dition, Winfield found a surprisingly low rate of sexual infidelity
(see also Gerstel & Gross, 1984) and concluded that married
people who live apart are, ironically, only about half as likely to
be unfaithful as married people who live together (despite the
presumably much greater opportunity and temptation). She
cited commitment to the relationship as an important reason
for this increased fidelity, and so it reflects on how these people
value the social bond. Still, it was clear that many couples suffer
and feel deprived because of the lack of interaction, and Win-
field observed that loneliness was a frequent problem. A similar
point was made by Bunker, Zubek, Vanderslice, and Rice

(1992), who found that commuting spouses were less satisfied
with their marital relationship, family life, and overall quality
of life than were spouses who lived together. For present
purposes, the implication is that the bond to an absent spouse
appears to furnish some positive benefits and satisfactions, but
people still suffer over the lack of contact. The evidence from
commuter marriages thus appears to confirm the importance of
two separate components of belongingness, namely the secure
confidence in an enduring bond of mutual caring and the regu-
lar experience of pleasant, affectively positive interactions.

Similar findings have emerged from studies of the spouses of
military personnel. Several articles on the wives of submariners
have shown that these women suffer anxiety, depression, and
physical illness during the long absences of their husbands (K.
Beckman, Marsella, & Finney, 1979; A. I. Snyder, 1978; see
Harrison & Connors, 1984, for a review). Pearlman (1970) ob-
served that each departure typically involved a crisis.

Critical assessment. Evidence from multiple fields and
seemingly quite different populations points to the same con-
clusion about the need for interactions. All of the studies can
be criticized on methodological grounds, however. The prison
samples may be atypical and pathological. Commuters may be
atypical because of having chosen to live apart (although the
fact that they still suffer from the deprivation despite this choice
would seemingly strengthen rather than weaken the argument
that frequent interactions are needed). The observations about
children of divorce seem less tainted by such concerns, but it
may be difficult to disentangle the multiple causes of distress.
The spouses of military personnel may be most representative
of the population at large. A further problem is that most of
these studies have used samples of convenience rather than sys-
tematically created ones. For prisoners in particular, and in
some of the studies of other groups, the data are largely obser-
vational and impressionistic, and it would be much better to
have quantified comparisons with well-chosen control groups.

Alternative explanations also plague the prison studies. Pris-
oners derive practical benefits from maintaining contact with
people outside the prison who can bring them material goods
and do them favors (Isenberg, 1991). As already noted, some of
the concern about lack of contact with loved ones may reflect a
fear of losing the bond, so it is not safe to regard prisoners as a
pure example of people who have a stable bond but lack interac-
tions. To some extent, this problem can be rectified by consid-
ering mothers, who should be less worried about being aban-
doned by their children; in some cases, however, they too fear
that the child will bond with someone else and become es-
tranged from them (Baunach, 1985), so it may be appropriate
to regard this fear as merely reduced, not eliminated, among
them. Baunach (1985) also noted that it is impossible to rule

7 One might wonder whether sexual deprivation was responsible for
the problems reported in commuter marriages. However, studies of
these couples indicate that most see each other a couple of days each
week, which in principle would be sufficient for the approximately
weekly sexual intercourse that is the norm among married couples. Ger-
stel and Gross (1984) found that most of these couples had had sex only
on weekends even when they lived together, so there was little decline in
sexual frequency as a result of commuting; most couples reported that
their sex lives were basically the same after they started commuting.


out the alternative explanation that some imprisoned mothers’
displays of concern for their children are feigned ploys to im-
press the parole board.

The growing literatures on commuter marriages and filial at-
tachments to divorced, noncustodial parents are less subject to
alternative explanations than the prison studies, but they too
are far from controlled, prospective studies that conclusively
demonstrate causal effects. There have been attempts to study
direct effects of frequency of interaction independent of prag-
matic and other benefits. Most of the findings are still correla-
tional, but on a priori grounds it seems implausible to suggest
the reverse causal hypothesis (e.g., that unhappiness over lack
of interaction causes people to spend less time together).

Despite these concerns, the convergence across different
groups and methods is encouraging. At present, it seems appro-
priate to accept the converging conclusions from these studies,
at least until contrary evidence is found.

Conclusion. Broad and consistent but methodologically
weak evidence supports the conclusion that having a relation-
ship without frequent interactions offers only partial, incom-
plete satisfaction of the need to belong. Researchers have stud-
ied several different circumstances in which people find them-
selves having relationships without interactions, and in each
case the same conclusion has emerged: People with such bonds
do seem to treat them as desirable and valuable (consistent with
the view that they do offer some rewards) but suffer over the lack
of direct contact with the other person.

Partial Deprivation: Interaction Without a Bond of

Interaction without an ongoing bond of caring should also
be only partly satisfactory. Two predictions can be made.
First, insofar as the need to belong requires that some interac-
tions reflect a relationship context, it can be predicted that
interactions with changing series of partners should be less
than satisfying. Second, if the interactions are supposed to
reflect the context of positive emotional concern, then people
should not be satisfied by interactions within the context of
an ongoing relationship or social bond that is not marked by
positive caring. We look for evidence for the specifically mu-
tual nature of the bond.

Need for r-elatedness. Can people be satisfied by frequent
interactions without stable relationships? Weiss (1973) ob-
served that “loneliness is not simply a desire for company, any
company; rather it yields only to very specific forms of relation-
ship” (p. 13). Wheeler et al. (1983) showed that loneliness is
largely independent of one’s amount of social contact, thereby
confirming Weiss’s observation. In the next section of this arti-
cle, we cover several studies showing that people seem to prefer
a few close friendships over a high number of transient or super-
ficial encounters and that evidence could be taken to indicate
that the relationship bond is essential to full satisfaction.

One possible population of people who have many interac-
tions without the bond of mutual caring would consist of pros-
titutes, who may have a high frequency of physically intimate
interactions with partners with whom there is no ongoing bond.
Sure enough, prostitutes often describe their occupation as hav-
ing the benefits of meeting interesting people and not being as

boring as other jobs (e.g., McLeod, 1982, p. 31). If intimate
interactions were sufficient to satisfy social needs without any
lasting bond, prostitutes might be very happy and well adjusted.
On the contrary, however, it appears that prostitutes are far
from satisfied by these interactions and instead seek and culti-
vate lasting bonds with others. The desire for bonds of mutual
caring is apparently often responsible for irrational, even self-
destructive attachments to procurers and other men (Adler,
1980; McLeod, 1982; Symanski, 1980). Also, many prostitutes
are single mothers, and the bond with the child is very impor-
tant (McLeod, 1982). Several signs indicate that prostitutes do
like to cultivate long-term relationships with clients, as evi-
denced by some brothel rules designed to prevent the formation
of such attachments (Symanski, 1980). Indeed, Symanski
(1980) calculated that prostitutes would maximize their finan-
cial earnings by working in brothels and serving the most cus-
tomers, yet many specifically objected to the procedures involv-
ing many brief contacts and sought to work in other settings
where they could have more time with each client and cultivate
repeat customers. These observations must be regarded as ten-
tative, however, because the studies lack methodological rigor.

Bond of caring. The next issue is whether all relationship
bonds can satisfy the need to belong. It appears that only bonds
marked by positive concern and caring offer satisfaction. Even
if a person has both an enduring bond and frequent interactions,
he or she may feel that the need to belong is not fully satisfied.
We turn now to relevant evidence involving cases in which the
person is firmly linked to others but has unpleasant or unsatis-
fying interactions with them.

Earlier, we listed a series of apparent benefits of social bonds
for health, adjustment, happiness, and general welfare. There is
an important qualification, however. In many cases, it is not
the mere fact of having an interpersonal attachment, but rather
having an attachment that brings positive interactions, that is
decisive. Relationships marked by conflictual interactions are
much less beneficial and sometimes harmful. DeLongis et al.
(1988) found that happily married people were much healthier
than were people in unsupportive social relationships. Thus, it
is not the mere fact of marriage, but rather having a supportive
marital relationship, that provides health benefits, and people
who are deprived of such a satisfying relationship are more vul-
nerable. Coyne and DeLongis (1986) reviewed evidence and
concluded that bad marriages may be worse than being alone in
terms of effects on happiness and health. Kiecolt-Glaser et al.
(1987) found decrements in immune function among unhap-
pily married women and among women who were separated
from their husbands while remaining emotionally attached to
them. Myers’s (1992) review of the literature on happiness con-
cluded that whereas good marriages provide a powerful boost
to happiness, bad marriages lead to extreme unhappiness. Like-
wise, research on social participation by Reis, Wheeler, Kernis,
Spiegel, and Nezlek (1985) found that the quality rather than
the quantity of social interactions predicted health. Specifically,
participants (particularly women) who had better quality in-
teractions (defined in terms of intimacy, pleasantness, satisfac-
tion, mutual disclosure, initiation, and influence) fared better
on a variety of measures of physical and mental health.

Although the lack of a good marital relationship appears to
be detrimental to mental health, the existence of a bad marital


relationship is arguably worse. Having a spouse or close partner
may preclude the person from seeking other, more satisfying and
beneficial relationships, and the pervasive and salient conflic-
tual interactions may intensify the person’s feeling of not be-
longing. Thus, to complement the standard finding that good
social support is beneficial for mental health, Vinokur and van
Ryn ( 1 9 9 3 ) showedthat social undermining (i.e., conflict, crit-
icism, making life difficult, and inducing feelings of being
unwanted) in close relationships has a strongly negative effect
on mental health. Indeed, in their sample of unemployed peo-
ple, the effect of social undermining was stronger than the effect
of social support. Carnelley, Pietromonaco, and Jaffe (1994)
confirmed the link between problematic relationships to par-
ents and subsequent depression, and they also found that the
current romantic involvements of depressed adults tended to be
characterized by fearful avoidance and anxious ambivalence.
Although their results are correlational, they are quite consis-
tent with the view that problems and deficiencies in close rela-
tionships contribute to depression (with attachment style as a
mediating variable).

We also mentioned Sampson and Laub’s (1993) finding that
linked marriage and job involvement to reduction in criminal
activity. These reductions in crime were limited to people who
had good, stable, happy marriages and who were employed in
steady jobs. (The marital and job effects were independent.) In
contrast, the mere fact of being married, or the level of one’s
income, had no relation to crime. Thus, being well integrated
into good relationships, rather than merely having a social at-
tachment, reduces criminality.

Also relevant are studies on how a good marital relationship
affects offspring; indeed, for evolutionary analyses, these inves-
tigations may be especially important. Several reviews have con-
cluded that conflict between parents leads to aggressive, antiso-
cial behavior (such as juvenile delinquency) and perhaps other
behavior problems in children (Belsky, 1981; Emery, 1982;
Rutter & Garmezy, 1983). Indeed, Emery (1982) concluded
that parental conflict, rather than separation, is the main factor
responsible for the bad effects of divorce on children, because
the problems covary much more closely with conflict (in either
intact or separated parents) than with separation. Recent work
indicates that a good marital relationship tends to cause greater
warmth toward the children, which in turn reduces angry and
defiant misbehavior on the part of the children (N. B. Miller,
Cowan, Cowan, Hetherington, & Clingempeel, 1993; see also
Belsky, 1979).

Mutuality. The last issue concerns how important it is that
caring, concern, and affection be mutual and reciprocal. One
can well understand why people are better off to interact with
partners who care about them, because the partners might pro-
vide more material rewards and other benefits. But is there any
value to caring about the other person, as opposed to being
merely cared about?

In the first place, it does appear that mutuality is the norm.
M. S. Clark et al. (1987) showed that the desire to receive help
from others was correlated with the desire to give help and re-
spond to others’ needs. This suggests that the desire for commu-
nal relationships is based partly on the appeal of a framework
in which people have mutual concern for each other’s welfare.
The alternative explanation for Clark et al.’s findings would be

based on social exchange theory, which would propose that peo-
ple might prefer to be involved in one-way relationships, so that
they would receive the benefits of the other person’s care but not
incur the costs of having to care for the other person. Perhaps
mutuality is the norm only because people cannot find others
who will care for them without getting anything in return. The
evidence runs contrary to this view, however, despite its eco-
nomic and utilitarian logic. Hays (1985) examined relationship
satisfaction as a function of the costs and benefits to the individ-
ual. From a behavioristic standpoint, he predicted that satisfac-
tion would be predicted by an index of the rewards minus the
costs, which is precisely what economic rationality would favor.
Contrary to that prediction, however, Hays found that satisfac-
tion was much better predicted by an index of rewards plus
costs. In other words, people preferred relationships in which
both parties gave and received care.

Mutuality seems to improve and strengthen the relation-
ship. Rusbult, Verette, and Drigotus (1994) found that mu-
tuality of commitment predicted good marital adjustment.
This effect was independent of the actual level of commit-
ment, which shows that mutuality per se is indeed beneficial.
The other side of this was demonstrated by Hill, Rubin, and
Peplau (1976), who showed that unequal involvement was a
strong predictor of romantic breakup. Moreover, it was not
simply the case that the less involved partner was more likely
to break off the attachment, because in many cases the more
involved person initiated the breakup. Only when both part-
ners reported that both were equally involved was the couple
likely to still be together 2 years later.

If mutuality is good for relationships, it is also good for indi-
viduals, as indicated by recent findings from studies of unre-
quited love (Baumeister & Wotman, 1992; Baumeister, Wot-
man, & Stillwell, 1993). These studies compared people who
received love without giving it and people who gave love without
receiving it. To the researchers’ surprise, both groups tended to
describe the experience as aversive. Apparently, love is highly
satisfying and desirable only if it is mutual.

The parent-child bond is inevitably asymmetrical, insofar as
the child cannot provide the parent with the nurturant care and
concern that the parent must provide the child. If there are any
exceptions to the principle that mutuality is optimal, they
would presumably be found among parents. The difficulty, of
course, is determining what is the appropriate comparison. One
strategy would be to compare mutual and nonmutual two-per-
son families, that is, compare families consisting only of two
adults (i.e., childless marriages) and families consisting only of
a parent and child (i.e., single parents). Research has abun-
dantly shown that those two types of families differ dramatically
in terms of happiness (of the adult): The childless spouses are
happier than average, and the single parents are less happy than
average. In other words, if an adult woman is to have only one
other person in her family, she will be happier if this person is a
husband rather than a child (e.g., S. A. Anderson et al., 1983;
Baumeister, 1991; Bernard, 1982; Campbell, 1981; Campbell
etal., 1976).

One reason for the importance of mutuality may be trust.
J. G. Holmes and Rempel (1989) reviewed evidence that trust
is often a crucial and influential feature of good, beneficial, and
satisfying relationships and concluded that trust depends


heavily on mutuality, especially the mutual recognition of re-
ciprocal concern and attachment. Dissimilar feelings and un-
equal involvement prevent the growth of trust and thereby
thwart or weaken relationships.

Critical assessment. The evidence in this section was un-
even in quality and quantity. We have found no methodolog-
ically rigorous evidence indicating that frequent interactions
without an ongoing relationship offer partial or intermediate
satisfaction of the need to belong. The prostitution studies
were merely correlational and impressionistic, and, even if
they had been based on systematic samples of prostitutes
(which they were not), one would be reluctant to generalize
from prostitutes to the rest of the population.

In contrast, the evidence is stronger with regard to the
inadequacy of negative or conflictual interactions to provide
satisfaction. Although much of this evidence is correlational,
there is some time-sequence evidence suggesting that un-
happy marriages and other problematic relationships lead to
distress and illness.

The evidence for mutuality is scattered and fragmentary, al-
though it is consistent. Most of it is somewhat indirect. Further
research is needed to provide direct evidence about the impor-
tance of mutuality, particularly whether one’s own caring for
the partner is important for satisfying one’s own need to belong.

Conclusion. First, there is some evidence that interactions
with a changing series of partners, without any ongoing rela-
tionship bond, fail to satisfy people, but this evidence is sug-
gestive rather than conclusive. Second, several studies have
indicated that problematic or unhappy marriages fail to pro-
duce the benefits normally linked to belongingness and, in
fact, may make things worse. Thus, the mere fact of a social
bond is not enough to protect people from these problems
and pathologies. Rather, it appears that people require their
primary social bonds to be characterized by affectively posi-
tive interactions that signify the other’s affectionate concern.
Third, there are several indications that people prefer rela-
tionships marked by mutual, reciprocal concern, but stronger
and more direct evidence is needed. It is also plausible that
mutuality is merely a preference rather than a need.

Satiation and Substitution

The belongingness hypothesis holds that individuals need a
certain amount of social relatedness. Social relationships and
partners should therefore be to some extent interchangeable.
Moreover, people who have sufficient social bonds to satisfy the
need to belong should be less interested in forming additional
relationships than people who do not already have sufficient
bonds. These corollaries of the belongingness hypothesis can be
expressed in terms of satiation and substitution. Satiation refers
to the diminished motivation that ensues when the need to be-
long is already well satisfied, and substitution refers to the re-
placeability of one social bond with another. Satiation and sub-
stitution are not unrelated, of course, because both invoke the
basic assumption that people need a certain quantity of belong-
ingness, and attachments or interactions beyond that minimum
should be subject to a pattern of diminishing returns.

Satiation implies a diminishing returns principle in the pur-
suit of new relationships and partners. Even in people-rich en-

vironments such as colleges, people appear to restrict their so-
cial lives to some extent. Studies show that the vast majority of
the average student’s meaningful interactions are with the same
six people (Wheeler & Nezlek, 1977). Reis (1990) surveyed
students about their interpersonal goals, and although “having
lots of friends” received one of the lowest ratings, most of the
top-rated items referred to intimate sharing with a few close,
caring friends. Caldwell and Peplau (1982) found that a strong
majority of both men and women expressed a clear preference
for a few close friendships over a large number of good but less
intimate friendships. Thus, people appear to devote their time
and efforts toward deepening a limited number of relationships
rather than toward meeting ever new people or cultivating a
wider range of acquaintanceships. Consistent with the satiation
hypothesis, people seem to believe that, in terms of friendships,
quality (closeness) is far more important than quantity.

Audy (1980) suggested that this satiation is more or less es-
sential if a species is to survive. Organisms evolve a “limited
requirement for the frequency of social transactions and a cor-
responding optimum group size” that permit a maximum of
social gratification balanced by socially induced frustration
(pp. 123-124). As he noted, there is evidence that people have
evolved “a physiological structure and basic mental require-
ments suited to a particular group size that corresponds to
[their] need for a certain level of social transactions” (p. 124).

Satiation patterns, in the form of diminishing effects of social
approval as reinforcement, have also been investigated in the
context of learning theory. Gewirtz and Baer (1958) replicated
the standard pattern that children’s task performance would
improve in response to verbal approval reinforcers such as
praise and other approving remarks; moreover, the reinforce-
ment effect was intensified if the children had first been deprived
of social approval by being kept in isolation for a brief period.
In another condition, however, the children were first given an
interview in which they received praise and admiration for
whatever they said about themselves. After this interview, the
standard praise and approval remarks failed to elicit improve-
ments in task performance, which suggests that these partici-
pants had been satiated with approval and were unaffected by
further doses. Eisenberger (1970) reviewed the subsequent stud-
ies on the same topic and found that the initial results were well
replicated. Moreover, these effects were not a result of sensory
deprivation, and they also failed to alter the subsequent respon-
siveness to nonsocial rewards. Eisenberger concluded that social
deprivation and social (approval) satiation effects operated by
altering short-term motivation for obtaining approval. Al-
though these studies were generally conducted with children
and did not involve lasting relationships, they do indicate that
the motive to gain social approval is susceptible to satiation.

Social interaction patterns that accompany the formation of
an intimate romantic relationship are especially relevant, be-
cause both satiation and substitution are implicit. Milardo,
Johnson, and Huston (1983) found that as an intimate relation-
ship develops, people reduce the amount of time they spend in-
teracting with other people, including old friends. Thus, the ro-
mantic relationship appears to supplant the others and satisfy
the belongingness need previously satisfied by the other

The belongingness hypothesis is, of course, not limited to the


mere existence of some formal attachment but also depends on
the quality of the relationship. Consistent with this, Berman’s
(1988) research on attachment to ex-spouses found that the
positive qualities of the relationship were important determi-
nants of the distress over the loss, as indicated by the finding
that people who had more favorable memories of the marriage
also had more distress after it ended. For present purposes, the
important implication is that if bad marriages fail to satisfy the
need to belong, then, as a result, they should stimulate a search
for new attachments. Vaughan (1986) observed that when mar-
riages begin to develop significant problems that will eventually
lead to their dissolution, the individuals often begin to seek out
new friendships and relationships. Along the same lines, Law-
son’s (1988) research on adultery found evidence that substitu-
tion can be an important factor, particularly for women. She
found that the reason most commonly cited by women for en-
gaging in extramarital sex was the husband’s failure to satisfy
the wife’s intimacy needs. (For husbands, other factors such as
sexual novelty and variety were influential, but these factors are
irrelevant to the belongingness hypothesis.) The implication is
that when the marital relationship satisfies the need to belong,
women are unlikely to seek extramarital relationships, but
when the marriage is not satisfactory, extramarital substitutes
may be sought. This conclusion supports both the satiation and
substitution hypotheses.

Spanier and Casto (1979) found that most people relied
heavily on (and benefited from) social support from friends and
family during divorce. When friends and family were not sup-
portive, however, “this lack of support seemed to increase the
overall difficulties in adjusting to the separation, especially the
emotional adjustments” (p. 217). Spanier and Casto also noted
that a failure to make new friends made the adjustment worse.
In a direct test of the hypothesis that more social interaction
will lead to less adjustment problems after divorce, they found
a strong relationship between social activity and adjustment
problems. They also found that forming new heterosexual or
romantic relationships eased the transition of divorce and led to
far fewer difficulties of adjustment. When new relationships fail
to form, the emotional distress associated with the divorce and
the ex-spouse may actually increase rather than decrease over
time (Spanier & Casto, 1979, p. 226), which again implies that
substitution is an effective way of recovering from relationship
dissolution. A very different source of evidence for the same
conclusion is Bowlby’s( 1969,1973) observation that children’s
anxiety and distress over separation from the mother seemed to
be greatly reduced if the children were accompanied by a famil-
iar other person at that time.

Populations of old people offer a useful way to examine
progressive social deprivation, because in many cases old
people have retired from work, are losing spouses to death,
and cease to make new intimate friendships (e.g., Kaufman,
1986). Like Kaufman, L. J. Beckman (1981) found that old
women’s relationships to adult children had become increas-
ingly important to their lives. The happiness of old women
with children was unrelated to the amount of social interac-
tions with other people; among childless old widows, however,
happiness in life was significantly correlated with the quality
and quantity of social interaction with other people. Thus,
the rewards of social interaction with children appear to be

“exchangeable and interchangeable” (L. J. Beckman, 1981,
p. 1085) with the rewards of interacting with other people.
Similarly, older adults who have a close friend are no more
likely to become depressed if, for one reason or another, the
amount of social interaction they have with other people de-
creases. In contrast, older adults without a confidant who de-
crease their interactions with others are at a very high risk for
depression (Lowenthal & Haven, 1968). These results sup-
port the view that people need some social attachments to be
happy and that these attachments are to some extent inter-
changeable. In particular, close relations with nonrelatives
can apparently substitute for relationships with offspring, at
least in terms of preventing any significant loss of happiness.

L. J. Beckman ( 1 9 8 1 ) also obtained findings relevant to
the satiation hypothesis. She found that the total amount of
social interaction with others was a significant predictor of
happiness among childless women but not among old women
who did have children, and she suggested that restriction of
range may account for this differential predictability. Spe-
cifically, according to Beckman, most old women with chil-
dren do have at least a certain minimal level of social interac-
tion, provided by the children, and so these women hardly
ever fall into the category of extreme loneliness and social
deprivation. Although Beckman repeatedly found that, iron-
ically, interactions with nonoffspring had a bigger impact on
happiness than interactions with children, having children
visit occasionally seemed to be enough to satisfy the need to
belong sufficiently to prevent the most severe problems of de-
privation. Above that minimum, further quantity of social
interaction did not appear to have an effect.

Substitutability patterns were suggested in a very different
way by Rusbult, Zembrodt, and Gunn (1982; see also Rusbult,
1980). They suggested that people remain in their close rela-
tionships for several reasons, and one important factor is the
availability of desirable alternative potential partners. In other
words, people are more likely to leave an intimate relationship
if they have some prospect of forming another intimate rela-
tionship with someone else soon.

Divorced people are at risk for a multitude of bad outcomes,
including illness, homicide, suicide, criminality, and accidental
injury or death (Bloom et al., 1979). One explanation is that
the divorced population represents a self-selected group of
pathologically inclined individuals, but this dispositional argu-
ment is weakened by the finding that remarriage tends to reduce
or eliminate the elevation in risk. The trauma of divorce itself
may be partly responsible for the increase in vulnerability, but
although the risks are highest immediately after divorce, they
do not fully subside until remarriage. The fact that remarriage
appears to eliminate many negative consequences of divorce
can indeed be explained in several ways, but it is at least strongly
consistent with the hypothesis that the new marriage substitutes
for the old one.

Divorce may often be voluntary, but imprisonment is not,
and prisoners suffer deprivation of contact with relationship
partners outside the prison. Men’s prisons are physically dan-
gerous, and both the gang bonding and the cultivation of social
isolation commonly found among male prisoners may reflect
more a concern with physical safety than anything else. In con-
trast, female prisons are far less dangerous to inmates, and so it


is relevant to examine how women prisoners adapt to the depri-
vation of contact with outside partners. Several studies have
found that female prisoners commonly form substitute families
based on imaginary kinship ties with other prisoners (Burkhart,
1973; Giallombardo, 1966; Toch, 1975). Some pseudomarital
bonds appear to involve voluntary homosexuality, which is typ-
ically renounced on leaving the prison (Burkhart, 1973). In
some cases, these pseudofamilies become quite extensive and
complex, with many women playing parts of parent, child, hus-
band, wife, grandparent, and other roles for each other. These
patterns appear to be simply an adaptation to prison life based
on the desire to experience romantic and family-style belong-
ingness during the time one is deprived of contact with the usual
relationship partners.

As we noted earlier, when groups break apart or people move
away from relationship partners, there is often initially strong
resistance to dissolving the relationship, but this resistance
tends to diminish over time (e.g., Lacoursiere, 1980; Lieberman
et al., 1973). These efforts to maintain the bond may be driven
by the absence of social ties in the new environment, and as
people gradually form new attachments they lose the need to
sustain the old ones. If this is correct, then future research
should find that people’s efforts to sustain friendships across
long distances are inversely proportional to their opportunities
to develop new friendships. For example, when people move
overseas, where cultural differences may hinder the develop-
ment of new intimate friendships, they should be more likely to
stay in touch with old friends than when moving to another
place in the same country.

Not all relationships are interchangeable, of course. Close re-
lationships based on romantic love may offer a variety of satis-
factions that are not easily obtained through nonromantic, non-
sexual friendships. Ruehlman and Wolchik (1988) found that
there were indeed particular benefits connected with the rela-
tionship to the most significant other in a person’s life. More
precisely, they found that once the social support and hindrance
provided by the most significant other person in someone’s life
were taken into account, there were no additional significant
effects of the support and hindrance provided by other people.
This pattern of results suggests that people need at least one
particularly strong, close attachment and that once they have
that, further attachments are subject to some principle of di-
minishing returns. A similar point was made by Coyne and
DeLongis (1986), who concluded, from a review of the social
support literature, that the harmful effects of a bad marriage
are not offset by having other good relationships; thus, again,
the special importance of the marital bond was confirmed.
Likewise, although women prisoners adapt to prison by sus-
pending their emotional attachments to most outsiders and
forming substitute family relationships with other prisoners,
they do exert themselves extensively to maintain the bond with
their real children who remain outside the prison (Baunach,
1985). And of course, as Kazan and Shaver (1994a) have
pointed out, although children could conceivably affiliate with
any available person, they nearly always focus on one particular
person, and their need to interact (as evidenced, in part, by dis-
tress over separation) becomes mainly focused on that person.

Critical assessment. There is an assortment of evidence
consistent with the hypotheses of satiation and substitution, but

the evidence is neither systematic enough nor unambiguous
enough to regard those hypotheses as strongly supported. Thus,
the fact that forming a close romantic attachment leads to with-
drawal from other friendships could be partly due to having a
limited amount of time to spend socializing rather than to any
reduction in need for the other friendships. Likewise, the culti-
vation of external friendships when a marriage goes bad could
be due to a need to discuss the marital problems with a sympa-
thetic outsider rather than a quest to find a new social bond that
could furnish what the marriage no longer provides. Although
the diversity of spheres yielding consistent findings encourages
one to expect that further evidence will continue to fit the satia-
tion and substitution hypotheses, more systematic work is
needed to rule out alternative explanations.

Also, there appear to be limits on the extent to which rela-
tionships can be substituted. A close romantic attachment to a
partner, with sexual attraction, appears to have special benefits
that cannot be compensated by other relationships. Still, when
such a relationship ends, forming a new one appears to be
sufficient to bring the person back to an equally high level of
adaptation and happiness, which suggests that, in the final anal-
ysis, a new spouse may be an effective substitute for a previous

Conclusion. People’s interaction patterns and surveys of
preferences suggest that people seek a limited number of rela-
tionships, consistent with the view that the need to belong is
subject to satiation and diminishing returns. The first few close
social bonds appear to be the most important, beyond which
additional ones furnish ever lesser benefits. When people lose
such bonds or find their particular partners inadequate, they
can often derive similar benefits from others, suggesting that
partners can be substituted to some extent. There are certain
kinds of relationships that cannot effectively be replaced with
other kinds of relationships, although finding a new relationship
of the same type appears, in many cases, to be viable and
effective. These conclusions are tentative, however, and further,
more systematic work is desirable.

Innateness, Universality, and Evolutionary Perspectives

We proposed that a fundamental need would presumably be
innate, which would entail that it is found in all human beings
and is not derivative of other motives. This will, of course, be
quite difficult to verify, because empirical criteria for testing
such a hypothesis are not widely recognized. One approach,
however, would be to examine how well the empirical evidence
conforms to evolutionary arguments. If evolution has instilled
the motivation, then it is presumably universal among human
beings and will be present in each person without needing to be
derived from other motives.

Barchas (1986) has asserted that “over the course of evolu-
tion, the small group became the basic survival strategy devel-
oped by the human species” (p. 212). He went on to suggest
that the brain and small groups evolved and adapted together,
with multiple interrelationships. The evidence reviewed by Bar-
chas remains preliminary, but it does seem that any link be-
tween brain structures and small-group formation would
strengthen the case for an innate motivation.

Although the psychobiological systems involved in social at-


tachment are not yet well understood, early evidence implicates
the brain opioid system. According to Panksepp, Siviy, and Nor-
mansell (1985), both the tendency to form social bonds and
the emotional effects of social loss (e.g., sadness or grief) are
mediated by opioids. The formation and validation of relation-
ships apparently stimulate opioid production, whereas the dis-
solution of relationships impedes it. As Panksepp et al. put it,
“social affect and social bonding are in some fundamental neu-
rochemical sense opioid addictions” (p. 25). Thus, in their
view, the tendency to seek social connections with others is
based not only on the secondary reinforcements that other peo-
ple provide but on psychophysiological mechanisms as well.

Multiple evolutionary reasons could be suggested for the
readiness to form groups easily. Groups can share labor, re-
sources, and information; diffuse risk; and cooperate to over-
come stress or threat (Hogan et al., 1985). Defense against rival
groups would also be a significant factor: If other people form
into groups, lone individuals would be at a competitive disad-
vantage in many situations, and so evolution may have selected
for people who would form groups defensively. Hence, the evo-
lutionary argument would fit any evidence that group forma-
tion or cohesion patterns are increased by external threat.

It has long been noted that external threats increase group
cohesion, and some writers have treated this as axiomatic. Stein
(1976) reviewed these views in light of the evidence and found
that a broad variety of methods have yielded generally consis-
tent findings; that is, external threats do increase cohesion most
of the time. There are some circumstances in which groups dis-
integrate under threat, especially if the threat pertains only to
some members of the group or if group members must compete
against each other to survive the threat (e.g., if there are too
few lifeboats). Staw, Sandelands, and Dutton (1981) also found
evidence that group cohesion is sometimes weakened in the af-
termath of a threat, especially if the group has failed to defeat
the threat and the group members blame each other. Apart from
these circumscribed exceptions, however, it is safe to conclude
that external threats do generally increase group cohesion.

A remarkable demonstration of the power of external threat
to forge lasting bonds was provided by Elder and Clipp’s (1988)
study of World War II veterans’ groups. In Elder and Clipp’s
results, the effects of maximum threat were discernible 40 years
later. That is, four decades after the war, the most enduring and
strongest ties were found among veterans who had experienced
heavy combat together and had suffered the deaths of some close
comrades. Units that had experienced combat without fatalities
were less close 40 years later, but they retained stronger ties than
the units that had not been in combat together. In other words,
the sharing of military experience provided some lasting bonds,
these bonds were intensified by shared experience of combat,
and they were especially strong if it had been heavy combat that
had killed some members of the group. It seems clear that there
would be survival benefits to a pattern in which the death of a
group member strengthened the ties among the survivors, espe-
cially in the face of external danger.

The group formation effects in the Robbers Cave study
(described earlier; Sherif et al., 1961 /1988) accelerated rapidly
after the mutual discovery of the existence of the two rival
groups; that is, the implicit threat posed by the opposing group
seemed to motivate each boy to cling to his own group more

strongly. Similar processes have been observed in terrorist
groups, which mainly become cohesive in the face of external
threat and danger. During periods when the conflict with out-
siders lapses, terrorist groups experience internal dissent and
conflict and may fall apart (see McCauley & Segal, 1987).

Compelling evidence in favor of emphasizing the competitive
disadvantage motive for affiliating was provided by Hoyle,
Pinkley, and Insko (1989). These researchers noted the irony
that encounters between individuals are generally pleasant and
supportive, whereas encounters between groups are frequently
unpleasant and confrontational, and their first study confirmed
these general expectations and stereotypes empirically. In their
second study, they sought to determine the decisive factor by
comparing interactions between persons, between groups, and
between one person and one group. To their surprise, they found
that participants’ expectations about the interaction were deter-
mined mainly by the other party rather than by participants’
own belongingness status. When participants expected to in-
teract with a group, they expected an abrasive interaction; when
they expected to interact with an individual, they anticipated
a pleasant, agreeable interaction. Identical effects were found
regardless of whether the participant expected to be alone or to
be part of a group. Thus, apparently, the presence of an out-
group causes people to anticipate conflict and problematic in-
teractions. Such an expectation could well elicit a motivation to
form a group to protect oneself.

A similar conclusion was suggested by Lauderdale, Smith-
Cunnien, Parker, and Inverarity (1984). Following Schachter’s
( 1 9 5 1 ) studies on group rejection of deviants, they found that
increasing an external threat led to increased rejection. The im-
plication was that groups become increasingly oriented toward
solidarity when confronted with an external threat.

Apart from threat, the possibility of gaining resources also
seems to trigger group cohesion, even when it is functionally
irrelevant. Rabbie and Horwitz (1969) assigned participants
randomly to two groups. The random assignment alone yielded
no effects of group cohesion on their measures of in-group pref-
erence, but they did find significant effects after a manipulation
in which one group was given a prize (transistor radio) based
on a coin flip. The rewarded group and the deprived group both
showed increased in-group preference. The prize was logically
irrelevant to subsequent group activities and preferences. The
implication is apparently that the combination of limited re-
sources and multiple groups triggers an in-group preference re-
sponse that has no apparent practical or rational basis, which is
consistent with the view that it is a deeply rooted and possibly
innate tendency rather than a strategic or rational choice.

Critical assessment. The evidence linking external threat to
increased group cohesion is convincing but does not prove an
evolutionary hypothesis of innateness or universality. The evi-
dence for brain mechanisms is likewise supportive but inade-
quate to prove innateness. The evidence in this section is per-
haps best described by stating that the evolutionary hypothesis
nicely survived several tests that could have contradicted it.

Conclusion. Several patterns seem consistent with evolu-
tionary reasoning. It remains plausible (but unproven) that the
need to belong is part of the human biological inheritance. If so,
the case for universality and nonderivativeness would be strong.


At present, it seems fair to accept these hypotheses as tentative
working assumptions while waiting for further evidence.

Apparent Counterexamples

Although the evidence presented thus far has been largely
supportive of the belongingness hypothesis, one might object
that our literature search has been structured in ways that pre-
disposed it toward just such favorable indications. It is therefore
desirable to examine behavioral patterns that would seemingly
constitute boundary conditions or counterexamples to the need
to belong. This section briefly considers several.

Refusal to help or cooperate. People generally show a sig-
nificant willingness to help others, but often there may be self-
interested motives lurking behind the apparent altruism (e.g.,
Cialdini, Darby, & Vincent, 1973; Manucia, Baumann, & Cial-
dini, 1984). To be sure, in many cases people appear to put self-
interest ahead of the welfare of others, leading them to disdain
opportunities for helping others or cooperating. Entering into
the long-running debate about the possibility and reality of
truly altruistic behavior is beyond the scope of this article; our
goal is merely to ask whether such cases do indeed contradict
the belongingness hypothesis. In particular, it is necessary to ask
whether these nonhelpful, noncooperative behavior patterns are
reduced or eliminated by belongingness.

One of social psychology’s best-known findings concerns the
unhelpfulness of multiple bystanders at an emergency site. As
Darley and Latane’s (1968) study and many subsequent inves-
tigations (see Latane & Nida, 1981) showed, people tend not to
come to the aid of an emergency victim when many other people
are also present. Among the reasons for the bystander effect are
the sense that it is not one’s own responsibility to help and the
fear that helping may bring negative consequences to the self.
Various findings suggest, however, that belongingness can over-
come the nonresponsiveness of bystanders. The bystander effect
is apparently robust among strangers (e.g., Darley & Latane,
1968), but in cohesive groups, the opposite pattern is found,
namely that larger groups produce more helping (Rutkowski,
Cruder, & Romer, 1983). Even the mere anticipation of future
interaction among group members is enough to eliminate the
bystander effect, making group members quite willing and likely
to come to each other’s aid (Gottlieb & Carver, 1980).

Social loafing is another pattern in which people put self-in-
terest ahead of cooperative concern for others (e.g., Latane, Wil-
liams, & Harkins, 1979). In social loafing, people reduce their
efforts when submerged in the group, thereby gaining benefits
of the group success without having to exert themselves maxi-
mally. Group membership can foster a sense of duty or obliga-
tion that can effectively override tendencies to engage in social
loafing, however. Harkins and Petty (1982) showed that if peo-
ple believe that they can make a unique contribution to the
group, they do not engage in social loafing, even if individual
contributions to the group will not be identified (and thus even
if they will not receive credit for their contribution; see also
Hardy & Grace, 1991).

The prisoner’s dilemma game has been widely used to exam-
ine how people choose between a self-interested, individualistic
(competitive) response and a cooperative response that can po-
tentially maximize everyone’s collective outcomes at the cost or

risk of individual vulnerability to loss. Once again, the presence
or apparent possibility of social attachments seems to shift peo-
ple away from the self-oriented mode toward a more coopera-
tive, collectively beneficial mode of response. The expectation
of future interaction increases helpful cooperation in the pris-
oner’s dilemma game, although this effect appears to obtain
mainly among high self-monitors (Danheiser & Graziano,
1982). The opportunity to meet and talk with strangers appears
to be sufficient to alter responses to a subsequent prisoner’s di-
lemma game in favor of increased cooperation and decreased
exploitation-defensiveness (Orbell et al., 1988).

Lastly, the commons dilemma (in which people deplete
renewable resources for short-term individual gain) is an-
other pattern in which people typically seek personal advan-
tage at the expense of long-range collective welfare. The com-
mons dilemma also can be reduced or overcome by belong-
ingness, however. Kramer and Brewer (1984) showed that
when belongingness is stimulated by making the group iden-
tity salient, people are more likely to restrain their self-inter-
ested tendencies and instead cooperate with others for the
greater good of the group.

More generally, helping appears to be increased by the exis-
tence of social bonds. Schoenrade, Batson, Brandt, and Loud
(1986) found that the existence of a social relationship in-
creases the motivation for helping. In the absence of a relation-
ship, people help only for egoistic reasons (i.e., self-interest);
when a relationship exists, however, people will help for rela-
tively selfless, altruistic reasons (see also Toi & Batson, 1982).
Even among strangers, familiarity leads to increased helping, as
does a sense of interpersonal dependency (Pearce, 1980). The
fact that belongingness can overcome self-interested patterns is
shown by evidence that people prefer reciprocity in social ex-
change to the extent that even overbenefited individuals some-
times feel uncomfortable and distressed even though material
self-interest is maximally served under conditions of being
overbenefited (Rook, 1987a). The concern with equity and
with aiding others is further indicated by the occasionally nega-
tive responses of would-be helpers to having their helpful efforts
spurned by the intended recipients (e.g., S. Rosen, Mickler, &
Collins, 1987).

Throughout this article, we have suggested mat the need to
belong may be biologically prepared. Evidence with animal spe-
cies is therefore relevant here. Masserman, Wechkin, and Terris
(1964) taught rhesus monkeys to pull a chain for food and then,
in one condition, added the contingency that pulling the chain
would cause a shock to be delivered to another monkey. Most
monkeys refrained from pulling the chain under those condi-
tions, even to the extent of starving themselves for several days
rather than cause another monkey to be shocked. These pat-
terns were particularly strong when the 2 animals had pre-
viously been cage mates and thus may be presumed to have
formed some sort of bond; when the animals were strangers to
each other, less than a third showed this form of altruistic, self-
sacrificing behavior.

Nonreciprocation of love. Although mutual love provides
strong satisfactions and hedonic benefits, there are many cases
in which people do not reciprocate another’s affection and ro-
mantic interest. Such refusals to form a social bond might be
taken as evidence against the belongingness hypothesis.


On closer examination, however, inspection of patterns of un-
requited love does not provide a serious challenge to the belong-
ingness hypothesis, for several reasons. First, most people do
want to form a close romantic relationship, and their refusals
are typically based on either already having such a relationship
with another partner (consistent with the satiation hypothesis)
or perceiving the aspiring partner as unsuitable for some reason,
such as unattractiveness or incompatibility. Moreover, in many
cases, rejectors experience considerable distress such as guilt
and empathic pain when rejecting another’s offer of love. This
distress is consistent with the view that rejecting social attach-
ment goes against some deeply rooted aspect of human nature,
even when the person is quite certain that he or she does not
want this particular attachment (Baumeister & Wotman, 1992;
Baumeisteretal, 1993).

Shyness. Shy behavior patterns may seem antisocial insofar
as the shy person sometimes avoids social encounters, with-
draws from ongoing interactions, and acts in other ways that
reduce the chances of forming relationships (Leary, 1983). In
fact, however, shy people are strongly motivated to form rela-
tionships, and shyness may reflect an interpersonal strategy that
partially protects the individual against rejection.

When people do not believe that they will be regarded in ways
that will result in social acceptance, they may avoid absolute
rejection by disaffiliating. Although reticence and withdrawal
are unlikely to make particularly good impressions or to bring
hearty acceptance from others, they reduce the risk of saying or
doing something that others might regard negatively. When one
fears rejection, the best tactic may seem to be to participate as
little as possible, thereby giving others few reasons to reject one
(Shepperd&Arkin, 1990).

At the same time that they pull back, however, shy people
engage in behaviors that have been characterized as “innocu-
ously sociable” (Leary, 1983). They smile more (even though
they feel anxious rather than happy), nod their heads more in
agreement, ask more questions, and use more verbal reinforcers
when others are speaking. These behaviors may reflect last-re-
sort tactics to maintain a minimum degree of interpersonal con-
nection in otherwise difficult or threatening encounters (Leary,
Knight, & Johnson, 1987).

General Discussion

We have considered a broad assortment of evidence pertain-
ing to the hypothesis that the desire for interpersonal attach-
ments—the need to belong—is a fundamental human motiva-
tion. Most of the metatheoretical requirements we outlined for
evaluating such a hypothesis appear to be satisfied, although
some issues remain. We begin by reviewing the major

Again and again, we found evidence of a basic desire to form
social attachments. People form social bonds readily, even un-
der seemingly adverse conditions. People who have anything in
common, who share common (even unpleasant) experiences,
or who simply are exposed to each other frequently tend to form
friendships or other attachments. Moreover, people resist losing
attachments and breaking social bonds, even if there is no ma-
terial or pragmatic reason to maintain the bond and even if
maintaining it would be difficult.

Abundant evidence also attests that the need to belong shapes
emotion and cognition. Forming or solidifying social attach-
ments generally produces positive emotion, whereas real, imag-
ined, or even potential threats to social bonds generate a variety
of unpleasant emotional states. In short, change in belong-
ingness is a strong and pervasive cause of emotion in ways that
support the hypothesis of a need to belong. It is also evident that
people think a great deal about belongingness. They devote a
disproportionate amount of cognitive processing to actual or
possible relationship partners and interaction partners, and
they reserve particular, more extensive, and more favorable pat-
terns of information processing for people with whom they
share social bonds.

Deficits in belongingness apparently lead to a variety of ill
effects, consistent with the view that belongingness is a need
(as opposed to merely a want). Both psychological and physical
health problems are more common among people who lack so-
cial attachments. Behavioral pathologies, ranging from eating
disorders to suicide, are more common among people who are
unattached. Although most of these findings are correlational
and many alternative explanations can be suggested, recent
efforts have begun controlling for these other factors, and the
pure, primary effects of belongingness appear to remain strong.
It appears, then, that belongingness is not only pleasant but also
apparently very beneficial to the individual in multiple ways.

We proposed two aspects of the need to belong, and both ap-
pear to be important. That is, people seem to need frequent,
affectively pleasant or positive interactions with the same indi-
viduals, and they need these interactions to occur in a frame-
work of long-term, stable caring and concern. People who can
satisfy one component but not the other tend to be less satisfied
and less well off then people who can satisfy both, but they do
seem to derive some benefits from satisfying the one component
(as opposed to satisfying neither). More and better evidence is
needed on this point, however; most evidence pertains to people
who have the bond and lack interactions, rather than the re-
verse. Also, it is unclear whether the interactions must be pleas-
ant or can be satisfactory if they are merely neutral. The evi-
dence suggests merely that aversive or conflictual interactions
fail to satisfy the need. Some evidence suggests that a framework
of mutual, reciprocal concern is best, but the effects and impor-
tance of mutuality need further investigation.

The need to belong also appears to conform to motivational
patterns of satiation and substitution. People need a few close
relationships, and forming additional bonds beyond those few
has less and less impact. Having two as opposed to no close
relationships may make a world of difference to the person’s
health and happiness; having eight as opposed to six may have
very little consequence. When a social bond is broken, people
appear to recover best if they form a new one, although each
individual life tends to involve some particularly special rela-
tionships (such as filial or marital bonds) that are not easily
replaced. People without intimate partners engage in a variety
of activities to find partners, but people who have partners al-
ready are much less active at seeking additional relationships,
consistent with the satiation hypothesis.

We reviewed evidence that the need to belong affects a broad
variety of behaviors; indeed, the range is sufficiently broad as to
render less plausible any notion that the need to belong is a


product of certain other factors or motives. We also noted that
evidence about belongingness seems to implicate some brain
mechanisms and to conform to patterns that evolutionary the-
ory would suggest, both of which seem consistent with the ar-
gument that the need is innate in humans. Still, the nonderiva-
tive hypothesis is probably the least well supported aspect of our
theory, not because of any clear evidence deriving the need to
belong from other motives but simply perhaps because it is rel-
atively difficult to collect compelling data to show that a motive
is not derivative. The issue of which motives derive from which
others appears to be an important challenge for future motiva-
tion research.

We also considered several counterexamples that at least su-
perficially suggested tendencies to reject social attachment. On
close inspection, these patterns did not stand up as counterex-
amples, and indeed there was generally strong evidence of a pos-
itive need to belong that increased the subjective difficulty of
rejecting or avoiding attachment.

We conclude, then, that the present state of the empirical ev-
idence is sufficient to confirm the belongingness hypothesis. The
need to belong can be considered a fundamental human

Implications for Psychological Theory

If the belongingness hypothesis is indeed correct, then it
seems plausible that many psychological phenomena may be
affected by this motivation. Clearly, patterns of group behavior
and close relationships can be understood as serving the need to
belong. It is thus not necessary to derive all group and intimate
affiliation patterns from other motives, such as the fact that
groups may confer pragmatic benefits or bolster self-esteem (see
also Turner, 1985). People may simply desire to belong to
groups. Patterns of self-presentation (Baumeister, 1982; Leary,
1994;Leary&Kowalski, 1990; Schlenker, 1980), interpersonal
redress and excuse making (R. S. Miller & Leary, 1992;
Schlenker, 1980; C. R. Snyder, Higgins, & Stucky, 1983), and
group conformity (Moreland & Levine, 1989) may all be seen
in the context of enhancing one’s chances of inclusion in groups
and relationships. Also, it may be no accident that people seem
most likely to be prejudiced against members of groups to
which they have little or no opportunity to belong. Thus, the
most common and widespread bases of prejudice are race, gen-
der, and national origin. People bolster their own in-group at
the expense of out-groups from which they are excluded (e.g.,
Meindl & Lerner, 1984).

Although antisocial behavior might, at first glance, be re-
garded as another potential counterexample for the belong-
ingness hypothesis (because antisocial behavior makes enemies
and alienates other people), it is readily apparent that belong-
ingness has close ties to it. Members of some groups are pres-
sured to commit violent acts, ranging from vandalism to mur-
der, to be accepted by and to demonstrate commitment to the
group (e.g., Breitman, 1991; Freud, 1913/1956; Hogan &
Jones, 1983; Rosenberg, 1991; Sarbin, 1982;Staub, 1989;Toch,
1992). It seems likely that aggression as well may have some
belongingness as a prerequisite, because aggression risks
alienating other people and so only people with firm attach-
ments can safely engage in aggressive behavior.

The centrality of belongingness to human psychological func-
tioning also has implications for the treatment of emotional and
behavioral problems. From our standpoint, a great deal of peo-
ple’s psychological difficulties reflects emotional and behavioral
reactions to perceived threats to social bonds. As has been
shown, many of the emotional problems for which people seek
professional help (anxiety, depression, grief, loneliness, rela-
tionship problems, and the like) result from people’s failure to
meet their belongingness needs. Furthermore, a great deal of
neurotic, maladaptive, and destructive behavior seems to reflect
either desperate attempts to establish or maintain relationships
with other people or sheer frustration and purposelessness when
one’s need to belong goes unmet.

Implications for Other Fields

We suggested at the outset that the belongingness hypothesis
ought to have implications that go beyond immediate psycho-
logical functioning and, indeed, that it might prove useful as an
explanatory construct for the phenomena studied by research-
ers in other fields. We now consider briefly some nonpsycholog-
ical applications of the need to belong.

Contrary to cultural materialism, we have proposed that
many aspects of human culture are directly and functionally
linked to enabling people to satisfy the psychological need to
belong. If this is correct, then some historical and sociological
changes in the structures of society should be linked to changes
in the bases for belongingness. For example, membership in
many organizations (including corporate employment) has
largely ceased to depend on family connections the way it once
did, with corresponding changes in the definition and power bal-
ance in families, the educational system (which provides
credentials), and other placement systems (e.g., Burgess &
Locke, 1945; Pass, 1977).

By the same token, the decline of arranged marriages and the
increasing availability of divorce have made romantic attach-
ment more dependent on individual attractiveness and other
traits. Concern over the self as an instrument for attracting oth-
ers and maintaining attachments should therefore increase.
Thus, becoming old or fat would be less threatening if divorce
were impossible or if marriages were arranged. With the in-
creasing threat, social structures should emerge, for example,
to help people look young or lose weight. Also, sexuality has a
frequently changing relationship to social inclusion, and vari-
ous eras have included or excluded people on the basis of sexual
chastity, skill, appeal, and perceived healthiness.

A general pattern may well be that cultures use social inclu-
sion to reward, and exclusion to punish, their members as a way
of enforcing their values. As is well known, many early civiliza-
tions equated exile with death, which seems to suggest that life
is desirable only within the network of close relationships to
which the person belongs. Modern civilizations tend to use
prison to punish people, which again invokes the principle that
depriving people of contact with relationship partners is highly
aversive; solitary confinement is generally recognized as the
most severe and aversive form of imprisonment. On the positive
side, the evolution of modern society has seen an increasingly
broad and fundamental quest for fame. Braudy’s (1986) history
of fame characterizes the desire for fame as based on a “dream


of acceptance” that holds the (often illusory) promise that once
a person achieves fame, he or she will be embraced and sought
by others for the rest of his or her life. Fame may well be thus
another instance of the use of social inclusion as a reward. A. H.
Buss (1983) has pointed out that both the presence of others
and the attention of others are important social rewards, and
the deprivation of such contact has often been used as powerful
social punishment.

Turning to political science, a well-known article by
Morgenthau (1962) argued that the pursuit of power can be
understood as the counterpart to the pursuit of love in that
both involve an attempt to escape from loneliness. In Mor-
genthau’s analysis, the human condition suffers from the
threat of isolation, and by breaking down the barriers be-
tween one another people hope to achieve a sense of together-
ness. The main difference between love and power is that love
aspires to a mutual dissolving of personal boundaries, leading
to an egalitarian merging into a new whole, whereas power
seeks a unilateral overcoming of boundaries, by which the
will of the more powerful person becomes the will of both.
Morgenthau noted that the pursuit of power often fails to
overcome loneliness, so that, ironically, the most powerful in-
dividuals end up feeling still isolated and lonely (hence, the
tendency for rulers to demand that their subjects love them
too). For present purposes, the main point is that the need to
belong may be regarded as a major source of the desire for

The role of belongingness is also apparent in religion. Al-
though ideological belief and acceptance of metaphysical doc-
trines are often regarded as the essence of religious participa-
tion, Stark and Bainbridge (1985) reviewed considerable evi-
dence suggesting that the need to belong may be a more
compelling factor than the need to believe. They noted that
movement into and out of religious groups (including cults,
sects, and mainstream denominations) depends much more
heavily on social ties than on ideological belief. Indeed, many
people do not fully grasp or understand the theological belief
structure of their own religion (e.g., the subtle differences be-
tween the many Protestant denominations), but they are well
aware of what sort of people in their community belong to
which religion. Cults mainly attract people who are socially iso-
lated or lonely, and these individuals are often attracted partic-
ularly by the promise of becoming part of a community or gain-
ing a sense of belonging. Those who form social attachments to
other members of the cult tend to remain, whereas those who
do not form social bonds tend to leave soon. By the same token,
Kirkpatrick and Shaver (1992) have shown multiple links be-
tween religious beliefs and adult attachment styles or relation-
ship patterns.

Thus far we have focused on the broad need itself, but some
specific patterns regarding human sociality may also have im-
plications for other fields. For example, we have noted that an
interesting psychological issue involves the factors that deter-
mine whether previously opposed groups do or do not integrate
into larger wholes (cf. Sherifetal., 1961/1988), such that indi-
viduals redefine their allegiance so as to belong to the new
group. Such reidentifications have been important throughout
history. The Wars of the Roses were finally decided by the battle
of Bosworth, in which Richard III was killed, thereby enabling

Henry Tudor to establish the dynasty that ruled Elizabethan
England; that battle (like others in the conflict) turned on the
dubious loyalty and betrayal of several major groups that were
incompletely merged into their respective sides (Ross, 1976).
The Zulu empire in South Africa was formed by incorporating
many other groups that had been rivals of and neighbors to the
original Zulus, and those new identifications persist even today,
long past the fall of that empire (Morris, 1965). Meanwhile,
however, Angola, Rwanda, and Uganda have suffered repeated
bouts of cruel violence and civil war between former rival
groups that failed to integrate and identify with the national
unity. Nor is this problem unique to Africa; the former Yugo-
slavia provided a vivid example of bitter factional violence re-
emerging after decades of seemingly peaceful coexistence, and
the same goes for Sri Lanka. In the United States, melting pot
ideology has recently gone out of fashion as the nation has be-
gun to accept the problematic reality of multiple, separate en-
claves defined by racial and ethnic backgrounds. In short, it ap-
pears that asking people to redefine their belongingness to ac-
commodate new realities is difficult and only sometimes

These applications are not intended as exhaustive, nor even
as the most compelling or important. They are merely intended
as an indication that the need to belong could be used as an
interpretive construct outside of psychological laboratories.

Concluding Remarks

At present, it seems fair to conclude that human beings are
fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong,
that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring inter-
personal attachments. People seek frequent, affectively positive
interactions within the context of long-term, caring relation-
ships. As a speculative point of theory or impressionistic obser-
vation, the need to belong is not a new idea; indeed, we noted a
variety of previous psychological theorists who have proposed it
in one form or another. What is new, however, is the existence of
a large body of empirical evidence with which to evaluate that

If psychology has erred with regard to the need to belong, in
our view, the error has not been to deny the existence of such a
motive so much as to underappreciate it. This review has shown
multiple links between the need to belong and cognitive pro-
cesses, emotional patterns, behavioral responses, and health and
well-being. The desire for interpersonal attachment may well be
one of the most far-reaching and integrative constructs cur-
rently available to understand human nature.


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Revision received November 4, 1994

Accepted November 7, 1994 •


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1. The Building Blocks of Relationships 1

the nature and importance of intimacy 2

the influence of culture 6

the influence of experience 14

the influence of individual differences 20

the influence of human nature 37

the influence of interaction 41

the dark side of relationships 42

for your consideration 42

key terms 43

chapter summary 43

suggestions for satisfaction 45

references 45

2. Research Methods 59

the short history of relationship science 60

developing a question 64

obtaining participants 64

choosing a design 68

the nature of our data 70

the ethics of such endeavors 76

miL04267_fm_i-xvi.indd 3 12/01/21 7:55 PM

iv Contents

interpreting and integrating results 78

a final note 80

for your consideration 80

key terms 81

chapter summary 81

suggestions for satisfaction 82

references 82

3. Attraction 87

the fundamental basis of attraction 87

proximity: liking those near us 88

physical attractiveness: liking those who are lovely 94

reciprocity: liking those who like us 105

similarity: liking those who are like us 107

so, what do men and women want? 116

for your consideration 119

key terms 119

chapter summary 119

suggestions for satisfaction 121

references 121

4. Social Cognition 133

first impressions (and beyond) 133

the power of perceptions 140

impression management 156

so, just how well do we know our partners? 161

for your consideration 166

key terms 166

chapter summary 167

suggestions for satisfaction 168

references 169

miL04267_fm_i-xvi.indd 4 12/01/21 7:55 PM

Contents v

5. Communication 179

nonverbal communication 181

verbal communication 193

dysfunctional communication and what to do about it 203

for your consideration 209

key terms 209

chapter summary 209

suggestions for satisfaction 211

references 211

6. Interdependency 221

social exchange 221

the economies of relationships 229

are we really this greedy? 241

the nature of commitment 249

for your consideration 254

key terms 255

chapter summary 255

suggestions for satisfaction 257

references 257

7. Friendship 266

the nature of friendship 266

friendship across the life cycle 275

differences in friendship 279

friendship difficulties 285

for your consideration 295

key terms 296

chapter summary 296

suggestions for satisfaction 297

references 298

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vi Contents

8. Love 308

a brief history of love 308

types of love 310

individual and cultural differences in love 327

does love last? 331

for your consideration 335

key terms 336

chapter summary 336

suggestions for satisfaction 337

references 337

9. Sexuality 343

sexual attitudes 343

sexual behavior 348

sexual satisfaction 366

sexual coercion 374

for your consideration 377

key terms 377

chapter summary 377

suggestions for satisfaction 379

references 379

10. Stresses and Strains 395

perceived relational value 395

hurt feelings 397

ostracism 400

jealousy 402

deception and lying 413

betrayal 417

forgiveness 421

miL04267_fm_i-xvi.indd 6 12/01/21 7:55 PM

Contents vii

for your consideration 423

key terms 424

chapter summary 424

suggestions for satisfaction 426

references 426

11. Conflict 436

the nature of conflict 436

the course of conflict 440

the outcomes of conflict 454

for your consideration 459

key terms 460

chapter summary 460

suggestions for satisfaction 461

references 462

12. Power and Violence 468

power and interdependence 468

violence in relationships 482

for your consideration 493

key terms 493

chapter summary 493

suggestions for satisfaction 495

references 495

13. The Dissolution and Loss of Relationships 503

the changing rate of divorce 503

the predictors of divorce 509

breaking up 519

the aftermath of breakups 523

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viii Contents

for your consideration 533

key terms 533

chapter summary 533

suggestions for satisfaction 535

references 535

14. Maintaining and Repairing Relationships 544

maintaining and enhancing relationships 546

repairing relationships 554

in conclusion 563

for your consideration 564

key terms 564

chapter summary 565

suggestions for satisfaction 566

references 566


miL04267_fm_i-xvi.indd 8 12/01/21 7:55 PM


Preface to the Ninth Edition

Welcome to Intimate Relationships! I’m very pleased that you’re here. I’ve been deeply
honored by the high regard this book has enjoyed, and I’m privileged to offer you
another very thorough update on the remarkable work being done in relationship
science. The field is busier, broader, and more innovative than ever, so a new edition
is warranted—and this one contains almost 800 citations of brand-new work published
in the last 3 years. No other survey of relationship science is as current, comprehen-
sive, and complete.

Readers report that you won’t find another textbook that’s as much fun to read,
either. I’m more delighted by that than I can easily express. This is a scholarly work
primarily intended to provide college audiences with broad coverage of an entire field
of inquiry, but it’s written in a friendly, accessible style that gets students to read
chapters they haven’t been assigned—and that’s a real mark of success! But really,
that’s also not surprising because so much of relationship science is so fascinating.
No other science strikes closer to home. For that reason, and given its welcoming,
reader-friendly style, this book has proven to be of interest to the general public, too.
(As my father said, “Everybody should read this book.”)

So, here’s a new edition. It contains whole chapters on key topics that other books
barely mention and has a much wider reach, citing hundreds more studies, than other
books do. It draws on social psychology, communication studies, family studies,
sociology, clinical psychology, neuroscience, demography, economics, and more. It’s
much more current and comprehensive and more fun to read than any other overview
of the modern science of close relationships. Welcome!

miL04267_fm_i-xvi.indd 9 12/01/21 7:55 PM

x Preface to the Ninth Edition

What’s New in This Edition

Two new features have enhanced the pedagogy and increased the lasting value of the
book. Key Terms that are introduced are now listed at the end of each chapter alongside
the page numbers that provide their definitions. And more importantly, the insights of
each chapter are now synthesized into applied Suggestions for Satisfaction from
relationship science that offer readers helpful recommendations that can improve their
chances for contentment in their own relationships. (The Suggestions also provide
instructors with starting points for enlightening discussions!)

In addition, as usual, after thorough, substantive revision, this new edition is remark-
ably up-to-date and cutting-edge. It contains 796 (!) new references that support new or
expanded treatment of a variety of intriguing and noteworthy topics that include:

Tinder Sexual rejections
Humility Implicit attitudes
Flooding Facial expressions
Savoring Life History Theory
Stealthing Friends with benefits
Selfishness Commitment readiness
Remarriage Traditional masculinity
Foodie calls Back burner relationships
Social media Satisficers and maximizers
Transference Transgenders’ relationships
Open science Consensual non-monogamy
The Dark Triad Evolutionary perspective on attraction

Further, in substantially expanded discussions of gender and sexual orientation,
the book now quietly but explicitly rejects any assumptions that there are just two
genders or that heterosexual relationships are in some fashion more genuine than
same-sex partnerships. Both assumptions, of course, are simply untrue. I’ll also note
in particular the book’s brand-new consideration of transgenders’ relationships and
consensual non-monogamy; both topics have been of interest to relationship scientists
since my last edition, and there’s now news to share with you.

What Hasn’t Changed

If you’re familiar with the eighth edition of this book, you’ll find things in the same
places. Vital influences on intimate relationships are introduced in chapter 1, and when
they are mentioned in later chapters, footnotes remind readers where to find definitions
that will refresh their memories.

Thought-provoking Points to Ponder appear in each chapter, too. They invite read-
ers to think more deeply about intriguing phenomena, and they can serve equally well
as touchstones for class discussion, topics for individual essays, and personal reflections
regarding one’s own behavior in close relationships.

The book’s singular style also remains intact. There’s someone here behind these
pages. I occasionally break the third wall, speaking directly to the reader, both to be

miL04267_fm_i-xvi.indd 10 12/01/21 7:55 PM

Preface to the Ninth Edition xi

friendly and to make some key points (and because I can’t help myself). I relish the
opportunity to introduce this dynamic, exciting science to a newcomer—what a remark-
able privilege!—and readers report that it shows.

Finally, this new edition is again available as a digital SmartBook that offers a
personalized and adaptive reading experience. Students do better when their text tells
them which concepts are giving them trouble, so if you haven’t examined the Smart-
Book for Intimate Relationships, I encourage you to do so.

Kudos and fond remembrance are due to Sharon Stephens Brehm, the original
creator of this book, who was the first person to write a text that offered a compre-
hensive introduction to relationship science. Her contributions to our field endure. And
despite the passage of some years, I remain deeply grateful to Dan Perlman, the co-
author who offered me the opportunity to join him in crafting a prior edition. No
colleague could be more generous. I’ve also been grateful during this edition for the
wonderful support and assistance of editorial and production professionals, Elisa
Odoardi, Susan Raley, Carrie Burger, Beth Blech, Danielle Clement, Maria McGreal,
and Jitendra Uniyal. Thanks, y’all!

And I’m glad you’re here! I hope you enjoy the book.

The 9th edition of Intimate Relationships is now available online with Connect,
McGraw-Hill Education’s integrated assignment and assessment platform. Connect also
offers SmartBook® 2.0 for the new edition, which is the first adaptive reading experi-
ence proven to improve grades and help students study more effectively. All of the title’s
website and ancillary content is also available through Connect, including:

• A full Test Bank of multiple choice questions that test students on central concepts
and ideas in each chapter.

• An Instructor’s Manual for each chapter with full chapter outlines, sample test
questions, and discussion topics.

• Lecture Slides for instructor use in class.

miL04267_fm_i-xvi.indd 11 12/01/21 7:55 PM


About the Author

Rowland S. Miller is Distinguished Regents Professor
Emeritus of Psychology at Sam Houston State Univer-
sity in Huntsville, Texas. He has been teaching a
course in Close Relationships for over 35 years, and
he won the 2008 Teaching Award from the Interna-
tional Association for Relationship Research (primar-
ily as a result of this book). He’s also been recognized
as one of the most outstanding college teachers in
Texas by the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation, which
named him a Piper Professor of 2016. He is a Fellow
of the Association for Psychological Science and the
Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and he
won the Edwin Newman Award for Excellence in
Research from Psi Chi and the American Psychological
Association. His parents were happily married for
73 years, and he’d like to have as long with his wonder-
ful wife, Carolyn, to whom this book is dedicated; she was a huge help behind the
scenes, talking the author out of (nearly) all of his bad ideas.

Courtesy of Carolyn A. Miller

miL04267_fm_i-xvi.indd 12 12/01/21 7:55 PM

About the Author xiii

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Assignment tool delivers a learning experience to help students improve their written
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xiv Contents

Tools to enhance your unique voice
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Contents xv

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C H A P T E R 1

The Building Blocks of

The Nature and Importance of Intimacy ♦ The Influence of
Culture ♦ The Influence of Experience ♦ The Influence of Individual

Differences ♦ The Influence of Human Nature ♦ The Influence of
Interaction ♦ The Dark Side of Relationships ♦ For Your

Consideration ♦ key terms ♦ chapter summary ♦ suggestions for
satisfaction ♦ references

How’s this for a vacation? Imagine yourself in a nicely appointed suite with a pastoral
view. You’ve got high-speed access to Netflix and Hulu, video games, plenty of books
and magazines, and all the supplies for your favorite hobby. Delightful food and drink
are provided, and you have your favorite entertainments at hand. But there’s a catch:
No one else is around, and you have no phone and no access to the Web. You’re
completely alone. You have almost everything you want except for other people. Texts,
tweets, Instagram, and Snapchat are unavailable. No one else is even in sight, and you
cannot interact with anyone else in any way.

How’s that for a vacation? A few of us would enjoy the solitude for a while, but
most of us would quickly find it surprisingly stressful to be completely detached from
other people (Schachter, 1959). Most of us need others even more than we realize.
Day by day, we tend to prefer the time we spend with others to the time we spend
alone (Bernstein et al., 2018), and there’s a reason prisons sometimes use solitary
confinement as a form of punishment: Human beings are a very social species. People
suffer when they are deprived of close contact with others, and at the core of our social
nature is our need for intimate relationships.

Our relationships with others are central aspects of our lives. They’re indispensable
and vital, so it’s useful to understand how they start, how they operate, how they thrive,
and how, sometimes, they end in a haze of anger and pain.

This book will promote your own understanding of close relationships. It draws on
psychology, sociology, communication studies, family studies, and neuroscience to offer
a comprehensive survey of what behavioral scientists have learned about relationships
through careful research. It offers a different, more scientific view of relationships than
you’ll find in magazines or the movies; it’s more reasoned, more cautious, and often less
romantic. You’ll also find that this is not a how-to manual. Insights abound in the pages
ahead, and there’ll be plenty of news you can use, but you’ll need to bring your own
values and personal experiences to bear on the information presented here.

miL04267_ch01_001-058.indd 1 12/01/21 4:03 PM

2 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

To set the stage for the discoveries to come, we’ll first define our subject matter.
What are intimate relationships? Why do they matter so much? Then, we’ll consider
the fundamental building blocks of close relationships: the cultures we inhabit, the
experiences we encounter, the personalities we possess, the human origins we all share,
and the interactions we conduct. In order to understand relationships, we need to
consider who we are, where we are, and how we got there.


Relationships come in all shapes and sizes. We can have consequential contact with
almost anyone—cashiers, classmates, fellow commuters, and kin (Epley & Schroeder,
2014)—but we’ll focus here on our relationships with friends and lovers because they
exemplify intimate relationships. Our primary focus is on intimate relationships between

The Nature of Intimacy

What, then, is intimacy? That’s actually a complex question because intimacy is a
multifaceted concept with several different components. It’s generally held (Ben-Ari &
Lavee, 2007) that intimate relationships differ from more casual associations in at least
seven specific ways: knowledge, interdependence, caring, trust, responsiveness, mutual-
ity, and commitment.

First, intimate partners have extensive personal, often confidential, knowledge
about each other. They share information about their histories, preferences, feelings,
and desires that they do not reveal to most of the other people they know.

The lives of intimate partners are also intertwined: What each partner does
affects what the other partner wants to do and can do (Fitzsimons et al., 2015).
Interdependence between intimates—the extent to which they need and influence each
other—is frequent (they often affect each other), strong (they have meaningful impact
on each other), diverse (they inf luence each other in many different ways), and
enduring (they influence each other over long periods of time). When relationships
are interdependent, one’s behavior affects one’s partner as well as oneself ( Berscheid
et al., 2004).

The qualities that make these close ties tolerable are caring, trust, and responsive-
ness. Intimate partners care about each other; they feel more affection for one another
than they do for most others. They also trust one another, expecting to be treated fairly
and honorably (Thielmann & Hilbig, 2015). People expect that no undue harm will
result from their intimate relationships, and if it does, they often become wary and
reduce the openness and interdependence that characterize closeness (Jones et al.,
1997). In contrast, intimacy increases when people believe that their partners under-
stand, respect, and appreciate them, being attentively and effectively responsive to their
needs and concerned for their welfare (Reis & Gable, 2015). Responsiveness is power-
fully rewarding, and the perception that our partners recognize, understand, and sup-
port our needs and wishes is a core ingredient of our very best relationships (Reis
et al., 2017).

miL04267_ch01_001-058.indd 2 12/01/21 4:03 PM

chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 3

As a result of these close ties, people who are intimate also consider themselves
to be a couple instead of two entirely separate individuals. They exhibit a high degree
of mutuality, which means that they recognize their close connection and think of
themselves as “us” instead of “me” and “him” (or “her”) (Davis & Weigel, 2020). In
fact, that change in outlook—from “I” to “us”—often signals the subtle but significant
moment in a developing relationship when new partners first acknowledge their attach-
ment to each other (Agnew et al., 1998). Indeed, researchers can assess the amount
of intimacy in a close relationship by simply asking partners to rate the extent to which
they “overlap.” The Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale (see Figure 1.1) is a straight-
forward measure of mutuality that does a remarkably good job of distinguishing between
intimate and more casual relationships (Aron et al., 2013).

Finally, intimate partners are ordinarily committed to their relationships. That is,
they expect their partnerships to continue indefinitely, and they invest the time, effort,
and resources that are needed to realize that goal. Without such commitment, people
who were once very close may find themselves less and less interdependent and knowl-
edgeable about each other as time goes by.

None of these components is absolutely required for intimacy to occur, and each
may exist when the others are absent. For instance, spouses in a stale, unhappy mar-
riage may be very interdependent, closely coordinating the practical details of their
daily lives, but living in a psychological vacuum devoid of much affection or respon-
siveness. Such partners would certainly be more intimate than mere acquaintances
are, but they would undoubtedly feel less close to one another than they used to
(perhaps, for instance, when they decided to marry), when more of the components
were present. In general, our most satisfying and meaningful intimate relationships
include all seven of these defining characteristics (Fletcher et al., 2000), but intimacy
can exist to a lesser degree when only some of them are in place. And as unhappy
marriages demonstrate, intimacy can also vary enormously over the course of a long

FIGURE 1.1. The Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale.
How intimate is a relationship? Just asking people to pick the picture that portrays a particu-
lar partnership does a remarkably good job of assessing the closeness they feel.

Please circle the picture below that best describes your current relationship with your partner.

Self Other Self Other Self Other

Self Other Self Other Self Other Self Other

Source: Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Smollan, D. (1992). “Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale and the structure of
interpersonal closeness,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 596–612.

miL04267_ch01_001-058.indd 3 12/01/21 4:03 PM

4 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

So, there’s no one kind of intimate relationship. Indeed, a fundamental lesson
about relationships is a very simple one: They come in all shapes and sizes. This variety
is a source of great complexity, but it’s also endlessly fascinating. (And that’s why I
wrote this book!)

The Need to Belong

Our focus on intimate relationships means that we’ll not consider the wide variety of
interactions that you have each day with casual friends and acquaintances. Should we
be so particular? Is such a focus justified? The answers, of course, are yes. Although
our casual interactions can be very influential (Sandstrom & Dunn, 2014), there’s
something special about intimate relationships (Venaglia & Lemay, 2017). In fact, a
powerful and pervasive drive to establish intimacy with others may be a basic part of
our human nature. According to theorists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary (1995), we
need frequent, pleasant interactions with intimate partners in lasting, caring relation-
ships if we’re to function normally. There is a human need to belong in close relation-
ships, and if the need is not met, a variety of problems follows.

Our need to belong is presumed to necessitate “regular social contact with those
to whom one feels connected” (Baumeister & Leary, 1995, p. 501). In order to fulfill
the need, we are driven to establish and maintain close relationships with other people;
we require interaction and communion with those who know and care for us. But we
only need a few close relationships; when the need to belong is satiated, our drive to
form additional relationships is reduced. (Thus, when it comes to relationships, quality
is more important than quantity.) It also doesn’t matter much who our partners are;
as long as they provide us stable affection and acceptance, our need can be satisfied.
Thus, when an important relationship ends, we are often able to find replacement
partners who—though they may be quite different from our previous partners—are none-
theless able to satisfy our need to belong (Hirsch & Clark, 2019).

Some of the support for this theory comes from the ease with which we form
relationships with others and from the tenacity with which we then resist the dissolu-
tion of our existing social ties. Indeed, when a valued relationship is in peril, we may
find it hard to think about anything else. The potency of the need to belong may also
be why being entirely alone for a long period of time is so stressful (Schachter, 1959);
anything that threatens our sense of connection to other people can be hard to take
(Leary & Miller, 2012).

In fact, some of the strongest evidence supporting a need to belong comes from
studies of the biological benefits we accrue from satisfying close ties to others. In gen-
eral, people live happier, healthier, longer lives when they’re closely connected to others
than they do when they’re on their own (Loving & Sbarra, 2015). Holding a lover’s
hand reduces the brain’s alarm in response to threatening situations (Coan et al., 2006),
and pain seems less potent when one simply looks at a photograph of a loving partner
(Master et al., 2009). Wounds even heal faster when others accept and support us
(Gouin et al., 2010). In contrast, people with insufficient intimacy in their lives are at
risk for a wide variety of health problems (Valtorta et al., 2016). When they’re lonely,
young adults have weaker immune responses, leaving them more likely to catch a cold
or flu (Pressman et al., 2005). Across the life span, people who have few friends or

miL04267_ch01_001-058.indd 4 12/01/21 4:03 PM

chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 5

lovers—and even those who simply live alone—have much
higher mortality rates than do those who are closely
connected to caring partners (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015);
in one extensive study, people who lacked close ties to
others were 2 to 3 times more likely to die over a 9-year
span (Berkman & Glass, 2000). Married people in the
United States are less likely to die from any of the 10
leading causes of cancer-related death than unmarried
people are (Aizer et al., 2013). And losing one’s existing
ties to others is damaging, too: Elderly widows and wid-
owers are much more likely to die in the first few months after the loss of their spouses
than they would have been had their marriages continued (Elwert & Christakis, 2008),
and a divorce also increases one’s risk of an early death (Zhang et al., 2016).

Our mental and physical health is also affected by the quality of our connections
to others (Robles et al., 2014) (see Figure 1.2). Day by day, people who have pleas-
ant interactions with others who care for them are more satisfied with their lives

A Point to Ponder

Why are married people less
likely to die from cancer than
unmarried people are? Are
unhealthy people simply less
likely to get married, or is
marriage advantageous to our
health? How might marriage
be beneficial?

FIGURE 1.2. Satisfying intimacy and life and death.
Here’s a remarkable example of the manner in which satisfying intimacy is associated with bet-
ter health. In this investigation, middle-aged patients with congestive heart failure were tracked
for several years after their diseases were diagnosed. Forty-eight months later, most of the
patients with less satisfying marriages had died, whereas most of the people who were more
happily married were still alive. This pattern occurred both when the initial illnesses were rela-
tively mild and more severe, so it’s a powerful example of the link between happy intimacy and
better health. In another study, patients who were satisfied with their marriages when they had
heart surgery were over 3 times more likely to still be alive 15 years later than were those who
were unhappily married (King & Reis, 2012). Evidently, fulfilling our needs to belong can be a
matter of life or death.

Source: Coyne, J. C., Rohrbaugh, M. J., Shoham, V., Sonnega, J. S., Nicklas, J. M., & Cranford, J. A. (2001).
“Prognostic importance of marital quality for survival of congestive heart failure,” American Journal of Cardiology,
88, 526–529.
















Months from Diagnosis

Better Marital

Poorer Marital

miL04267_ch01_001-058.indd 5 12/01/21 4:03 PM

6 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

than are those who lack such social contact (Sun et al., 2020), and this is true around
the world (Galínha et al., 2013). In contrast, psychiatric problems, anxiety disorders,
substance abuse, inflammation, obesity, and sleep problems all tend to afflict those
with troubled ties to others (Gouin et al., 2020; Kiecolt-Glaser & Wilson, 2017). On
the surface (as I’ll explain in detail in chapter 2), such patterns do not necessarily
mean that shallow, superficial relationships cause psychological problems; after all,
people who are prone to such problems may find it difficult to form loving relation-
ships in the first place. Nevertheless, it does appear that a lack of intimacy can both
cause such problems and make them worse (Braithwaite & Holt-Lunstad, 2017). In
general, whether we’re young or old (Allen et al., 2015), gay or straight (Wight
et al., 2013), or married or just cohabiting (Kohn & Averett, 2014), our well-being
seems to depend on how well we satisfy the need to belong. Evidently, “we are wired
for close connection with others and this connection is vital to our survival”
(Johnson, 2019).

Why should we need intimacy so much? Why are we such a social species? One
possibility is that the need to belong evolved over eons, gradually becoming a natural
tendency in all human beings (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). That argument goes this
way: Because early humans lived in small groups surrounded by a difficult environ-
ment full of saber-toothed tigers, people who were loners were less likely than gre-
garious humans to have children who would grow to maturity and reproduce. In such
a setting, a tendency to form stable, affectionate connections to others would have
been evolutionarily adaptive, making it more likely that one’s children would survive
and thrive (Hare, 2017). As a result, our species slowly came to be characterized by
people who cared deeply about what others thought of them and who sought accep-
tance and closeness from others. Admittedly, this view—which represents a provoca-
tive way of thinking about our modern behavior (and about which I’ll have more to
say later in this chapter)—is speculative. Nevertheless, whether or not this evolution-
ary account is entirely correct, there is little doubt that almost all of us now care
deeply about the quality of our attachments to others. We are also at a loss, prone
to illness and maladjustment, when we have insufficient intimacy in our lives. We
know that food and shelter are essential for life, but the need to belong suggests that
intimacy with others is essential for a good, long life as well (Sbarra & Coan, 2018).
“Human beings need social connections just like we need oxygen, food, and water”
(Gabriel, 2020).

Now, let’s examine the major influences that determine what sort of relationships
we construct when we seek to satisfy the need to belong. We’ll start with a counterpoint
to our innate need for intimacy: the changing cultures that provide the norms that
govern our intimate relationships.


I know it seems like ancient history—smart phones and Snapchat and AIDS didn’t
exist—but let’s look back at 1965, which may have been around the time that your
grandparents were deciding to marry. If they were a typical couple, they would have

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 7

married in their early twenties, before she was 21 and before he was 23.1 They prob-
ably would not have lived together, or “c ohabited,” without being married because
almost no one did at that time. And it’s also unlikely that they would have had a baby
without being married; 95 percent of the children born in the United States in 1965
had parents who were married to each other. Once they settled in, your grandmother
probably did not work outside the home—most women didn’t—and when her kids were
preschoolers, it’s quite likely that she stayed home with them all day; most women
did. It’s also likely that their children—in particular, your mom or dad—grew up in a
household in which both of their parents were present at the end of the day.

Things these days are very different (Smock & Schwartz, 2020). The last several
decades have seen dramatic changes in the cultural context in which we conduct our
close relationships. Indeed, you shouldn’t be surprised if your grandparents are aston-
ished by the cultural landscape that you face today. In the United States,

• Fewer people are marrying than ever before. Back in 1965, almost everyone
(94 percent) married at some point in their lives, but more people remain unmar-
ried today. Demographers now predict that fewer than 80 percent of young adults
will ever marry (and that proportion is even lower in Europe [Perelli-Harris &
Lyons-Amos, 2015]). Include everyone who is divorced, widowed, or never mar-
ried, and slightly less than half (49 percent) of the adult population of the United
States is presently married. That’s an all-time low.

• People are waiting longer to marry. On average, a woman is 28 years old when
she marries for the first time, and a man is almost 30, and these are the oldest
such ages in American history. That’s much older than your grandparents prob-
ably were when they got married (see Figure 1.3). A great many Americans
(43 percent) reach their mid-30s without marrying. Do you feel sorry for people
who are 35 and single? Read the “Are You Prejudiced Against Singles?” box2
on page 9.

• People routinely live together even when they’re not married. Cohabitation was
very rare in 1965—only 5 percent of all adults ever did it—but it is now ordinary.
More Americans under the age of 44 have cohabited than have ever been married
(Horowitz et al., 2019).

• People often have babies even when they’re not married. This was an uncommon
event in 1965; only 5 percent of the babies born in the United States that year
had unmarried mothers. Some children were conceived out of wedlock, but their
parents usually got married before they were born. Not these days. In 2018,
40 percent of the babies born in the United States had unmarried mothers (Martin
et al., 2019). On average, an American mother now has her first child (at age 26.9)
before she gets married (at 28.0), and about one-third (32 percent) of children in
the United States presently live with an unmarried parent (Livingston, 2018a).

1These and the following statistics were obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau at, the U.S.
National Center for Health Statistics at, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics at
/data, the Pew Research Center at, and the National Center for Family and Marriage
Research at
2Please try to overcome your usual temptation to skip past the boxes. Many of them will be worth your time.
Trust me.

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8 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

• About one-half of all marriages end in divorce, a failure rate that’s 2-and-a-half
times higher than it was when your grandparents married. In recent years, the
divorce rate has been slowly decreasing for couples with college degrees—which is
probably good news if you’re reading this book!—but it remains high and unchanged
for people with less education. In 2018, in the United States, there were just under
half as many divorces as marriages (Schweizer, 2019). So because not all lasting
marriages are happy ones, an American couple getting married this year is more
likely to divorce sometime down the road than to live happily ever after.3

• Most preschool children have parents who work outside the home. In 1965, three-
quarters of U.S. mothers stayed home all day when their children were too young
to go to school, but only one-quarter of them (and 7 percent of fathers) do so
now (Livingston, 2018b).

These remarkable changes suggest that our shared assumptions about the role that
marriage and parenthood will play in our lives have changed substantially in recent
years. Once upon a time, everybody got married within a few years of leaving high
school and, happy or sad, they tended to stay with their original partners. Pregnant

3This is sobering, but your chances for a happy marriage (should you choose to marry) are likely to be better
than those of most other people. You’re reading this book, and your interest in relationship science is likely
to improve your chances considerably.

FIGURE 1.3. Average age of first marriage in the United States.
American men and women are waiting longer to get married than ever before.











2 1



1970 1980 1990 2005 2010 2015 20192000


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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 9

people felt they had to get married, and co habitation was known as “living in sin.” But
not so anymore. Marriage is now a choice, even if a baby is on the way, and increasing
numbers of us are putting it off or not getting married at all. If we do marry, we’re
less likely to consider it a solemn, life-long commitment (Cherlin, 2009). In general,
recent years have seen enormous change in the cultural norms that used to encourage
people to get, and stay, married.

Do these changes matter? Indeed, they do. Cultural standards provide a foundation
for our relationships (Kretz, 2019); they shape our expectations and define the patterns
we think to be normal. Let’s consider, in particular, the huge rise in the prevalence of
cohabitation that has occurred in recent years. Most young adults now believe that it
is desirable for a couple to live together before they get married so that they can spend
more time together, share expenses, and test their compatibility (Horowitz et al., 2019).
Such attitudes make cohabitation a reasonable choice—and indeed, most people now
cohabit before they ever marry. However, when people do not already have firm plans

Are You Prejudiced Against Singles?

Here’s a term you probably haven’t seen be-
fore: singlism. It refers to prejudice and dis-
crimination against those who choose to
remain single and opt not to devote them-
selves to a primary romantic relationship.
Many of us assume that normal people want
to be a part of a romantic couple, so we find
it odd when anyone chooses instead to stay
single (Fisher & Sakaluk, 2020). The result is
a culture that offers benefits to married cou-
ples and puts singles at a disadvantage with
regard to such things as Social Security bene-
fits, insurance rates, and service in restau-
rants (DePaulo, 2014).

Intimacy is good for us, and married
people live longer than unmarried people do.
Middle-aged Americans who have never mar-
ried are 2½ times more likely than those who
are married to die an early death (Siegler
et al., 2013). Patterns like these lead some re-
searchers to straightforwardly recommend
happy romances as desirable goals in life.
And most single people do want to have
romantic partners; few singles (12 percent)
prefer being unattached to being in a steady
romantic relationship (Poortman & Liefbroer,
2010), and a fear of being single can lead
people to lower their standards and “settle for

less” with lousy lovers (Spielmann et al.,

Still, we make an obvious mistake if we
casually assume that singles are unhealthy,
lonely loners. Yes, some singles remain unat-
tached because they lack self-confidence and
social skill (Apostolou, 2019), but many oth-
ers are single by choice because they like it that
way (Pepping et al., 2018). They have an active
social life and close, supportive friendships
that provide them all the intimacy they desire,
and they remain uncoupled because they cel-
ebrate their freedom and self-sufficiency. They
have closer relationships with their parents,
siblings, neighbors, and friends than married
people do (Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2016), and as
one woman wrote to Dear Abby (2016), “I do
what I want when I want and how I want. I
control the remote, the thermostat and my
money. I have no desire for male companion-
ship and can honestly say I have never felt hap-
pier or more content in my life.”

So, what do you think? Is there some-
thing wrong or missing in people who are con-
tent to remain single? If you think there is, you
may profit by reading Bella DePaulo’s blog
defending singles at www.psychologytoday

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10 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

to marry, cohabitation does not make it more likely that a subsequent marriage (if one
occurs) will be successful; instead, such cohabitation increases a couple’s risk that they
will later divorce (Rosenfeld & Roesler, 2019). There are probably several reasons for
this. First, on average, those who cohabit begin living together at younger ages than
their older—and possibly wiser—peers who get married (Kuperberg, 2014). But more
importantly, couples who choose to cohabit are usually less committed to each other
than are those who marry—they are, after all, keeping their options open (Wagner,
2019)—so they encounter more problems and uncertainties than married people do.
They’re less satisfied and they trust each other less (Horowitz et al., 2019) because
they experience more conflict (Stanley et al., 2010), jealousy (Gatzeva & Paik, 2011),
infidelity (Wagner, 2019), and physical aggression (Manning et al., 2018) than spouses
do. Clearly, cohabitation is more tumultuous and volatile than marriage usually is. As
a result, the longer people cohabit, the less enthusiastic about marriage—and the more
accepting of divorce—they become. Take a look at Figure 1.4: As time passes, cohabitat-
ing couples gradually become less likely to ever marry but no less likely to split up;
5 years down the road, cohabitating couples are just as likely to break up as they were
when they moved in together. (Marriage is fundamentally different. The longer a cou-
ple is married, the less likely they are to ever divorce [Wolfinger, 2005]). Overall, then,
casual cohabitation that is intended to test the partners’ compatibility seems to

FIGURE 1.4. The outcomes of cohabitation over time.
Here’s what became of 2,746 cohabiting couples in the United States over a span of 5 years.
As time passed, couples were less likely to marry, but no less likely to break up. After living
together for 5 years, cohabiting couples were just as likely to break up as they were when they
moved in together. (The transition rate describes the percentage of couples who either broke
up or got married each month. The numbers seem low, but they reflect the proportion of cou-
ples who quit cohabiting each month, so the proportions add up and become sizable as
months go by.)

Source: Wolfinger, N. H. (2005). Understanding the divorce cycle: The children of divorce in their own marriages.
Cambridge University Press.

0 5 10 15 20 25 30

35 40 45 50 55 60













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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 11

undermine the positive attitudes toward marriage, and the determination to make a
marriage work, that support marital success (Busby et al., 2019). Couples who are
engaged to marry when they move in together typically fare better than those who
cohabit without plans to marry (Willoughby & Belt, 2016), but even they tend to be
less happy with their relationships than those who marry without cohabiting first
(Brown et al., 2017). So casual cohabitation is corrosive, and these days, cohabiting
partners are actually less likely to ever marry than in the past (Sassler & Lichter, 2020).
Widespread acceptance of cohabitation as a “trial run” is probably one reason why,
compared to 1965, fewer people get married and fewer marriages last.4

Sources of Change

So, the norms that currently govern our intimate relationships differ from those that
guided prior generations, and there are several reasons why. One set of influences
involves economics. Societies tend to harbor more single people, tolerate more divorces,
and support a later age of marriage the more industrialized and affluent they become
(South et al., 2001), and levels of socioeconomic development have increased around
the world. Education and financial resources allow people to be more independent, so
that women in particular are less likely to marry than they used to be (Dooley, 2010).
And in American marriages, close to one of every three wives earns more than her
husband (Parker & Stepler, 2017), so “the traditional male breadwinner model has
given way to one where women routinely support households and outearn the men
they are married to, and nobody cares or thinks it’s odd” (Mundy, 2012, p. 5).5

Over the years, the individualism—that is, the support of self-expression and the
emphasis on personal fulfillment—that characterizes Western cultures has also become
more pronounced (Santos et al., 2017). This isn’t good news, but most of us are more
materialistic (Twenge & Kasser, 2013) and less concerned with others (Twenge, 2013)
than our grandparents were. And arguably, this focus on our own happiness has led
us to expect more personal gratification from our intimate p artnerships—more pleasure
and delight, and fewer hassles and sacrifices—than our grandparents did (Finkel, 2017).
Unlike prior generations (who often stayed together for the “sake of the kids”), we feel
justified in ending our partnerships to seek contentment elsewhere if we become dis-
satisfied (Cherlin, 2009). Eastern cultures promote a more collective sense of self in
which people feel more closely tied to their families and social groups (Markus, 2017),
and the divorce rates in such cultures (such as Japan) are much lower than they are
in the United States (Cherlin, 2009).

New technology matters, too. Modern reproductive technologies allow single
women to bear children fathered by men picked from a catalog at a sperm bank whom

4Most people don’t know this, so here’s an example of an important pattern we’ll encounter often: Popular
opinion assumes one thing, but relationship science finds another. Instances such as these demonstrate the
value of careful scientific studies of close relationships. Ignorance isn’t bliss. Intimate partnerships are
complex, and accurate information is especially beneficial when common sense and folk wisdom would lead
us astray.
5Well, actually, some men, particularly those with traditional views of what it means to be a man (Coughlin
& Wade, 2012), are troubled when they earn less than their wives. Their self-esteem suffers (Ratliff & Oishi,
2013), and they are more likely than other men to use drugs to treat erectile dysfunction (Pierce et al., 2013).
Traditional masculinity can be costly in close relationships, a point to which we’ll return on page 28.

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12 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

the women have never met! Women can also control their fertility, having children only
when they choose, and American women are having fewer children than they used to.
The American birth rate is at an all-time low (Hamilton et al., 2019), and one in every
four young American women has used emergency contraception—a “morning-after”
pill—to help keep it that way (Haeger et al., 2018).

Modern communication technologies are also transforming the ways in which we
conduct our relationships (Okdie & Ewoldsen, 2018). Your grandparents didn’t have
mobile phones, so they didn’t expect to be able to reach each other anywhere at any
time of day. They certainly didn’t do any sexting—that is, sending sexually explicit images
of themselves to others with a smartphone—as more than 20 percent of young adults
now have (Garcia et al., 2016, who also found that 23 percent of the time, those who
receive a sext share it with two or three others). And they did not have to develop rules
about how frequently they could text each other, how long they could take to respond,
and whether or not they could read the messages and examine the call histories on the
other’s phone; these days, couples are happier if they do (Halpern & Katz, 2017).

In addition, most of the people you know are on Facebook (Gramlich, 2019),
connected to hundreds of “friends,”6 and that can complicate our more intimate part-
nerships. Facebook provides an entertaining and efficient way to (help to) satisfy our
needs for social contact (Waytz & Gray, 2018), but it can also create dilemmas for
lovers, who have to decide when to go “Facebook official” and announce that they’re
now “in a relationship” (Seidman et al., 2019). (They also have to decide what that
means: Women tend to think that this change in status signals more intensity and
commitment than men do [Fox & Warber, 2013].) Thereafter, a partner’s heavy use of
Facebook (McDaniel & Drouin, 2019) and pictures of one’s partner partying with
others (Utz et al., 2015) can incite conflict and jealousy, and a breakup can be embar-
rassingly public (Haimson et al., 2018). Clearly, social media such as Facebook and
Snapchat can be mixed blessings in close relationships.

Moreover, many of us are permanently connected
to our social networks, with our smartphones always by
our sides (Lapierre, 2020), and we are too often
tempted to “give precedence to people we are not with
over people we are with” (Price, 2011, p. 27). Modern
couples have to put up with a lot of technoference, the
frequent interruptions of their interactions that are
caused by their various technological devices (McDan-
iel & Drouin, 2019), and phubbing—which occurs when
one partner snubs another by focusing on a phone—is
particularly obnoxious (Roberts & David, 2016). No one much likes to be ignored while
you text or talk with someone else (Chotpitayasunondh & Douglas, 2018), but it hap-
pens most of the time when two friends are eating together (Vanden Abeele et al.,
2019). In fact—and this is troubling—our devices can be so alluring and distracting

6Psychology students at Sam Houston State University (n = 298) do have hundreds of Facebook “friends”—562
each, on average—but that number doesn’t mean much because most of them aren’t real friends; 45 percent
of them are mere acquaintances, and others (7 percent) are strangers they have never met (Miller et al.,
2014). We’ll return to this point in chapter 7, but for now, let me ask: How many people on your Facebook
list are really your friends?

A Point to Ponder

Which of the remarkable
changes in technology over
the last 50 years has had the
most profound effect on our
relationships? Birth control
pills? Smartphones? Online
dating sites? Something else?

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 13

(Kushlev et al., 2019) that simply having your smartphone lying on the table is likely
to reduce the quality of the conversation you share at dinner with a friend (Dwyer et
al., 2018). Here’s a suggestion: When you next go out to dinner with your lover, why
don’t you leave your phone in the car? ”When technology diminishes our relationships
with loved ones and distracts us from the things that truly matter, it’s no longer a tool;
it’s a toxin” (Lane, 2017).

Finally, an important—but more subtle—influence on the norms that govern rela-
tionships is the relative numbers of young men and women in a given culture (Sng &
Ackerman, 2020). Societies and regions of the world in which men are more numerous
than women tend to have very different standards than those in which women outnum-
ber men. I’m describing a region’s sex ratio, a simple count of the number of men for
every 100 women in a specific population. When the sex ratio is high, there are more
men than women; when it is low, there are fewer men than women.

The baby boom that followed World War II caused the U.S. sex ratio, which had
been very high, to plummet to low levels at the end of the 1960s. For a time after the
war, more babies were born each year than in the preceding year; this meant that when
the “boomers” entered adulthood, there were fewer older men than younger women, and
the sex ratio dropped. However, when birthrates began to slow and fewer children entered
the demographic pipeline, each new flock of women was smaller than the preceding flock
of men, and the U.S. sex ratio crept higher in the 1990s. Since then, reasonably stable
birthrates have resulted in fairly equal numbers of marriageable men and women today.

These changes may have been more important than most people realize. Cultures
with high sex ratios (in which there aren’t enough women) tend to support traditional,

Phubbing is obnoxious and is best avoided.

Steve Kelley Editorial Cartoon used with the permission of Steve Kelley and Creators Syndicate. All rights reserved.

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14 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

old-fashioned roles for men and women (Secord, 1983). After the men buy expensive
engagement rings (Griskevicius et al., 2012), women stay home raising children while
the men work outside the home. Such cultures also tend to be sexually conservative.
The ideal newlywed is a virgin bride, unwed pregnancy is shameful, open cohabitation
is rare, and divorce is discouraged. In contrast, cultures with low sex ratios (in which
there are too few men) tend to be less traditional and more permissive. Women seek
high-paying careers (Durante et al., 2012), and they are allowed (if not encouraged) to
have sexual relationships outside of marriage (Moss & Maner, 2016). The specifics
vary with each historical period, but this general pattern has occurred throughout his-
tory (Guttentag & Secord, 1983). Ancient Rome, which was renowned for its sybaritic
behavior? A low sex ratio. Victorian England, famous for its prim and proper ways? A
high sex ratio. The Roaring Twenties, a footloose and playful decade? A low sex ratio.
And in more recent memory, the “sexual revolution” and the advent of “women’s lib-
eration” in the late 1960s? A very low sex ratio.

Thus, the remarkable changes in the norms for U.S. relationships since 1965 may
be due, in part, to dramatic fluctuations in U.S. sex ratios. Indeed, another test of this
pattern is presently unfolding in China, where limitations on family size and a prefer-
ence for male children have produced a dramatic scarcity of young women. Prospective
grooms will outnumber prospective brides in China by more than 50 percent for the
next 25 years (Huang, 2014). What changes in China’s norms should we expect? The
rough but real link between a culture’s proportions of men and women and its relational
norms serves as a compelling example of the manner in which culture can affect our
relationships. To a substantial degree, what we expect and what we accept in our deal-
ings with others can spring from the standards of the time and place in which we live.


Our relationships are also affected by the histories and experiences we bring to them,
and there is no better example of this than the global orientations toward relationships
known as attachment styles. Years ago, developmental researchers (e.g., Bowlby, 1969)
realized that infants displayed various patterns of attachment to their major caregivers
(usually their mothers). The prevailing assumption was that whenever they were hungry,
wet, or scared, some children found responsive care and protection to be reliably avail-
able, and they learned that other people were trustworthy sources of security and
kindness. As a result, such children developed a secure style of attachment: They hap-
pily bonded with others and relied on them comfortably, and they readily developed
relationships characterized by relaxed trust.

Other children encountered different situations. For some, attentive care was
unpredictable and inconsistent. Their caregivers were warm and interested on some
occasions but distracted, anxious, or unavailable on others. These children thus devel-
oped fretful, mixed feelings about others known as anxious- ambivalent attachments.
Being uncertain of when (or if) a departing caregiver would return, such children
became nervous, clingy, and needy in their relationships with others.

Finally, for a third group of children, care was provided reluctantly by rejecting or
hostile adults. Such children learned that little good came from depending on others,

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 15

and they withdrew from others with an avoidant style of attachment. Avoidant
children were often suspicious of others, and they did not easily form trusting, close

The important point, then, is that researchers believed that early interpersonal
experiences shaped the course of one’s subsequent relationships. Indeed, attachment
processes became a popular topic of research because the different styles were so obvi-
ous in many children. When they faced a strange, intimidating environment, for
instance, secure children ran to their mothers, calmed down, and then set out to bravely
explore the unfamiliar new setting (Ainsworth et al., 1978). Anxious-ambivalent chil-
dren cried and clung to their mothers, ignoring the parents’ reassurances that all was

These patterns were impressive, but relationship researchers really began to take
notice of attachment styles when Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver (1987) demonstrated
that similar orientations toward close relationships could also be observed among
adults. Their surveys found that most people said that they were relaxed and comfort-
able depending on others; that is, they sounded secure in their intimate relationships.
However, a substantial minority (about 40 percent) said they were insecure; they either
found it difficult to trust and to depend on their partners, or they nervously worried
that their relationships wouldn’t last. In addition, respondents reported childhood
memories and current attitudes that fit their styles of attachment. Secure people gener-
ally held positive images of themselves and others, and remembered their parents as

Children’s relationships with their major caregivers teach them trust or fear that sets the stage
for their subsequent relationships with others. How responsive, reliable, and effective was the
care that you received?

Tom Merton/Corbis

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16 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

loving and supportive. In contrast, insecure people viewed others with uncertainty or
distrust, and remembered their parents as inconsistent or cold.

With provocative results like these, attachment research quickly became one of the
hottest fields in relationship science (e.g., Mikulincer & Shaver, 2018). And researchers
promptly realized that there seemed to be four, rather than three, patterns of attachment
in adults. In particular, theorist Kim Bartholomew (1990) suggested that there were two
different reasons why people might wish to avoid being too close to others. In one case,
people could want relationships with others but be wary of them, fearing rejection and
mistrusting them. In the other case, people could be independent and self-reliant, genu-
inely preferring autonomy and freedom rather than close attachments to others.

Thus, Bartholomew (1990) proposed four general categories of attachment style
(see Table 1.1). The first, a secure style, remained the same as the secure style identi-
fied in children. The second, a preoccupied style, was a new name for anxious ambiva-
lence. Bartholomew renamed the category to reflect the fact that, because they
nervously depended on others’ approval to feel good about themselves, such people
worried about, and were preoccupied with, the status of their relationships.

The third and fourth styles reflected two different ways to be “avoidant.” Fearful
people avoided intimacy with others because of their fears of rejection. Although they
wanted others to like them, they worried about the risks of relying on others. In con-
trast, people with a dismissing style felt that intimacy with others just wasn’t worth the
trouble. Dismissing people rejected interdependency with others because they felt self-
sufficient, and they didn’t care much whether others liked them or not.

It’s also now generally accepted that two broad themes underlie and distinguish
these four styles of attachment (Gillath et al., 2016). First, people differ in their avoid-
ance of intimacy, which affects the ease and trust with which they accept interdependent
intimacy with others. People who are comfortable and relaxed in close relationships are

TABLE 1.1.  Four Types of Attachment Style

Which of these paragraphs describes you best?

Secure It is easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfort-
able depending on others and having others depend on me. I don’t
worry about being alone or having others not accept me.

Preoccupied I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often
find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I am
uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes
worry that others don’t value me as much as I value them.

Fearful I am uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close
relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely or to
depend on them. I worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to
become too close to others.

Dismissing I am comfortable without close emotional relationships. It is very
important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient, and I prefer
not to depend on others or have others depend on me.

Source: Bartholomew, K. (1990). “Avoidance of intimacy: An attachment perspective,” Journal of Social and Personal
Relationships, 7, 147–178.

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 17

low in avoidance, whereas those who distrust others, value their independence, and keep
their emotional distance are high in avoidance (Ren et al., 2017). People also differ in
their anxiety about abandonment, the dread that others will find them unworthy and
leave them. Secure people take great comfort in closeness with others and do not worry
that others will mistreat them; as a result, they gladly seek intimate interdependency
with others. In contrast, with all three of the other styles, people are burdened with
anxiety or discomfort that leaves them less at ease in close relationships. Preoccupied
people want closeness but anxiously fear rejection. Dismissing people don’t worry about
rejection but don’t like closeness. And fearful people get it from both sides, being
uncomfortable with intimacy and worrying it won’t last. (See Figure 1.5.)

Importantly, the two themes of avoidance of intimacy and anxiety about
abandonment are continuous dimensions that range from low to high. This means that,
although it’s convenient to talk about attachment styles as if they were discrete, pure
categories that do not overlap, it’s not really accurate to do so (Lubiewska & Van de
Vijver, 2020). When they are simply asked to pick which one of the four paragraphs
in Table 1.1 fits them best, most people in the United States—usually around 60 percent—
describe themselves as being securely attached (Mickelson et al., 1997).7 However, if

7This isn’t true of American college students; only about 40 percent of them are secure. And that proportion
has been declining over the last 30 years; more collegians are insecure than in years past (Konrath et al.,
2014). [Here’s a Point to Ponder in a footnote! Why do you think that is?] Also, in many other countries,
secure styles are more common than any of the other three styles but secure people are outnumbered by
the other three groups combined. Thus, in most regions of the world, more people are insecure than secure
(Schmitt, 2008). Nevertheless, there is some good news here: Around the world, people tend to become less
anxious and avoidant as they age (e.g., Chopik et al., 2019). So, even if you’re insecure now, time and experi-
ence may teach you to be more secure 30 years from now.

FIGURE 1.5. The dimensions underlying attachment.

Low Avoidance
of Intimacy

High Avoidance
of Intimacy

High Anxiety


Low Anxiety


Comfortable with intimacy

and interdependence;
optimistic and sociable

Self-reliant and uninterested

in intimacy;
indi�erent and independent

Fearful of rejection and

mistrustful of others;
suspicious and shy

Uneasy and vigilant toward

any threat to the relationship;
needy and jealous

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18 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

someone has moderate anxiety about abandonment and middling avoidance of inti-
macy, which category fits him or her best? The use of any of the four categories is
rather arbitrary in the middle ranges of anxiety and avoidance where the boundaries
of the categories meet.

So don’t treat the neat classifications in Figure 1.5 too seriously. The more sophis-
ticated way to think about attachment is that there seem to be two important themes
that shape people’s global orientations toward relationships with others. (You can see
where you stand on the items that are often used to measure anxiety and avoidance
on page 74 in chapter 2.) Both are important, and if you compare high scorers on
either dimension to low scorers on that dimension, you’re likely to see meaningful
differences in the manner in which those people conduct their relationships. Indeed,
current studies of attachment (e.g., Hudson et al., 2020) routinely describe people with
regard to their relative standing on the two dimensions of anxiety and avoidance instead
of labeling them as secure, preoccupied, fearful, or dismissing.

Nevertheless, the four labels are so concise that they are still widely used, so stay
sharp. Developmental researchers used to speak of only three attachment styles: secure,
avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent. Now theorists routinely speak of four styles, but they
treat them as convenient labels for sets of anxiety and avoidance scores, not as dis-
tinctly different categories that have nothing in common. The biggest distinction is
between people who are “secure” and those who are not (being those who have high
anxiety about abandonment or high avoidance of intimacy, or both) (Arriaga &
Kumashiro, 2019). And for now, the important point is that attachment styles appear
to be orientations toward relationships that are largely learned from our experiences
with others. They are prime examples of the manner in which the proclivities and
perspectives we bring to a new relationship emerge in part from our experiences in
prior partnerships.

Let’s examine this idea more closely. Any relationship is shaped by many different
influences—that’s the point of this chapter—and both babies and adults affect through
their own behavior the treatment they receive from others. As any parent knows, for
instance, babies are born with various temperaments and arousal levels. Some new-
borns have an easy, pleasant temperament, whereas others are fussy and excitable, and
inborn differences in personality and emotionality make some children easier to parent
than others. Thus, the quality of parenting a baby receives can depend, in part, on the
child’s own personality and behavior; in this way, people’s attachment styles are influ-
enced by the traits with which they were born, and our genes shape our styles (Masarik
et al., 2014).

However, our experiences play much larger roles in shaping the styles we bring to
subsequent relationships (Fraley & Roisman, 2019). The levels of acceptance or rejec-
tion we receive from our parents are huge influences early on (Woodhouse et al., 2020).
Expectant mothers who are glad to be pregnant are more likely to have secure toddlers
a year later than are mothers-to-be whose pregnancies were unwanted or unplanned
(Gillath et al., 2019). Once their babies are born, mothers who enjoy intimacy and who
are comfortable with closeness tend to be more attentive and sensitive caregivers (Jones
et al., 2015), so secure moms tend to have secure children, whereas insecure mothers
tend to have insecure children (Verhage et al., 2016). Indeed, when mothers with dif-
ficult, irritable babies are trained to be sensitive and responsive parents, their toddlers

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 19

are much more likely to end up securely attached to them than they would have been
in the absence of such training (van den Boom, 1994). And a mother’s influence on
the attachment styles of her children does not end in preschool: The parenting adoles-
cents receive as seventh graders predicts how they will behave in their own romances
and friendships when they become adults (Hadiwijaya et al., 2020), and remarkably,
teens who have nurturing and supportive relationships with their parents will be likely
to have richer relationships with their lovers and friends 60 years later (Waldinger &
Schulz, 2016). There’s no doubt that youngsters import the lessons they learn at home
into their subsequent relationships with others (Fraley & Roisman, 2019).

We’re not prisoners of our experiences as children, however, because our attach-
ment styles continue to be shaped by the experiences we encounter as adults (Haak
et al., 2017). Being learned, attachment styles can be unlearned, and over time, attach-
ment styles can change (Fraley, 2019). A devoted, fun, and supportive partner may
gradually make an avoidant person less wary of intimacy (Arriaga & Kumashiro, 2019),
but a bad breakup can make a formerly secure person insecure. Our attachment to a
particular partner can even fluctuate some from day to day (Girme et al., 2018), but
the good news is that those who want to become less anxious or avoidant usually suceed
in doing so (Hudson et al., 2020).

Nevertheless, once they have been established, attachment styles can also be stable
and long-lasting as they lead people to create new relationships that reinforce their
existing tendencies (Hadden et al., 2014). By remaining aloof and avoiding interdepen-
dency, for instance, fearful people may never learn that some people can be trusted
and closeness can be comforting—and that perpetuates their fearful style. In the absence

Was Your Childhood Calm or Chaotic?

Some of us experienced childhoods that were
comfortable and full of familiar routines; our
families didn’t struggle financially, we didn’t
move often, and our parents didn’t keep
changing partners. Others of us, though, had
childhoods that were comparatively harsh
and/or unpredictable. Perhaps we were poor,
so that life was austere and inhospitable, or
perhaps upheaval was common, so that we
never knew what to expect. Notably, these
different past environments may be having
more influence on our current relationships
than we realize.

According to a perspective known as life
history theory, harsh or unpredictable environ-
ments lead young adults to pursue “fast” strat-
egies of mating in which they mature faster,
have sex sooner (and with more people), and
have more children (and at a younger age)

(Simpson, 2019). If life is hard and uncertain,
one needs to act fast! In contrast, comfortable
and reliable environments support “slow”
strategies; people reach puberty later, start
having sex when they’re older and have fewer
partners and fewer children. Their relation-
ships also tend to be more stable and lasting
(Bae & Wickrama, 2019).

Remarkably, recent discoveries gener-
ally support life history predictions, with cha-
otic childhoods seeming to set people on
paths in which secure attachments to others
are relatively hard to attain (Szepsenwol &
Simpson, 2019). We’re not prisoners of our
pasts (Hudson et al., 2020), but studies of life
histories offer striking examples of the man-
ner in which, consciously or not, we may im-
port our past experiences into our present

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20 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

of dramatic new experiences, people’s styles of attachment can persist for decades
(Fraley, 2002), with great effect: Marriages are happier when both spouses have secure
styles (Siegel et al., 2019), and insecure people are more likely than those who are
secure to be divorced and single (McNelis & Segrin, 2019).

Thus, our global beliefs about the nature and worth of close relationships appear
to be shaped by our experiences within them. By good luck or bad, our earliest notions
about our own interpersonal worth and the trustworthiness of others emerge from our
interactions with our major caregivers and start us down a path of either trust or fear.
But that journey never stops, and later obstacles or aid from fellow travelers may divert
us and change our routes. Our learned styles of attachment to others may either change
with time or persist indefinitely, depending on our interpersonal experiences.


Once they are formed, attachment styles also exemplify the idiosyncratic personal
characteristics that people bring to their partnerships with others. We’re all individuals
with singular combinations of experiences and traits, and the differences among us
influence our relationships. In this section of the chapter, we’ll consider five influential
types of individual variation: sex differences, gender differences, sexual orientations,
personalities, and self-esteem.

Sex Differences

At this moment, you’re doing something rare. You’re reading an academic textbook
about relationship science, and that’s something most people will never do. This is
probably the first serious text you’ve ever read about relationships, too, and that means
that we need to confront—and hopefully correct—some of the stereotypes you may hold
about the differences between men and women in intimate relationships.

This may not be easy. Many of us are used to thinking that men and women have
very different approaches to intimacy—that, for instance, “men are from Mars, women
are from Venus.” A well-known book with that title asserted that

men and women differ in all areas of their lives. Not only do men and women com-
municate differently but they think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need, and appre-
ciate differently. They almost seem to be from different planets, speaking different
languages and needing different nourishment. (Gray, 1992, p. 5)

Wow! Men and women sound like they’re members of different species. No wonder
heterosexual relationships are sometimes problematic!

But the truth is more subtle. Human traits obviously vary across a wide range, and
(in most cases) if we graph the number of people who possess a certain talent or abil-
ity, we’ll get a distinctive chart known as a normal curve. Such curves describe the
frequencies with which particular levels of some trait can be found in people, and they
demonstrate that (a) most people have talents or abilities that are only slightly better
or worse than average and (b) extreme levels of most traits, high or low, are very rare.
Consider height, for example: A few people are very short or very tall, but most of us
are only two or three inches shorter or taller than the average for our sex.

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 21

Why should we care about this? Because many lay stereotypes about men and women
portray the sexes as having very different ranges of interests, styles, and abilities. As one
example, men are often portrayed as being more interested in sex than women are (see
the “Combating Simplistic Stereotypes” box on page 23), and the images of the sexes that
people hold often seem to resemble the situation pictured in Figure 1.6. The difference
between the average man and the average woman is presumed to be large, and there is
almost no overlap between the sexes at all. But, despite the “Mars” and “Venus” stereo-
types, this is not the way things really are. As we’ll see in chapter 9, men do tend to have
higher sex drives, on average, than women do. Nevertheless, actual sex differences take
the form of the graphs shown in Figure 1.7, which depict ranges of interests and talents
that overlap to a substantial extent (Hyde et al., 2019).

The three graphs in Figure 1.7 illustrate sex differences that are considered by
researchers to be small, medium, and large, respectively. Formally, they differ with
respect to a d statistic that specifies the size of a difference between two groups.8 In

8To get a d score in these cases, you compute the difference between the average man and the average
woman, and divide it by the average differences among the scores within each sex (which is the standard
deviation of those scores). The resulting d value tells you how large the sex difference is compared to the
usual amount by which men and women differ among themselves.

FIGURE 1.6. An imaginary sex difference.
Popular stereotypes portray the sexes as being very different, with almost no overlap between
the styles and preferences of the two sexes. This is not the way things really are.

Some Ability or Trait

The Other Sex


r o

f P

e One Sex

Less More

FIGURE 1.7. Actual sex differences take the form of overlapping normal curves.
The three graphs depict small, medium, and large sex differences, respectively. (To keep them
simple, they portray the ranges of attitudes or behavior as being the same for both sexes. This
isn’t always the case in real life.)

d = .5
(a medium sex di�erence)


BA d = .2
(a small sex di�erence)



r o

f P



d = .8
(a large sex di�erence)


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22 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

the realm of sexual attitudes and behavior, graph A depicts the different ages of men
and women when they first have intercourse (men tend to be slightly younger), graph
B illustrates the relative frequencies with which they masturbate (men masturbate
more often), and graph C depicts a hypothetical difference that is larger than any that
is known to actually exist. That’s right. A sprawling analysis of modern studies of
human sexuality involving 1,419,807 participants from 87 different countries failed to
find any difference in the sexual attitudes and behavior of men and women that was
as large as that pictured in graph C (Petersen & Hyde, 2010). Obviously, the real-life
examples that do exist look nothing like the silly stereotype pictured in Figure 1.6.
More specifically, these examples make three vital points about psychological sex

• Some differences are real but quite small. (Don’t be confused by researchers’
terminology; when they talk about a “significant” sex difference, they’re usually
referring to a “statistically significant”—that is, numerically reliable— difference,
and it may actually be quite modest in size.) Almost all of the differences between
men and women that you will encounter in this book fall in the small to medium

• The range of behavior and opinions among members of a given sex is always huge
compared to the average difference between the sexes. Men are more accepting of
casual, uncommitted sex than women are (Petersen & Hyde, 2010), but that cer-
tainly doesn’t mean that all men like casual sex. Some men like to have sex with
strangers, but other men don’t like that at all, and the sexual preferences of the
two groups of men have less in common than those of the average man and the
average woman do. Another way to put this is that despite this sex difference in
sexual permissiveness, a highly permissive man has more in common with the
average woman on this trait than he does with a low-scoring man.

• The overlap in behavior and opinions is so large that many members of one sex
will always score higher than the average member of the other sex. With a sex
difference of medium size (with men higher and a d value of .5), one-third of all
women will still score higher than the average man. What this means is that if
you’re looking for folks who like casual sex, you shouldn’t just look for men because
you heard that “men are more accepting of casual sex than women are”; you should
look for permissive people, many of whom will be women despite the difference
between the sexes.

The bottom line is that men and women usually overlap so thoroughly that they are
much more similar than different on most of the dimensions and topics of interest to
relationship science (Zell et al., 2015). It’s completely misguided to suggest that men
and women come from different planets and are distinctly different because it simply
isn’t true (Hyde et al., 2019). “Research does not support the view that men and women
come from different cultures, let alone separate worlds” (Canary & Emmers-Sommer,
1997, p. vi). According to the careful science of relationships you’ll study in this book,
it’s more accurate to say that “men are from North Dakota, and women are from South
Dakota” (Dindia, 2006, p. 18). (Or, as a bumper sticker I saw one day suggests: “Men
are from Earth. Women are from Earth. Deal with it.”)

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 23

Thus, sex differences in intimate relationships tend to be much less noteworthy
and influential than laypeople often think. Now that you’re reading a serious text on
intimate relationships, you need to think more carefully about sex differences and
interpret them more reasonably.9 There are interesting differences between the sexes
that are meaningful parts of the fabric of relationships, and we’ll encounter several of
them in the chapters that follow. But they occur in the context of even broader simi-
larities between the sexes, and the differences are always modest when they are com-
pared to the full range of human variation. It’s more work, but also more sophisticated
and accurate, to think of individual differences, not sex differences, as the more impor-
tant influences on interpersonal interaction. People differ among themselves whether
they are male or female (as in the case of attachment styles), and these variations are
usually much more consequential than sex differences are.

9Has this discussion led you to think that men and women are perhaps not as different as you had thought
they were? If so, you may be better off. Reading about the similarities of the sexes tends to reduce people’s
sexist beliefs that one sex is better than the other (Zell et al., 2016), and that’s a good thing. Such beliefs
have corrosive effects on relationships (Cross et al., 2017), and they’re best avoided. We’ll return to this
point in chapter 11.

Combating Simplistic Stereotypes

Here’s a joke that showed up in my
inbox one day:

How to Impress a Woman:
Compliment her. Cuddle her. Kiss her.
Caress her. Love her. Comfort her. Protect
her. Hug her. Hold her. Spend money on
her. Wine and dine her. Listen to her. Care
for her. Stand by her. Support her. Go to the
ends of the earth for her.

How to Impress a Man:
Show up naked. Bring beer.

It’s a cute joke. But it may not be harmless. It
reinforces the stereotypes that women seek
warmth and tenderness in their relation-
ships, whereas men simply seek unemotional
sex. In truth, men and women differ little in
their desires in close relationships; they’re
not “opposite” sexes at all (Hyde, 2014). Al-
though individuals of both sexes may differ
substantially from each other, the differences
between the average man and the average
woman are usually rather small and often

quite trivial. Both women and men generally
want their intimate partners to provide them
with lots of affection and warmth (Brum-
baugh & Wood, 2013).

But so what? What are the conse-
quences of wrongly believing that men are all
alike, having little in common with women?
Pessimism and hopelessness, for two (Metts
& Cupach, 1990). People who really believe
that the sexes are very different are less likely
to try to repair their heterosexual relation-
ships when conflicts occur (as they inevita-
bly do). Thinking of the other sex as a bunch
of aliens from another world is not just
inaccurate—it can also be damaging, forestall-
ing efforts to understand a partner’s point of
view and preventing collaborative problem
solving. For that reason, I’ll try to do my part
to avoid perpetuating wrongful impressions
by comparing men and women to the other
sex, not the opposite sex, for the remainder of
this book. Words matter (MacArthur et al.,
2020), so I invite you to use similar language
when you think and talk about the sexes.

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24 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

Gender Differences

I need to complicate things further by distinguishing between sex differences and gender
differences in close relationships. When people use the terms c arefully, the term sex
differences refers to biological distinctions between men and women that spring naturally
from their physical natures. In contrast, gender differences refer to social and psycho-
logical distinctions that are created by our cultures and upbringing (Hyde et al., 2019).
For instance, when they are parents, women are mothers and men are fathers—that’s a
sex difference—but the common belief that women are more loving, more nurturant
parents than men reflects a gender difference. Many men are capable of just as much
tenderness and compassion toward the young as any woman is, but if we expect and
encourage women to be the primary caregivers of our children, we can create cultural
gender differences in parenting styles that are not natural or inborn at all.

Distinguishing sex and gender differences is often tricky because the social expec-
tations and training we apply to men and women are often confounded with their
biological sex (Eagly & Wood, 2012). For instance, because women lactate and men
do not, people often assume that predawn feedings of a newborn baby are the mother’s
job—even when the baby is being fed formula from a bottle that was warmed in a
microwave! It’s not always easy to disentangle the effects of biology and culture in
shaping our interests and abilities.

Moreover, our individual experiences of gender are much more complex than most
people think. Superficially, gender may seem to be a straightforward dichotomy—people
are either male or female—but in fact, our genders are constructed from a variety of dif-
ferent influences (see Figure 1.8) that can create a variety of different outcomes (Hammack
et al., 2019). Large surveys in the United States, for instance, find that between four
(Watson et al., 2020) and six percent (Goldberg et al., 2020) of LGBTQ10 people identify
as gender queer; that is, they reject the notion that people must be either male or female,
and they’re often attracted to transgendered or other gender nonconforming people
(Goldberg et al., 2020; see the “Transgenders’ Relationships” box on page 26). Most of
us are cisgender, which means that our current identities align with the sex we were
assigned at birth—but only 26 percent of us assert that we never feel a little like the other
sex, wish to some extent that we were the other sex, or wish now and then that we had
the body of the other sex (Jacobson & Joel, 2018). Gender is so complex and can be so
diverse that it’s more sensible to think of gender not as a binary classification with two
simple categories but as a spectrum that allows a range of possibilities (Reilly, 2019).
Conceivably, “there are as many genders as there are people” (Bergner, 2019, p. 44).

So, the distinction between one’s biological sex and one’s gender is meaningful,
particularly because some inf luential differences between men and women in
relationships—g ender differences—are largely taught to us as we grow up.

The best examples of this are our gender roles, the patterns of behavior that are
culturally expected of “normal” men and women. Men, of course, are supposed to be
“masculine,” which means that they are expected to be assertive, self-reliant, decisive,
and competitive. Women are expected to be “feminine,” or warm, sensitive, emotionally
expressive, and kind. You and I aren’t so unsophisticated, but they’re the opposite sexes

10This familiar abbreviation refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer people.

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 25

to most people, and to varying degrees men and women are expected to specialize in
different kinds of social behavior all over the world (Löckenhoff et al., 2014). However,
people inherit only about a quarter to a third of their tendencies to be assertive or
kind; most of these behaviors are learned (Lippa & Hershberger, 1999). In thoroughgo-
ing and pervasive ways, cultural processes of socialization and modeling (rather than
biological sex differences) lead us to expect that all men should be tough and all women
should be tender (Levant & Rankin, 2014).

Nevertheless, those stereotypes don’t describe real people as well as you might
think; only half of us have attributes that fit these gender role expectations cleanly
(Donnelly & Twenge, 2017). Instead of being just “masculine” or “feminine,” a sizable
minority of people—about 35 percent—are both assertive and warm, sensitive and self-
reliant. Such people possess both sets of the competencies that are stereotypically
associated with being male and with being female, and are said to be androgynous. If
androgyny sounds odd to you, you’re probably just using a stereotyped vocabulary: On
the surface, being “masculine” sounds incompatible with also being “feminine.” In fact,
because those terms can be confusing, relationship researchers often use alternatives,
referring to the “masculine” task-oriented talents as instrumental traits and to the “fem-
inine” social and emotional skills as expressive traits. And it’s not all that remarkable

FIGURE 1.8. Components of your gender.
Gender is multifaceted and complex. It emerges from a combination of (a) the sex to which
you were assigned when you were born, (b) your sense of the gender category that now
describes you best, (c) the social norms and expectations that you judge to apply to you,
(d) the ways in which you communicate—through your clothing, personal pronouns, and other
public acts—your gender to others, and (e) your preferences and judgments regarding your own
and others’ genders (including, for instance, sexism). These facets are presented with different
shapes to emphasize the fact that each of them is a distinct aspect of the person you consider
yourself to be.

Source: Tate, C. C., Youssef, C., & Bettergarcia, J. (2014). “Integrating the study of transgender spectrum and
cisgender experiences of self-categorization from a personality perspective,” Review of General Psychology, 18,




b c


roles and






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26 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

Transgenders’ Relationships

Fewer than one-half of 1 percent of Ameri-
cans are transgenders—being people whose
gender identities do not match the sex they
were assigned at birth—but they are not un-
common, numbering about 1,250,000 peo-
ple (Meerwijk & Sevelius, 2017). Gender is
complex (and frequently misunderstood by
laypeople [Doan et al., 2019]) and those who
were raised as one sex but who now seek to
live as the other sex face a great number of
challenges. When they decide to transition,
their existing partnerships may undergo con-
siderable change as their lovers adjust to
their new identities (Platt, 2020). Loving
partners may wish to support a transgender’s
well-being and growth but be uncertain about
their romantic desire for their sweethearts
after their transition (Dierckx et al., 2019).
And once a transition is public, both trans-
genders and their partners may encounter
disapproval and disregard from others that
cause them distress (Gamarel et al., 2019).

If transgenders seek new romantic part-
ners, their challenges continue. When cisgen-
der, heterosexual men and women rate photos
of the other sex, the images are judged to be
much less attractive when the others are said
to be transgender than when they’re said to be
cisgender (Mao et al., 2018). Indeed, when
they’re asked, 98 percent of heterosexual

women and 97 percent of heterosexual men
say that they would not consider dating a
trans man or a trans woman. Gay men and
lesbian women are more accepting, but not all
that much—transgenders were written off by
88 and 71 percent of them, respectively—and
just half (48 percent) of bisexual and gender
queer men and women consider transgenders
to be viable dating partners. These data “do
not paint an uplifting picture” of the dating
opportunities available to transgenders (Blair
& Hoskin, 2019, p. 2091).

Nevertheless, when they do find part-
ners, transgenders enjoy high levels of support
(particularly when their partners are other
transgenders) and are satisfied, on average,
with their relationships (Fuller & Riggs, 2020).
And the more commitment they experience,
the easier it’s for them to withstand the disap-
proval they may face from others (Gamarel
et al., 2019). On the whole then, although it
may be relatively hard for them to find loving
partners, it appears that the intimate relation-
ships of transgenders operate just the same as
anyone else’s. As we’ll see on page 35 when we
discuss sexual orientation, it doesn’t much
matter who we are or whom we love; people
are happier when others they find attractive
embrace them with responsive acceptance and
affection in a committed relationship.

to find both sets of traits in the same individual. An androgynous person would be
one who could effectively, assertively stand up for himself or herself in a heated salary
negotiation but who could then go home and sensitively, c ompassionately comfort a
preschool child whose pet hamster had died. A lot of people, those who specialize in
either instrumental or expressive skills, would feel at home in one of those situations
but not both. Androgynous people would be comfortable and capable in both domains
(Martin et al., 2017).

In fact, the best way to think of instrumentality and expressiveness is to consider
them to be two separate sets of skills that can range from low to high in either women
or men (Choi et al., 2007). Take a look at Table 1.2. Traditional women are high in
expressiveness but low in instrumentality; they’re warm and kind but not assertive

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 27

or dominant. Men who fulfill our traditional expectations are high in instrumentality
but low in expressiveness and are stoic, “macho” men. Androgynous people are both
instrumental and expressive. The rest of us—about 15 percent—are either high in the
skills typically associated with the other sex (and are said to be “cross-typed”) or
low in both sets of skills (and are said to be “undifferentiated”). Equal proportions
of men and women fall into the androgynous, cross-typed, and undifferentiated cat-
egories, so, as with sex differences, it’s simplistic and inaccurate to think of men and
women as wholly distinct groups of people with separate, different traits (Donnelly
& Twenge, 2017).

In any case, gender differences are of particular interest to relationship researchers
because, instead of making men and women more compatible, they “may actually be
responsible for much of the incompatibility” that causes relationships to fail (Ickes,
1985, p. 188). From the moment they meet, for instance, traditional men and women
enjoy and like each other less than androgynous people do. In a classic experiment,
Ickes and Barnes (1978) paired men and women in couples in which (a) both partners
fit the traditional gender roles, or (b) one or both partners were androgynous. The two
people were introduced to each other and then simply left alone for 5 minutes sitting
on a couch while the researchers covertly videotaped their interaction. The results were
striking. The traditional couples talked less, looked at each other less, laughed and
smiled less, and afterward reported that they liked each other less than did the other
couples. (Should this surprise us? Think about it: Stylistically, what do a masculine
man and a feminine woman have in common?) When an androgynous man met a
traditional woman, an androgynous woman met a traditional man, or two androgynous
people got together, they got along much better than traditional men and women did.

More importantly, the disadvantage faced by traditional couples does not disappear
as time goes by. Surveys of marital satisfaction demonstrate that marriages in which
both spouses adhere to stereotyped gender roles are generally less happy than those
enjoyed by nontraditional couples (Helms et al., 2006). With their different styles and
different domains of expertise, masculine men and feminine women simply do not find
as much pleasure in each other as less traditional, less stereotyped people do (Marshall,

Perhaps this should be no surprise. When human beings devote themselves to
intimate partnerships, they want affection, warmth, and understanding (Thomas et al.,
2020). People who are low in expressiveness—who are not very warm, tender, sensitive

TABLE 1.2. Gender Roles

Instrumental Traits Expressive Traits

Assertiveness Warmth
Self-Reliance Tenderness

Ambition Compassion
Leadership Kindness

Decisiveness Sensitivity to Others

Our culture encourages men to be highly instrumental and women to be highly expressive,
but which of these talents do you not want in an intimate companion?

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28 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

people—do not readily provide such warmth and tenderness; they are not very affection-
ate (Miller et al., 2003). As a result, men or women who have spouses who are low
in expressiveness are chronically less satisfied than are those whose partners are more
sensitive, understanding, and kind. Around the world (Cao et al., 2019; Lease et al.,
2013), across different ethnicities (Helms et al., 2019; Stanik & Bryant, 2012), and in
both straight and gay partnerships (Wade & Donis, 2007), traditional men have roman-
tic relationships of lower quality than more expressive men do. Thus, traditional gender
roles do men a disservice, depriving them of skills that would make them more reward-
ing husbands. Arguably, “when you rob people of the ability to feel and express the
whole range of human emotions in an appropriate way, you also undermine their
ability to connect and have the kinds of relationships we want our boys to have”
(Chotiner, 2020). In addition, the stoicism that is a hallmark of traditional masculinity
can actually be disadvantageous to men’s health; macho men are less likely than others
to engage in preventive health care and to seek mental health care services when they
need them (Pappas, 2019). Overall, it appears that no good “can come of teaching
boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be ‘tough all the time’;
that anything other than that makes them ‘feminine’ or weak” (Salam, 2019).

On the other hand, people who are low in instrumentality—who are low in asser-
tiveness and personal strength—tend to have low self-esteem and to be less well adjusted
than those who have better task-oriented skills (Stake & Eisele, 2010). People feel
better about themselves when they are competent and effective at “taking care of

Stoic, traditional masculinity can be disadvantageous in intimate relationships. People are
happier when they’re partnered with others who are higher in expressivity.

Sidney Harris/ScienceCartoonsPlus

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 29

business” (Reis et al., 2000), so traditional gender roles also do women a disservice,
depriving them of skills that would facilitate more accomplishments and achievements.
Such roles also seem to cost women money; around the world, traditional women earn
less on the job than their nontraditional co-workers do (Stickney & Konrad, 2007).

The upshot of all this is that both instrumentality and expressiveness are valuable
traits, and the happiest, best-adjusted, most effective, mentally healthy people possess
both sets of skills (Stake & Eisele, 2010). In particular, the most desirable spouses,
those who are most likely to have contented, satisfied partners, are people who are
both instrumental and expressive (Marshall, 2010). And in fact, when they ponder the
partners they’d like to have, most people say that they’d prefer androgynous partners
to those who are merely masculine or feminine (Thomae & Houston, 2016). So, sure
enough, boys in high school who are sensitive to others’ feelings have close to twice as
many friendships with girls as their more traditional peers do (Ciarrochi et al., 2017).

So, it’s ironic that we still tend to put pressure on those who do not rigidly adhere
to their “proper” gender roles. Women who display as much competitiveness and asser-
tiveness as men risk being perceived as pushy, impolite, and uppity (Williams &
Tiedens, 2016). If anything, however, gender expectations are stricter for men than for
women (Steinberg & Diekman, 2016); girls can be tomboys and nobody frets too much,
but if a boy is too feminine, people worry (Miller,
2018). U.S. gender roles are changing slowly but surely;
in particular, U.S. women are becoming more instru-
mental (Eagly et al., 2020), and young adults of both
sexes are gradually becoming more egalitarian and less
traditional in their views of men and women (Donnelly
et al., 2016). Nonetheless, even if they limit our indi-
vidual potentials and are right only half the time, gen-
der stereotypes persist (Haines et al., 2016). We still
expect and too often encourage men to be instrumental
and women to be expressive (Ellemers, 2018), and such expectations are important
complications for many of our close relationships.


Shaped by our experiences, some consequential differences among people (such as
attachment styles and gender differences) may change over a few years’ time, but other
individual differences are more stable and lasting. Personality traits influence people’s
behavior in their relationships across their entire lifetimes (Costa et al., 2019) with
only gradual change over long periods of time (Damian et al., 2019).

The central traits known as the Big Five traits characterize people all over the
world (Baranski et al., 2017), and they all affect the quality of the relationships people
have. On the positive side, extraverted, agreeable, and conscientious people who are
open to new experiences have happier relationships than do those who score lower on
those traits (Schaffhuser et al., 2014). Extraverted people are outgoing and agreeable
people are compassionate and trusting, so they tend to be likable. Conscientious peo-
ple work hard and tend to follow the rules, so they weren’t very popular in high school
(van der Linden et al., 2010), but once they grow up, they make dependable, trustworthy,

A Point to Ponder

If you saw a YouTube video of
a new father crying when he
holds his newborn baby for
the first time, would you ad-
mire him or disrespect him?

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30 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

desirable partners (Nickel et al., 2019). “People who are less conscientious exceed their
credit limit . . . cancel plans, curse, oversleep, and break promises” (J ackson et al.,
2010, p. 507), so they tend to be unreliable companions.

The most influential Big Five trait, however, is the one that has a negative impact:
negative emotionality (Malouff et al., 2010). High scorers are prone to anxiety and
anger, and those unhappy tendencies tend to result in touchy, pessimistic, and argu-
mentative interactions with others. In fact, a remarkable study that tracked 300 couples
over a span of 45 years found that a full 10 percent of the satisfaction and contentment
spouses would experience in their marriages could be predicted from measures of their
negative emotionality when they were still engaged (Kelly & Conley, 1987). The more
optimistic, positive, and emotionally stable the partners were, the happier their mar-
riages turned out to be, and that’s a result that has stood the test of time (van
Scheppingen et al., 2019). Everyone has good days and bad days, but some of us
chronically have more bad days (and fewer good ones) than other people (Borghuis
et al., 2020)—and those unlucky folks are especially likely to have unhappy, disappoint-
ing relationships. (Do take note of this when you’re shopping for a mate! And assess
your own Big Five traits, if you like, with the scale in Table 1.3.)

The Big Five are famous, but other notable traits influence our relationships, too.
Consider selfishness. Unselfish people are attentive to others’ needs and are generally

The Big Five Personality Traits

A small cluster of fundamental traits does
a good job of describing the broad themes
in behavior, thoughts, and emotions that
distinguish one person from another
(Costa et al., 2019). These key characteris-
tics are called the Big Five traits by person-
ality researchers, and they differ in their
inf luence on our intimate relationships.
Which of these traits do you think matter

Open-mindedness—the degree to which peo-
ple are imaginative, curious, unconventional,
and artistic versus conforming, uncreative,
and stodgy.

Extraversion—the extent to which people are
gregarious, assertive, and sociable versus cau-
tious, reclusive, and shy.

Conscientiousness—the extent to which peo-
ple are dutiful, dependable, responsible, and
orderly versus unreliable, disorganized, and

Agreeableness—the degree to which people
are compassionate, cooperative, good-natured,
and trusting versus suspicious, selfish, and

Negative Emotionality—the degree to which
people are prone to fluctuating moods and
high levels of negative emotion such as worry,
anxiety, and anger.

The five traits are listed in order from
the least important to the most influential
(Malouff et al., 2010). People are happier
when they have imaginative, adventurous, so-
ciable partners, but what you really want is a
lover who is responsible and reliable, gener-
ous and thoughtful, and optimistic and emo-
tionally stable. And after you’ve been together
for 30 years or so, you may find that conscien-
tiousness becomes particularly important
(Claxton et al., 2012); dependable partners
who keep all their promises are satisfying
companions (Williams et al., 2019).

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 31

TABLE 1.3 The Big Five Inventory–2 Extra-Short Form

These 15 items provide a very efficient way to reliably assess our Big Five traits (Soto &
John, 2017). To which trait does each item pertain? Which of the Five characterize you best?

Here are a number of characteristics that may or may not apply to you. For example, do you
agree that you are someone who likes to spend time with others? Please write a number next to
each statement to indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with that statement.


a little


no opinion

a little



I am someone who…

1. ____ Tends to be quiet.
2. ____ Is compassionate, has a soft heart.
3. ____ Tends to be disorganized.
4. ____ Worries a lot.
5. ____ Is fascinated by art, music, or literature.
6. ____ Is dominant, acts as a leader.
7. ____ Is sometimes rude to others.
8. ____ Has difficulty getting started on tasks.
9. ____ Tends to feel depressed, blue.
10. ____ Has little interest in abstract ideas.
11. ____ Is full of energy.
12. ____ Assumes the best about people.
13. ____ Is reliable, can always be counted on.
14. ____ Is emotionally stable, not easily upset.
15. ____ Is original, comes up with new ideas.

Before you add up your scores for each of the traits, reverse the rating you gave yourself on items
1, 3, 7, 8, 10, and 14. That is, if you gave yourself a 1, change it to 5; 2 becomes 4, 4 becomes 2,
and a 5 should be changed to 1. Then, compile your total score for each trait this way:

Extraversion: items 1, 6, 11   Agreeableness: 2, 7, 12   Conscientiousness: 3, 8, 13
    Negative Emotionality: 4, 9, 14     Open-Mindedness: 5, 10, 15

How do your scores compare to those of American college students? Average scores for Extra-
version range from 2.2 to 4; for Agreeableness, 3 to 4.4; for Conscientiousness, 2.6 to 4.2; for
Negative Emotionality, 2.1 to 3.9; and for Open-Mindedness, 2.7 to 4.3. Above or below those
scores, you’re noticeably higher or lower on that trait than most collegians in the United
States (Soto & John, 2017).

considerate and charitable (Diebels et al., 2018), and their selflessness is attractive
(Arnocky et al., 2017), in part because they seem trustworthy to others (Mogilski et al.,
2019). Their generosity also seems to pay off down the road; unselfish people have
more children and higher incomes during their lives than greedy, selfish people do
(Eriksson et al., 2020).

The BFI-2 items are copyright 2015 by Oliver P. John and Christopher J. Soto and are reprinted
with the generous permission of Dr. Soto and Dr. John.

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32 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

Negatively related to (but distinct from) selfishness is humility. Humble people
think that “no matter how extraordinary one’s accomplishments or characteristics may
be, one is not entitled” to special treatment from others (Banker & Leary, 2020,
p. 738). They not only lack arrogance, but they also recognize and accept their limita-
tions and don’t take offense when others disagree with them (Porter & Schumann,
2018)—and they’re more forgiving than most, too (Antonucci et al., 2019). So, they’re
easy to live with (Van Tongeren et al., 2019), and indeed, potential dating partners who
are humble are preferred to those who are more egotistical or self-important
(Van Tongeren et al., 2014). Selfishness and humility may well be other characteristics
you’ll wish to consider when you’re evaluating potential partners!

There are other more specific personal characteristics that regulate our relation-
ships, and I’ll mention several in later chapters. (Check out, for instance, whether or
not we like casual sex [on page 356] and whether or not we can control ourselves [on
page 549].) For now, let’s note that although our personalities clearly have a genetic
basis (Vukasović & Bratko, 2015), they can be shaped to a degree by our connections
to others. For instance, the agreeableness of husbands and wives drops during the first
18 months of their marriages as they adjust to their new roles and greater interdepen-
dence (Lavner et al., 2018). Overall, however, our personalities affect our relationships
more than our relationships, good or bad, change our personalities (Deventer et al.,
2019). People do mature and change as they age: On average, we become more con-
scientious, more agreeable, and more emotionally stable over time. But our standing
relative to our peers tends not to change, so that those of us who worry more than
most tend to remain more prone than others to negative emotions throughout our lives
(Damian et al., 2019). Whatever traits distinguish and characterize a potential partner
in his or her twenties are likely to still define him or her 50 years from now.


Most of us like ourselves, but some of us do not. Our evaluations of ourselves consti-
tute our self-esteem, and when we hold favorable judgments of our skills and traits, our
self-esteem is high; when we doubt ourselves, self-esteem is low. Because people with
high self-esteem are generally happier and more successful than those with low self-
regard (Orth & Robins, 2014), it’s widely assumed that it’s good to feel good about
yourself (Leary, 2019).

But how do people come to like themselves? A leading theory argues that self-
esteem is a subjective gauge, a sociometer, that measures the quality of our relationships
with others (Leary, 2012). When others like us, we like ourselves; when other people
regard us positively and value their relationships with us, self-esteem is high. However,
if we don’t interest others—if others seem not to care whether or not we are part of
their lives—self-esteem is low (Leary & Acosta, 2018). So, “self-esteem helps us keep
track of how well we are doing socially” (Leary, 2019, p. 2). It operates in this manner,
according to sociometer theory, because it is an evolved mechanism that serves our
need to belong. This argument s uggests that, because their reproductive success
depended on s taying in the tribe and being accepted by others, early humans became
sensitive to any signs of exclusion that might precede rejection by others. Self-esteem
became a psychological gauge that alerted people to declining acceptance by others,

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 33

and dislike or disinterest from others gradually caused people to dislike themselves
(Kavanagh & Scrutton, 2015).

This perspective nicely fits most of what we know about the origins and operation
of self-esteem. There’s no question, for instance, that people feel better about them-
selves when they think they’re attractive to the other sex (Bale & Archer, 2013). And
the regard we receive from others clearly affects our subsequent self- evaluations
(Jayamaha & Overall, 2019). In particular, events that involve interpersonal rejection
damage our self-esteem in a way that other disappointments do not. Leary and his
colleagues (1995) demonstrated this point in a clever study in which research partici-
pants were led to believe that they would be excluded from an attractive group either
through bad luck—they had been randomly selected to be sent home—or because they
had been voted out by the other members of the group. Even though the same desir-
able opportunity was lost in both situations, the people who had been personally
rejected felt much worse about themselves than did those whose loss was impersonal.
It’s also interesting to note that public events that others witness affect our self-esteem
more than do private events that are otherwise identical but are known only to us. In
this and several other respects, whether we realize it or not, our self-evaluations seem
to be much affected by what others think of us (Cameron & Granger, 2019), and this
is true around the world (Denissen et al., 2008).

Here is further evidence, then, that we humans are a very social species: It’s hard
to like ourselves (and, indeed, it would be unrealistic to do so) if others don’t like us,
too. In most cases, people with chronically low self-esteem have developed their nega-
tive self-evaluations through an unhappy history of failing to receive sufficient accep-
tance and appreciation from other people (Orth, 2018).

And sometimes, this is very unfair. Some people are victimized by abusive relation-
ships through no fault of their own, and, despite being likable people with fine social
skills, they develop low self-esteem as a result of mistreatment from others. What hap-
pens when those people enter new relationships with kinder, more appreciative part-
ners? Does the new feedback they receive slowly improve their self-esteem?

Not necessarily. A compelling program of research by Sandra Murray, John
Holmes, Joanne Wood, and Justin Cavallo has demonstrated that people with low self-
esteem sometimes sabotage their relationships by underestimating their partners’ love
for them (Murray et al., 2001) and perceiving disregard when none exists (Murray
et al., 2002). Take a look at Table 1.4. People with low self-regard find it hard to believe
that they are well and truly loved by their partners and, as a result, they tend not to
be optimistic that their loves will last. “Even in their closest relationships,” people with
low self-esteem “typically harbor serious (but unwarranted) insecurities about their
partners’ feelings for them” (Holmes & Wood, 2009, p. 250). This leads them to over-
react to their partners’ occasional bad moods (B ellavia & Murray, 2003); they feel
more rejected, experience more hurt, and get more angry than do those with higher
self-esteem. And these painful feelings make it harder for them to behave constructively
in response to their imagined peril. Whereas people with high self-regard draw closer
to their partners and seek to repair the relationship when frustrations arise, people
with low self-esteem defensively distance themselves, stay surly, and behave badly
(Murray, B ellavia et al., 2003). They also feel even worse about themselves (Murray,
Griffin et al., 2003).

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34 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

All of this occurs, say Murray and her colleagues (Cavallo et al., 2014), because
we take large risks when we come to depend on others. Close ties to an intimate
partner allow us to enjoy rich rewards of support and care, but they also leave us
vulnerable to devastating betrayal and rejection if our partners prove to be untrust-
worthy. Because they are confident about their partners’ love and regard for them,
p eople with high self-esteem draw closer to their partners when difficulties arise. In
contrast, people with low self-esteem have lasting doubts about their partners’ regard
and reliability, so when times get tough, they withdraw from their partners in an effort
to protect themselves. We all need to balance connectedness with self-protection, Mur-
ray’s team suggests, but people with low self-esteem put their fragile egos before their
relationships, and that’s self-defeating when they have loving, devoted partners and
there is nothing to fear (Murray et al., 2013).

TABLE 1.4. How My Partner Sees Me

Sandra Murray and her colleagues use this scale in their studies of self-esteem in close rela-
tionships. People with high self-esteem believe that their partners hold them in high regard,
but people with low self-esteem worry that their partners do not like or respect them as much.
What do you think your partner thinks of you?

 In many ways, your partner may see you in roughly the same way you see yourself. Yet in
other ways, your partner may see you differently than you see yourself. For example, you may
feel quite shy at parties, but your partner might tell you that you really seem quite relaxed and
outgoing on these occasions. On the other hand, you and your partner may both agree that
you are quite intelligent and patient.

 For each trait or attribute that follows, please indicate how you think that your partner sees
you. For example, if you think that your partner sees the attribute “self-assured” as moderately
characteristic of you, you would choose “5.”

 Respond using the scale below. Please enter your response in the blank to the left of each
trait or attribute listed.

Not at All


2 3


4 5


6 7


8 9


My partner sees me as . . .

____ Kind and Affectionate ____ Tolerant and Accepting

____ Critical and Judgmental ____ Thoughtless

____ Self-Assured ____ Patient

____ Sociable/Extraverted ____ Rational

____ Intelligent ____ Understanding

____ Lazy ____ Distant

____ Open and Disclosing ____ Complaining

____ Controlling and Dominant ____ Responsive

____ Witty and Humorous ____ Immature

____ Moody ____ Warm

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 35

As a result, the self-doubts and thin skins of people with low self-esteem lead them
to make mountains out of molehills. They stay on alert for signs of rejection (H. Li
et al., 2012), and they wrongly perceive small bumps in the road as worrisome signs
of declining commitment in their partners. Then, if they seek reassurance, they do so
timidly and receive less understanding and support from their partners as a result
(Cortes & Wood, 2018). Even their Facebook updates tend to be pessimistic and self-
critical, and they receive fewer “likes” and comments than others do (Forest & Wood,
2012). By comparison, people with high self-esteem correctly shrug off the same small
bumps and remain confident of their partners’ acceptance and positive regard. The
unfortunate net result is that once it is formed, low self-esteem may be hard to over-
come (Kuster & Orth, 2013); even after 10 years of marriage, people with low self-
esteem still tend to believe that their spouses love and accept them less than those
faithful spouses really do (Murray et al., 2000), and that regrettable state of affairs
undermines their—and their spouse’s—satisfaction (Erol & Orth, 2013).

There is some good news in all of this: When they notice their lover’s insecurity,
devoted partners may increase their expressions of regard and affection (Lemay &
Ryan, 2018), intentionally offering compliments and encouragement that can boost
their lover’s self-esteem (Jayamaha & Overall, 2019). And overall, our self-esteem tends
to increase over the decades from young adulthood through middle age (Orth et al.,
2018). That’s fortunate because low self-esteem undermines relationships, making them
more fragile (Luciano & Orth, 2017), and relationships are clearly more fulfilling for
both partners when they both have high self-esteem (Robinson & Cameron, 2012).

Thus, our self-esteem appears to both result from and then subsequently steer our
interpersonal relationships (Harris & Orth, 2020). What we think of ourselves seems
to depend, at least in part, on the quality of our connections to others. And those
self-evaluations affect our ensuing interactions with new partners, who provide us fur-
ther evidence of our interpersonal worth. In fundamental ways, what we know of
ourselves emerges from our partnerships with others and then matters thereafter
(Mund et al., 2015).

Sexual Orientation

The last individual difference we’ll consider actually doesn’t make much of a difference.
Like gender, our sexual orientations are complex, being comprised of our identities (that
is, our self-definitions and self-presentations as heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or
asexual11), our sexual attractions, and our actual sexual behaviors—and these components
do not always cohere as well as you might expect (Fu et al., 2019). Lots of people who
consider themselves to be heterosexual have experienced infatuations with, and fantasies
involving, others of the same sex (Savin-Williams, 2014). And in fact, in a large U.S.
sample, 15 percent of those who judged themselves to be “exclusively heterosexual” were
nevertheless strongly attracted to the other sex, and 6 percent of them had had sex with
someone of the same sex in the past year (Legate & Rogge, 2019). Like attachment
styles, sexual orientation is better understood as a continuum that takes various forms
than as a set of simple categories that don’t overlap at all (see Table 1.5).

11Asexuals don’t feel much sexual desire and aren’t sexually attracted to anyone.

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36 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

TABLE 1.5. Sexual Orientation is a Spectrum

0 1 2 3 4 5 6

Completely, Mostly Mildly Bisexual Mildly Mostly Completely,

heterosexual equally

attracted to
men and

homosexual exclusively,

Scales like this one that allow people to report levels of other-sex and same-sex attractions
and behavior instead of simple categories of “heterosexual,” “bisexual,” or “homosexual” are
now routinely used in studies of sexuality. In 2019, using a similar scale, 24 percent of a
large sample of adults in Great Britain said they weren’t exclusively heterosexual or homosex-
ual (Waldersee, 2019).

Around the world, most people (90 percent of men and 91 percent of women) say
they’re heterosexual. Women (7 percent) are more likely to report a bisexual identity
than men (5 percent) are, whereas men (5 percent) are more likely than women
(2 percent) to report a homosexual identity (Rahman et al., 2020). Being minorities,
and despite dramatic recent shifts in public attitudes about same-sex relationships (see
page 345), lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) couples still often face a variety of burden-
some stressors—disregard, disapproval, and discrimination (Diamond & Blair, 2018)—
that don’t distress heterosexual couples (Rostosky & Riggle, 2017).

So, the social environments that LGB couples inhabit can still differ from those
of their heterosexual brothers and sisters (Ecker et al., 2019)—but the intimacy they
share inside their relationships does not (Frost et al., 2015). The nature and workings
of fulfilling connections between partners are not affected much by sexual orientation
at all. Other than their relative numbers, LGBs and heterosexuals are resoundingly
similar on most of the topics we’ll encounter in this book. For instance, gays and
lesbians exhibit the same attachment styles in the same proportions as heterosexual
men and women do (Roisman et al., 2008), and they, too, are happier with romantic
partners of high (rather than low) expressivity (Wade & Donis, 2007). They fall in love
the same way (Kurdek, 2006), benefit from marriage to the same extent (Chen & van
Ours, 2018), and feel the same passions, experience the same doubts, and feel the same
commitments as heterosexuals do (Joyner et al., 2019). (Why would you expect any-
thing different?)

Now, there are some potentially important differences between same-sex and other-
sex relationships. Gay men tend to be more expressive than heterosexual men, on aver-
age, and lesbians tend to be more instrumental than other women, so gays and lesbians
are less likely than heterosexuals to adhere to traditional gender roles (Lippa, 2005).
Gays and lesbians also tend to be better educated and to be more liberal (Grollman,
2017). But the big difference between same-sex and other-sex relationships is that a gay
couple is composed of two people who identify as men and a lesbian couple is composed
of two people who identify as women. To some degree, same-sex couples may behave
differently than heterosexual couples do, not because of their sexual orientations but
because of the sexes of the people involved. For instance, when their relationships are

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 37

new, gay men have sex more often than heterosexual
couples do, and lesbian couples have sex less often than
heterosexual couples do (Diamond, 2015). The more
men there are in a partnership, the more often the cou-
ple has sex—but that’s probably because men have higher
sex drives than women do (see page 360), not because
there’s anything special about gay men (Regan, 2015).

Notably, where differences in relationship function-
ing do exist, gays and lesbians are the clear winners.
They have better, more satisfying relationships than heterosexuals do, on average
(Coontz, 2020). They divide up household chores more fairly, communicate openly
and honestly, and respect and appreciate individual differences, so that they experience
less conflict than other-sex couples do (Rostosky & Riggle, 2017). Any notion that
there’s anything basically wrong with same-sex relationships is clearly absurd.

Bisexuals, however, tend not to fare as well. On average, they’re less satisfied
with their romantic relationships than lesbian, gay, or heterosexual couples are (Perales
& Baxter, 2018), and there may be several reasons why. Most of them (88 percent)
are partnered with someone of the other sex (Brown, 2019) who may or may not
share their orientation (Mark et al., 2020). In being attracted to both sexes, they
elicit suspicion from both heterosexuals and gays and lesbians (Feinstein & Dyar,
2018), and in many cases, “their lesbian or gay counterparts are their harshest crit-
ics” (Matsick & Rubin, 2018, p. 150). As a result, bisexuals are much less likely than
gays or lesbians to disclose their sexual orientation to others; whereas 75 percent of
gays and lesbians have “come out” to all or most of the important people in their
lives, only 19 percent of bisexuals have done so—and 26 percent of them haven’t
come out to anyone (Brown, 2019).

Note, however, that the difficulties bisexuals face result from misunderstanding and
disapproval from others. When they attain it, comfortable intimacy is satisfying to bisex-
uals just as it is everyone else (Mark et al., 2020), and the bottom line is that there’s
no reason to write two different books on Intimate Relationships12: Intimacy operates the
same way in both same-sex and other-sex partnerships, regardless of sexual orientation.


Now that we have surveyed some key characteristics that distinguish people from one
another, we can address the possibility that our relationships display some underlying
themes that reflect the animal nature shared by all humankind. Our concern here is
with evolutionary influences that have shaped close relationships over countless gen-
erations, instilling in us certain tendencies that are found in everyone (Buss, 2019).

Evolutionary psychology starts with three fundamental assumptions. First, sexual
selection has helped make us the species we are today (Puts, 2016). You’ve probably
heard of natural selection, which refers to the advantages conferred on animals that
cope more effectively than others with predators and physical challenges such as food

A Point to Ponder

Obviously, in same-sex part-
nerships, people have part-
ners of the same sex. How
much do you think that con-
tributes to the success of their
relationships? Why?

12Thank goodness.

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38 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

shortages. Sexual selection involves advantages that result in greater success at repro-
duction. And importantly:

Contrary to what many people have been taught, evolution has nothing to do with the
survival of the fittest. It is not a question of whether you live or die. The key to evolu-
tion is reproduction. Whereas all organisms eventually die, not all organisms repro-
duce. Further, among those that do reproduce, some leave more descendants than
others. (Ash & Gallup, 2008, p. 313)

This point of view holds that motives such as the need to belong have presumably
come to characterize human beings because they were adaptive, conferring some sort of
reproductive advantage to those who possessed them. As I suggested earlier, the early
humans who sought cooperative closeness with others were probably more likely than
asocial loners to have children who grew up to have children of their own. Over time, then,
to the extent that the desire to affiliate with others is heritable (and it is; Tellegen et al.,
1988), sexual selection would have made the need to belong more prevalent, with fewer
and fewer people being born without it. In keeping with this example, evolutionary prin-
ciples assert that any universal psychological mechanism exists in its present form because
it consistently solved some problem of survival or reproduction in the past (Buss, 2019).

Second, evolutionary psychology suggests that men and women should differ from
one another only to the extent that they have historically faced different reproductive
dilemmas (Geary, 2010). Thus, men and women should behave similarly in close rela-
tionships except in those instances in which different, specialized styles of behavior
would allow better access to mates or promote superior survival of one’s offspring. Are
there such situations? Let’s address that question by posing two hypothetical queries:

If, during one year, a man has sex with 100 different women, how many children can
he father? (The answer, of course, is “lots, perhaps as many as 100.”)

If, during one year, a woman has sex with 100 different men, how many children can
she have? (Probably just one.)

Obviously, there’s a big difference in the minimum time and effort that men and women
have to invest in each child they produce. For a man, the minimum requirement is a
single ejaculation; given access to receptive mates, a man might father hundreds of
children during his lifetime. But a woman can have children only until her menopause,
and each child she has requires an enormous investment of time and energy. These
biological differences in men’s and women’s obligatory parental investment—the time,
energy, and resources one must provide to one’s offspring in order to reproduce—may
have supported the evolution of different strategies for selecting mates (Geary, 2000).
Conceivably, given their more limited reproductive potential, women in our ancestral
past who chose their mates carefully reproduced more successfully (with more of their
children surviving to have children of their own) than did women who were less
thoughtful and deliberate in their choices of partners. In contrast, men who promiscu-
ously pursued every available sexual opportunity may have reproduced more success-
fully. If they flitted from partner to partner, their children may have been less likely to
survive, but what they didn’t offer in quality (of parenting) they could make up for in
quantity (of children). Thus, today—as this evolutionary account predicts—women do

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 39

choose their sexual partners more carefully than men do. They insist on smarter,
friendlier, more prestigious, and more emotionally stable partners than men will accept,
and they are less interested in casual, uncommitted sex than men are (N. Li et al.,
2012). Perhaps this sex difference evolved over time.

Another reproductive difference between the sexes is that a woman always knows
for sure whether or not a particular child is hers. By comparison, a man suffers pater-
nity uncertainty; unless he is completely confident that his mate has been faithful to
him, he cannot be absolutely certain that her child is his (Buss & Schmitt, 1993).
Perhaps because of that, even though women cheat less than men do (Tsapelas et al.,
2011), men are more preoccupied with worries about their partners’ infidelity than
women are (Schützwohl, 2006). This difference, too, may have evolved over time.

An evolutionary perspective also makes a distinction between short-term and long-term
mating strategies (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Men and women both seem to pursue different
sorts of attributes in the other sex when they’re having a brief fling than when they’re
entering a longer, more committed relationship. In particular, men have a greater desire
than women do for sexual liaisons of short duration; they are more interested in brief affairs
with a variety of partners, and when they enter new relationships, they’re ready to have sex
sooner than women are (Schmitt, 2016). As a result, when they’re on the prowl, men are
attracted to women who seem to be sexually available and “easy” (Schmitt et al., 2001).
However, if they think about settling down, the same men who consider promiscuous
women to be desirable partners in casual relationships often prefer chaste women as pro-
spective spouses (Buss, 2000). When they’re thinking long-term, men also value physical
attractiveness more than women do; they seek wives who are young and pretty, and as they
age, they marry women increasingly younger than themselves (Conway et al., 2015).

Women exhibit different patterns. When women select short-term mates—particu-
larly when they have extramarital affairs (Greiling & Buss, 2000)—they seek sexy, char-
ismatic, dominant men with lots of masculine appeal. But when they evaluate potential
husbands, they look for good financial prospects; they seek men with incomes and
resources who presumably can provide a safe environment for their children, even when
those men aren’t the sexiest guys in the pack (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000). In general,
women care more than men do about the financial prospects and status of their long-
term partners (Conroy-Beam et al., 2015).

The effort to delineate human nature by identifying patterns of behavior that are
found in all of humanity is one of the compelling aspects of the evolutionary perspec-
tive. In fact, the different preferences I just mentioned—with men valuing good looks
and women valuing good incomes—have been found in dozens of cultures, everywhere
they have been studied around the world (Buss, 2019).13 However, an evolutionary
perspective does not imply that culture is unimportant.

13Here’s a chance for you to rehearse what you learned earlier in this chapter about sex differences. On aver-
age, men and women differ in the importance they attach to physical attractiveness and income, but that
doesn’t mean that women don’t care about looks and men don’t care about money. And overall, as we’ll see
in chapter 3, men and women mostly want the same things, such as warmth, emotional stability, and generous
affection, from their romantic partners. Despite the sex differences I just described, people do not want looks
or money at the expense of other valuable characteristics that men and women both want (Li, 2008). Finally,
before I finish this footnote, do you see how differences in parental investment may underlie men’s interest
in looks and women’s interest in money? Think about it, and we’ll return to this point in chapter 3.

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40 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

Indeed, a third basic assumption of evolutionary psychology is that cultural influ-
ences determine whether evolved patterns of behavior are adaptive—and cultural change
occurs faster than evolution does. Our ancient forebears were walking around on two
legs millions of years ago,14 facing challenges we can only imagine. A best guess is that
more than one in every four infants failed to survive their first year of life, and about
half didn’t live long enough to reach puberty (Volk & Atkinson, 2013). Things are
different now. Our species displays patterns of behavior that were adaptive eons ago,
but not all of those inherited tendencies may fit the modern environments we inhabit
today (Li et al., 2018). For instance, cavemen may have reproduced successfully if they
tried to mate with every possible partner, but modern men may not: In just the last
two generations, we have seen (a) the creation of reproductive technologies—such as
birth control pills—that allow women complete control of their fertility, and (b) the
spread of a lethal virus that is transmitted through sexual contact (the human immu-
nodeficiency virus that causes AIDS). These days, a desire for multiple partners is
probably less adaptive for men than it was millions of years ago. Conceivably, modern
men may reproduce more successfully if they display a capacity for commitment and
monogamy that encourages their partners to allow a pregnancy to occur. But the
human race is still evolving. Sexual selection will ultimately favor styles of behavior
that fit our new environment, but it will take several thousand generations for such
adaptations to occur. (And how will our cultures have changed by then?)

Thus, an evolutionary perspective provides a fascinating explanation for common
patterns in modern relationships (Eastwick, 2016): Certain themes and some sex dif-
ferences exist because they spring from evolved psychological mechanisms that were
useful long ago. We are not robots who are mindlessly enacting genetic directives, and
we are not all alike (Boutwell & Boisvert, 2014), but we may all have inherited habits
that are triggered by the situations we encounter. Moreover, our habits may fit our
modern situations to varying degrees. Behavior results from the interplay of both per-
sonal and situational influences, but some common reactions in people result from
evolved human nature itself:

The pressures to which we have been exposed over millennia have left a mental and
emotional legacy. Some of these emotions and reactions, derived from the species who
were our ancestors, are unnecessary in a modern age, but these vestiges of a former
existence are indelibly printed in our make-up. (Winston, 2002, p. 3)

This is a provocative point of view that has attracted both acclaim and criticism.
On the one hand, the evolutionary perspective has prompted intriguing new discov-
eries (Buss, 2019). On the other hand, assumptions about the primeval social envi-
ronments from which human nature emerged are necessarily speculative. And
importantly, critics assert, an evolutionary model is not the only reasonable
explanation for many of the patterns at issue (Eagly & Wood, 2013). Women may
have to pick their mates more carefully than men do, for instance, not because of

14I don’t know about you, but this blows my mind. The bones of Lucy, the famous female Australopithecus
afarensis, are estimated to be 3.2 million years old, a span of time I find to be incomprehensible. That’s
how long our predecessors have been adjusting, adapting, and reproducing. Is it so unlikely that, even in the
midst of huge individual idiosyncrasy, some behavioral patterns became commonplace?

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 41

the pressures of parental investment but because cultures routinely allow women
less control over financial resources (Wood & Eagly, 2007); arguably, women have
to be concerned about their spouses’ incomes when it’s hard for them to earn as
much money themselves. If women routinely filled similar roles and had social
status as high as men’s, women’s greater interest in a mate’s money might be much
reduced (Zentner & Mitura, 2012).

Thus, critics of an evolutionary perspective emphasize the role of culture in
shaping male and female behavior (Eagly & Wood, 2012), and they contend that
patterns of behavior that are presumed to be evolved tendencies are both less notice-
able and more variable across cultures than an evolutionary model would suggest
(Eagly & Wood, 2013). Proponents respond that, of course, cultures are hugely
inf luential—after all, they determine which behaviors are adaptive and which are
not—but there are differences in the mating strategies and behavior of men and
women that can’t be explained by social roles and processes (Buss & Schmitt, 2019).
The contest between these camps isn’t finished (Buss & von Hippel, 2018), and we’ll
encounter it again later on. For now, one thing is certain: Right or wrong, evolution-
ary models have generated fascinating research that has been good for relationship
science. And take note of the bottom line: Whether it evolved or was a social creation
(or both), there may well be a human nature that shapes our intimate relationships.


The final building block of relationships is the interaction that the two partners share. So
far, we’ve focused on the idiosyncratic experiences and personalities that individuals bring
to a relationship, but it’s time to acknowledge that relationships are much more than the
sum of their parts. Relationships emerge from the combination of their participants’ his-
tories and talents (Mund et al., 2016), and those amalgamations may be quite different
from the simple sum of the individuals who create them. Chemists are used to thinking
this way; when they mix two elements (such as hydrogen and oxygen), they often get a
compound (such as water) that doesn’t resemble either of its constituent parts. In a
similar fashion, the relationship two people create results from contributions from each
of them but may only faintly resemble the relationships they share with other people.

Consider the levels of trust you feel toward others. Even if you’re a secure and
trusting person, you undoubtedly trust some people more than others because trust is
a two-way street that is influenced both by your dispositions and those of your partners
(Simpson, 2007). Moreover, it emerges from the dynamic give-and-take you and your
partners share each day; trust is a fluid process rather than a static, changeless thing,
and it ebbs and flows in all of your relationships.

Every intimate relationship is like this. Individually, two partners inevitably encoun-
ter fluctuating moods and variable health and energy; then, when they interact, their
mutual influence on one another may produce a constantly changing variety of out-
comes (Totenhagen et al., 2016). Over time, of course, unmistakable patterns of inter-
action will often distinguish one relationship from another (Finkel et al., 2017). Still,
at any given moment, a relationship may be an inconstant entity, the product of shift-
ing transactions of complex people.

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42 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

Overall, then, relationships are constructed of diverse influences that may range from
the fads and fashions of current culture to the basic nature of the human race. Working
alongside those generic influences are various idiosyncratic factors such as personality
and experience, some of them learned and some of them inherited. And ultimately, two
people who hail from the same planet—but who may otherwise be somewhat different in
every other respect—begin to interact. The result may be frustrating or fulfilling, but the
possibilities are always fascinating—and that’s what relationships are made of.


I began this chapter by asserting the value of intimacy to human beings, so, to be fair,
I should finish it by admitting that intimacy has potential costs as well. We need inti-
macy—we suffer without it—but distress and displeasure sometimes result from our
dealings with others. Indeed, relationships can be disappointing in so many ways that
whole books can, and have been, written about their drawbacks (Spitzberg & Cupach,
2014)! When they’re close to others, people may fear that their sensitive secrets will
be revealed or turned against them. They may dread the loss of autonomy and personal
control that comes with interdependency (Baxter, 2004), and they may worry about
being abandoned by those on whom they rely. They recognize that there is dishonesty
in relationships and that people sometimes confuse lust with love (Diamond, 2014).
And in fact, most of us (56 percent) have had a troublesome relationship in the last
5 years (Levitt et al., 1996), so these are not empty fears.

Some of us fear intimacy (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2018). Indeed, some of us anx-
iously expect that others will reject us, and we live on edge waiting for the relational
axe to fall (Kawamoto et al., 2015). But whether our fears are overstated or merely
realistic, we’re all likely to experience unexpected, frustrating costs in our relationships
on occasion (Miller, 1997). And the deleterious consequences for our physical health
of disappointment and distress in our close relationships can be substantial
(Gouin et al., 2020).

So why take the risk? Because we are a social species. We need each other. We
prematurely wither and die without close connections to other people. Relationships
can be complex, but they are essential parts of our lives, so they are worth understand-
ing as thoroughly as possible. I’m glad you’re reading this book, and I’ll try to facilitate
your understanding in the chapters that follow.


Mark and Wendy met during their junior years in college, and they instantly found
a lot to like in each other. Wendy was pretty and very feminine and rather meek,
and Mark liked the fact that he was able to entice her to have sex with him on their
second date. Wendy was susceptible to his charms because she unjustly doubted her
desirability, and she was excited that a dominant, charismatic man found her attrac-
tive. They started cohabitating during their senior years and married 6 months after
graduation. They developed a traditional partnership, with Wendy staying home when

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 43

their children were young and Mark applying himself to his career. He succeeded in
his profession, winning several lucrative promotions, but Wendy began to feel that
he was married more to his work than to her. She wanted him to talk to her more,
and he began to wish that she was eating less and taking better care of herself.

Having read this chapter, what do you think the future holds for Mark and Wendy?
How happy will they be with each other in another 10 years? Why?



The Nature and Importance of Intimacy

This book focuses on adult friendships and romantic relationships.

The Nature of Intimacy. Intimate relationships differ from more casual associa-
tions in at least seven specific ways: knowledge, interdependence, caring, trust, responsive-
ness, mutuality, and commitment.

The Need to Belong. Humans display a need to belong, a drive to maintain regular
interaction with affectionate, intimate partners. Adverse consequences may follow if
the need remains unfulfilled over time.

The Influence of Culture

Cultural norms regarding relationships in the United States have changed dra-
matically over the last 50 years. Fewer people are marrying than ever before, and those

knowledge ………………………………….. p. 2
interdependence ………………………… p. 2
caring ………………………………………… p. 2
trust …………………………………………… p. 2
responsiveness …………………………… p. 2
mutuality …………………………………… p. 2
commitment ………………………………. p. 2
need to belong …………………………… p. 4
singlism……………………………………… p. 9
technoference …………………………… p. 12
phubbing………………………………….. p. 12
sex ratio …………………………………… p. 13
attachment styles……………………… p. 14
secure ………………………………………. p. 14
anxious-ambivalent …………………… p. 14
avoidant …………………………………… p. 15
secure attachment ……………………. p. 16
preoccupied attachment …………… p. 16
fearful attachment ……………………. p. 16

dismissing attachment ……………… p. 16
avoidance of intimacy ……………… p. 16
anxiety about abandonment …….. p. 17
gender roles …………………………….. p. 24
androgynous …………………………….. p. 25
instrumental traits ……………………. p. 25
expressive traits ……………………….. p. 25
open-mindedness ……………………… p. 30
extraversion ……………………………… p. 30
conscientiousness …………………….. p. 30
agreeableness …………………………… p. 30
negative emotionality ……………….. p. 30
selfishness ……………………………….. p. 30
humility …………………………………… p. 32
self-esteem ……………………………….. p. 32
sociometer ……………………………….. p. 32
parental investment ………………….. p. 38
paternity uncertainty ……………….. p. 39

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44 chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships

who do marry wait longer to do so. People routinely cohabit, and that often makes a
future divorce more, not less, likely.

Sources of Change. Economic changes, increasing individualism, and new technol-
ogy contribute to cultural change. So does the sex ratio; cultures with high sex ratios
are characterized by traditional roles for men and women, whereas low sex ratios are
correlated with more permissive behavior.

The Influence of Experience

Children’s interactions with their caregivers produce different styles of attachment.
Four styles—secure, preoccupied, fearful, and dismissing—which differ in avoidance of
intimacy and anxiety about abandonment, are now recognized.

These orientations are mostly learned. Thus, our beliefs about the nature and
worth of close relationships are shaped by our experiences within them.

The Influence of Individual Differences

There’s wide variation in people’s abilities and preferences, but individual differ-
ences are usually gradual and subtle instead of abrupt.

Sex Differences. Despite lay beliefs that men and women are quite different, most
sex differences are quite small. The range of variation among members of a given sex
is always large compared to the average difference between the sexes, and the overlap
of the sexes is so substantial that many members of one sex will always score higher
than the average member of the other sex. Thus, the sexes are much more similar than
different on most of the topics of interest to relationship science.

Gender Differences. Gender differences refer to social and psychological distinctions
that are taught to people by their cultures. Men are expected to be dominant and assertive,
women to be warm and emotionally expressive—but a third of us are androgynous and pos-
sess both instrumental, task-oriented skills and expressive, social and emotional talents. Men
and women who adhere to traditional gender roles do not like each other, either at first
meeting or later during a marriage, as much as less stereotyped, androgynous people do.

Personality. Personality traits are stable tendencies that characterize people’s
thoughts, feelings, and behavior across their whole lives. Open-mindedness, extraversion,
agreeableness, and conscientiousness help produce pleasant relationships, but negative
emotionality undermines one’s contentment.

Self-Esteem. What we think of ourselves emerges from our interactions with oth-
ers. The sociometer theory argues that if others regard us positively, self-esteem is high,
but if others don’t want to associate with us, self-esteem is low. People who have low
self-esteem undermine and sabotage their close relationships by underestimating their
partners’ love for them and overreacting to imagined threats.

Sexual Orientation. Lesbians and gays experience intimacy in the same ways that
heterosexuals do, but often enjoy relationships that are more satisfying; there may be
advantages—greater equality, better communication, more respect—in having a partner

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chapter 1: The Building Blocks of Relationships 45

of the same sex. Bisexuals elicit more suspicion, but they, too, prosper in loving

The Influence of Human Nature

An evolutionary perspective assumes that sexual selection shapes humankind,
influenced, in part, by sex differences in parental investment and paternity uncertainty.
The sexes pursue different mates when they’re interested in a long, committed relation-
ship than they do when they’re interested in a short-term affair. The evolutionary
perspective also assumes that cultural influences determine whether inherited habits
are still adaptive—and some of them may not be.

The Influence of Interaction

Relationships result from the combinations of their participants’ histories and
talents, and thus are often more than the sum of their parts. Relationships are fluid
processes rather than static entities.

The Dark Side of Relationships

There are potential costs, as well as rewards, to intimacy. So why take the risk?
Because we are a social species, and we need each other.


Here is some news you can use from this chapter that may improve your chances for
contentment in close relationships.

• Enter casual cohabitation cautiously. It tends to be less satisfying than marriage
usually is.

• Put away your phone when it’s time to pay attention to your partner.
• Strive to be trusting, relaxed, and comfortable with interdependent intimacy—and
seek partners who are, as well.

• Seek partners with both instrumental and expressive skills who are competent and
self-reliant and warm, compassionate, and tender.

• Given a choice, choose an optimistic partner over one who is pessimistic, anxious,
and fretful.

• Seek partners who deserve to like themselves and do.


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C H A P T E R 2

Research Methods

The Short History of Relationship Science ♦ Developing a Question 
♦ Obtaining Participants ♦ Choosing a Design ♦ The Nature of Our

Data ♦ The Ethics of Such Endeavors ♦ Interpreting and Integrating
Results ♦ A Final Note ♦ For Your Consideration ♦ Key terms ♦ chapter

summary ♦ suggestions for satisfaction ♦ references

I bet you dread a chapter on research methods. You probably regard it as a distraction
to be endured before getting to “the good stuff.” Love, sex, and jealousy probably appeal
to you, for instance, but research methodology isn’t at the top of your list.

Nevertheless, for several reasons, some basic knowledge of the methods used by
researchers is especially valuable for consumers of relationship science. For one
thing, more charlatans and imposters compete for your attention in this field than
in most others. Bookstores and websites are full of ideas offered by people who don’t
really study relationships at all but who (a) base suggestions and advice on their
own idiosyncratic experiences, or (b) even worse, simply make them up (MacGeorge
& Hall, 2014). Appreciating the difference between trustworthy, reliable information
and simple gossip can save you money and disappointment. Moreover, misinforma-
tion about relationships is more likely to cause people real inconvenience than are
misunderstandings in other sciences. People who misunderstand the nature of the
solar system, for instance, are much less likely to take action that will be disadvanta-
geous to them than are people who are misinformed about the effects of divorce on
children. Studies of relationships often have real human impact in everyday life
(Karney et al., 2018).

Indeed, this book speaks more directly to topics that affect you personally than
most other texts you’ll ever read. Because of this, you have a special responsibility to
be an informed consumer who can distinguish flimsy whimsy from solid truths.

This isn’t always easy. As we’ll see in this chapter, there may be various ways to
address a specific research question, and each may have its own particular advantages
and disadvantages. Reputable scientists gather and evaluate information systematically
and carefully, but no single technique may provide the indisputable answers they seek.
A thoughtful understanding of relationships often requires us to combine information
from many studies, evaluating diverse facts with judicious discernment. This chapter
provides the overview of the techniques of relationship science that you need to make
such judgments.

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60 chapter 2: Research Methods

Only basic principles are described here—this is one of the shortest chapters in
the book—but they should help you decide what evidence to accept and what to ques-
tion. And trust me. There’s a lot here that’s worth thinking about even if you’ve read
a Methods chapter before. Hopefully, when we’re finished you’ll be better equipped to
distinguish useful research evidence from useless anecdotes or mere speculation. For
even more information, don’t hesitate to consult other sources such as Mehl and
Conner (2012) and Leary (2017).


Isaac Newton identified some of the basic laws of physics over 300 years ago (back
in 1687). Biology and chemistry have been around for just as long. The systematic
study of human relationships, on the other hand, is a recent invention that is so new
and so recent that you can actually talk, if you want, with most of the scientists who
have ever studied human intimacy! This is no small matter. Because relationship
science has a short history, it is less well known than most other sciences, and for
that reason, it is less well understood. Very few people outside of colleges and uni-
versities appreciate the extraordinary strides this new discipline has made in the last
55 years.

Until the mid-twentieth century, relationships were pondered mainly by philosophers
and poets. They had lots of opinions—doesn’t everybody?—but those views were only
opinions, and many of them were wrong. So, the first efforts of behavioral scientists
to conduct empirical observations of real relationships were momentous developments.
Relationship science can be said to have begun in the 1930s with a trickle of histori-
cally important studies of children’s friendships (e.g., Moreno, 1934) and courtship
and marriage (e.g., Waller, 1937). However, relatively few relationship studies were
done before World War II. After the war, several important field studies, such as
Whyte’s (1955) Street Corner Society and Festinger, Schachter, and Back’s (1950) study
of student friendships in campus housing, attracted attention and respect. Still, as the
1950s drew to a close, a coherent science of relationships had yet to begin. The pres-
ident of the American Psychological Association even complained that “psychologists,
at least psychologists who write textbooks, not only show no interest in the origin and
development of love and affection, but they seem to be unaware of its very existence”
(Harlow, 1958, p. 673)!

That began to change, thank goodness, when an explosion of studies put the
field on the scientific map in the 1960s and 1970s. Pioneering scientists Ellen Ber-
scheid and Elaine Hatfield began systematic studies of attraction and love that were
fueled by a new emphasis on laboratory experiments in social psychology (Reis et
al., 2013). In a quest for precision that yielded unambiguous results, researchers
began studying specific inf luences on relationships that they were able to control
and manipulate. For instance, in a prominent line of research on the role of attitude
similarity in liking, Donn Byrne and his colleagues (e.g., Byrne & Nelson, 1965)
asked people to inspect an attitude survey that had supposedly been completed by
a stranger in another room. Then, they asked the participants how much they liked
the stranger. What the participants didn’t know was that the researchers had

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chapter 2: Research Methods 61

prepared the survey either to agree or disagree with the participants’ own attitudes
(which had been assessed earlier). This manipulation of attitude similarity had clear
effects: Apparent agreement caused people to like the stranger more than disagree-
ment did.

The methodological rigor of procedures like these satisfied researchers’ desires for
clarity and concision. They legitimized and popularized the study of interpersonal attrac-
tion, making it an indispensable part of psychology textbooks for the first time. In retro-
spect, however, these investigations often did a poor job of representing the natural
complexity of real relationships. The participants in many of Byrne’s experiments never
actually met that other person or interacted with him or her in any way. Indeed, in the
procedure I’ve been describing, a meeting couldn’t occur because the stranger didn’t actu-
ally exist! In this “phantom stranger” technique, people were merely reacting to check
marks on a piece of paper and were the only real participants in the study. The research-
ers were measuring attraction to someone who wasn’t even there. Byrne and his colleagues
chose this method, limiting their investigation to one carefully controlled aspect of relation-
ship development, to study it conclusively. However, they also created a rather sterile situ-
ation that lacked the immediacy and drama of chatting with someone face-to-face on a
first date.

But don’t underestimate the importance of studies like these. They demon-
strated that relationships could be studied scientifically and that such investigations
had enormous promise, and they brought relationship science to the attention of
fellow scholars for the first time (Reis, 2012). And in the decades since, through
the combined efforts of family scholars, psychologists, sociologists, communication
researchers, and neuroscientists, relationship science has grown and evolved to
encompass new methods of considerable complexity and sophistication. Today, rela-
tionship science

• often uses diverse samples of people drawn from all walks of life and from around
the world,

• examines varied types of family, friendship, and romantic relationships,
• frequently studies those relationships over long periods of time,
• studies both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of relationships,
• often follows relationships in their natural settings, and
• uses sophisticated technology.

Here are some examples of how the field currently operates:

• At Northwestern University, Eli Finkel and his colleagues have conducted “speed-
dating” studies in which singles rotate through short conversations with 10 different
potential romantic partners. Participants spend 4 minutes chatting with someone,
record their reactions to the interaction, and then move on to someone new. The
dating prospects are real; if both members of a couple indicate that they would like
to see each other again, the researchers give them access to a website where they can
exchange messages. But the researchers have also been able to inspect the building
blocks of real romantic chemistry as people pursue new mates (Vacharkulksemsuk
et al., 2016). (Watch for further

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62 chapter 2: Research Methods

• At the University of Texas at Arlington, William Ickes and his colleagues have
studied spontaneous, unscripted interactions between people who have just met
by leaving them alone on a comfortable couch for a few minutes while their
conversation is covertly recorded. A camera is actually hidden in another room
across the hall and can’t be seen even if you’re looking directly at it, so there’s
no clue that anyone is watching. Afterward, if the participants give their permis-
sion for their recordings to be used, they can review the tapes of their interaction
in private cubicles where they are invited to report what they were thinking—and
what they thought their partners were thinking—at each point in the interaction. The
method thus provides an objective recording of the interaction (Babcock et al.,
2014), and participants’ thoughts and feelings and perceptions of one another can
be obtained, too.

• In the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, two people play a
game of 20 Questions—trying to guess someone’s secret word (such as “ocean”)
by asking 20 yes or no questions—while their facial expressions are tracked and
mapped onto avatars in a virtual environment. Each player can only see the
other’s avatar, and that allows Jeremy Bailenson and his colleagues to subtly
manipulate the expressions each person sees (Oh et al., 2016). People enjoy their
interaction more when they see smiles on the simulated faces of their partners
that are slightly bigger and broader than the real smiles their partners are display-
ing (see Figure 2.1). Immersive virtual realities are allowing researchers to home
in on the individual influences that underlie enjoyable interactions. (See what the
Lab is doing at

Normal Smile

Accurate representation
of smiling behavior

Enhanced Smile

Enhanced representation
of smiling behavior

Mouth Open-Close

Slight smile regardless
of smiling behavior

FIGURE 2.1. Real versus “enhanced” facial expressions in virtual reality.
Gesture tracking systems and modern modeling techniques allow researchers to manage and
manipulate the expressions people see on the faces of their partners during interactions in vir-
tual environments. Here, “enhanced” smiles that were augmented by the researchers made an
interaction more enjoyable than the participants’ real smiles did. (An avatar’s mouth in an
“open-close” face moved as the person talked, but the avatar never smiled even when its
owner really did.)

Source: Oh, S. Y., Bailenson, J., Krämer, N., & Li, B. (2016). “Let the avatar brighten your smile: Effects of enhancing
facial expressions in virtual environments.” PloS One, 11, e0161794. Copyright ©2016 by Oh et al. All rights reserved.
Used with permission.

©Indeed/Getty Images

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chapter 2: Research Methods 63

• At the University of Arizona, Matthias Mehl and his colleagues capture brief slices
of social life by equipping people with small recorders that they carry with them
during the day (MacArthur et al., 2020). The tiny devices record all the sounds
in the immediate vicinity for 30-second intervals about 70 times a day. The resulting
soundtrack indicates how often people are alone, how frequently they interact with
others, and whether their conversations are pleasant or argumentative. This tech-
nique allows researchers to listen in on real life as it naturally unfolds.

• For years in Seattle (, John Gottman
and his colleagues (Gottman et al., 2015) invited married couples to revisit the
disagreement that caused their last argument. They knew that their discussions
were being recorded, but after a while they typically became so absorbed in the
interaction that they forgot the cameras. The researchers often also took physio-
logical measurements such as heart rate and electrodermal responses from the
participants. Painstaking second-by-second analysis of the biological, emotional,
and behavioral reactions they observed allowed the researchers to predict with
93 percent accuracy which of the couples would, and which would not, divorce
years later (Gottman, 2011).

• At Stony Brook University, Art Aron and his colleagues (Acevedo & Aron, 2014)
have asked people who have been married for more than 20 years to look at pictures
of their beloved spouse or an old friend while the activity in their brains is monitored
with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The structures in the brain that
regulate love, and the physical differences between love and friendship (Acevedo,
2015), are being mapped for the first time. (Watch
/watch?v=lDazasy68aU to get a feel for this work.)

• In Germany, as part of a Panel Analysis of Intimate Relationships and Family
Dynamics (or “pairfam”), a team of researchers (e.g., Mund & Johnson, 2020)
are conducting extensive interviews each year with over 12,400 people, their lovers,
their parents, and their children (if any). The project began in 2008 and is designed
to continue until at least 2023! (See for yourself at

• In the Early Years of Marriage Project run by Terri Orbuch and her colleagues
(Manalel et al., 2019), 199 white couples and 174 Black couples from the area sur-
rounding Detroit, Michigan, have been interviewed every few years since they were
married in 1986. The project is taking specific note of the influences of social and
economic conditions on marital satisfaction, and it allows comparisons of the out-
comes encountered by white and Black Americans. In 2002, 16 years after the project
began, 36 percent of the white couples and 55 percent of the Black couples had
already divorced (Birditt et al., 2012). Entire marriages are being tracked from start
to finish as time goes by. (Visit the project at

I hope that you’re impressed by the creativity and resourcefulness embodied in
these methods of research. (I am!) But as notable as they are, they barely scratch the
surface in illustrating the current state of relationship science. It’s still young, but the
field is now supported by hundreds of scholars around the world who hail from diverse
scientific disciplines and whose work appears in several different professional journals
devoted entirely to personal relationships. If you’re a student, you probably have access
to the Journal of Marriage and Family, the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,

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64 chapter 2: Research Methods

and the journal simply entitled Personal Relationships. You can visit the International
Association for Relationship Research, the world’s largest organization of relationship
scientists, at, and if you’re enjoying this book, you have to check
out the wonderful site,


How do these scholars study relationships? The first step in any scientific endeavor is
to ask a question, and in a field like this one, some questions emerge from personal
experience. Relationship researchers have an advantage over many other scientists
because their own experiences in close relationships can alert them to important pro-
cesses. Indeed, they may be hip deep in the very swamps they are trying to drain (Miller,
2008)! Broader social problems also suggest questions for careful study. For instance,
the huge increase in the U.S. divorce rate from 1965 to 1985 resulted in a considerable
amount of research on divorce as social scientists took note of the culture’s changes.

Questions also come from previous research: Studies that answer one question may
raise new ones. And still other questions are suggested by theories that strive to offer
explanations for relational events. Useful theories both account for existing facts and
make new predictions, and studies often seek to test those hypotheses. Relationship
science involves questions that spring from all of these sources; scientists will put
together their personal observations, their recognition of social problems, their knowl-
edge of previous research, and their theoretical perspectives to create the questions
they ask (Fiske, 2004).

The questions themselves are usually of two broad types. First, researchers may
seek to describe events as they naturally occur, delineating the patterns they observe
as fully and accurately as they can. Alternatively, researchers can seek to establish the
causal connections between events to determine which events have meaningful effects
on subsequent outcomes and which do not. This distinction is important: Different
studies have different goals, and discerning consumers judge investigations with respect
to their intended purposes. If an exploratory study seeks mainly to describe a newly
noticed phenomenon, we shouldn’t criticize it for leaving us uncertain about the causes
and the effects of that phenomenon; those are different questions to be addressed later,
after we specify what we’re talking about. And more importantly, thoughtful consumers
resist the temptation to draw causal connections from studies with descriptive goals.
Only certain research designs allow any insight into the causal connections between
events, and clever consumers do not jump to unwarranted conclusions that the research
results do not support. This is a very key point, and I’ll return to it later on.


So, whose relationships are studied? Relationship researchers usually recruit partici-
pants in one of two ways. The first approach is to use anyone who is readily available
and who consents to participate; this is a convenience sample because it is (compara-
tively) convenient for the researcher to obtain. University professors often work with

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chapter 2: Research Methods 65

college students who are required to be research participants as part of their course
work. Although some specific characteristics must sometimes be met (so that a study
may focus, for instance, only on dating partners who have been together for only a few
weeks), researchers who use convenience samples are usually glad to get the help of
everyone they can (McCormack, 2014).

In contrast, projects that use a representative sample strive to ensure that, collec-
tively, their participants resemble the entire population of people who are of interest.
A truly representative study of marriage, for example, would need to include married
people of all sorts—all ages, all nationalities, and all socioeconomic levels. That’s a tall
order because, if nothing else, the people who voluntarily consent to participate in a
research study may be somewhat different from those who refuse to participate (see
the “The Challenge of Volunteer Bias in Relationship Research” box on page 67). Still,
some studies have obtained samples that are representative of (volunteers in) the adult
population of individual countries or other delimited groups. And studies that are
straightforward enough to be conducted online can attract very large samples that are
much more diverse than those found on any one campus or even in any one country
(Buhrmester et al., 2018).

On the one hand, there is no question that if we seek general principles that
apply to most people, representative samples are better than convenience samples.
A convenience sample always allows the unhappy possibility that the results we
obtain are idiosyncratic, applying only to people who are just like our participants—
students at a certain university, or people from a particular area of the country
(Corker et al., 2015). And although relationship science is now conducted around
the world, most of the studies we’ll encounter in this book have come from cultures
that are Western, well-educated, industrialized, relatively rich, and democratic—so
their participants are a little weird. (Get it?) In fact, people from “weird” cultures
do sometimes behave differently than those who live in less developed nations
(Medin, 2017). On the other hand, many processes studied by relationship research-
ers are basic enough that they don’t differ substantially across demographic groups;
people all over the world, for instance, share similar standards about the nature of
physical beauty (see chapter 3). To the extent that research examines fundamental
aspects of the ways humans react to each other, convenience samples may not be

Let’s consider a specific example. Back in 1978, Russell Clark sent men and
women out across the campus of Florida State University to proposition members of
the other sex. Individually, they approached unsuspecting people and randomly assigned
them to one of three invitations (see Table 2.1); some people were simply asked out
on a date, whereas others were asked to have sex! The notable results were that no
woman accepted the offer of sex from a stranger, but 75 percent of the men did—and
that was more men than accepted the date!

This was a striking result, but so what? The study involved a small convenience
sample on just one campus. Perhaps the results told us more about the men at FSU
than they did about men and women in general. In fact, Clark had trouble getting the
study published because of reviewers’ concerns about the generality of the results. So,
in 1982, he and Elaine Hatfield tried again; they repeated the study at FSU and got
the same results (Clark & Hatfield, 1989).

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66 chapter 2: Research Methods

Well, still so what? It was 4 years later, but the procedure had still been tried only
in Tallahassee. If you give this example some thought, you’ll be able to generate several
reasons why the results might apply only to one particular time and one particular

I’d like to suggest a different perspective. Let’s not fuss too much about the exact
percentage of college men in Florida or elsewhere who would consent to sex with a
stranger. That’s the kind of specific attitude that you’d expect to vary some from one
demographic group to another. Instead of endlessly criticizing—or, even worse, dismiss-
ing—the results of the Clark and Hatfield (1989) studies, let’s recognize their limitations
but not miss their point: Men were generally more accepting of casual sex than women
were. When somebody actually asked, men were much more likely to accept a sexual
invitation from a stranger than women were. Stated generally, that’s exactly the conclu-
sion that has now been drawn from subsequent investigations involving more than 20,000
participants from every major region of the world (Schmitt & the International Sexuality
Description Project, 2003), and Clark and Hatfield were among the very first to docu-
ment this sex difference. Their method was simple, and their sample was limited, but
they were onto something, and their procedure detected a basic pattern that really does
seem to exist.1

So, it’s absolutely true that the Clark and Hatfield (1989) studies were not perfect.
That’s a judgment with which Clark and Hatfield (2003) themselves agree! But as long
as their results are considered thoughtfully and judiciously, even small studies using
convenience samples like these can make important contributions to relationship sci-
ence. Our confidence in our collective understanding of relationships relies on knowl-
edge obtained with diverse methods. Any single study may have some imperfections,

In Clark and Hatfield’s (1989) studies, college students walking across campus encountered a
stranger of the other sex who said, “Hi, I’ve noticed you around campus, and I find you very
attractive,” and then offered one of the following three invitations. What percentage of the stu-
dents accepted the various offers?


Percentages Saying “Yes”

Men Women

“Would you go out with me tonight?” 50 56
“Would you come over to my apartment tonight?” 69 6
“Would you go to bed with me tonight?” 75 0

TABLE 2.1. “Would You Go to Bed with Me Tonight?”

1For instance, in a study in May 2006 along the west coast of France, 57 percent of the men but only
3 percent of the women accepted invitations to have sex with an attractive stranger (Guéguen, 2011). In
June 2009, 38 percent of the men but only 2 percent of the women in urban areas of Denmark did so (Hald
& Høgh-Olesen, 2010). And in June 2013, 50 percent of the men and 4 percent of the women approached
in a student nightclub in southwest Germany did so (Baranowski & Hecht, 2015). I detect a pattern here.
These glaring differences are smaller, however, when men and women are asked to imagine offers for sex
from celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Brad Pitt (Conley, 2011)!

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chapter 2: Research Methods 67

The Challenge of Volunteer Bias in Relationship Research

Regardless of whether investigators use conve-
nience or representative sampling, they still
face the problem of volunteer bias: Of the
people invited to participate, those who do
may differ from those who don’t. In one illus-
tration of this problem, Karney et al. (1995)
simply asked 3,606 couples who had applied
for marriage licenses in Los Angeles County
whether they would participate in a longitudi-
nal study of their relationships. Only 18 per-
cent of the couples said that they would, and
that’s a typical rate in procedures of this sort.
But their marriage licenses, which were open
to the public, provided several bits of informa-
tion about them (e.g., their addresses, their
ages, and their jobs). The volunteers differed
from those who refused to participate in sev-
eral ways; they were better educated, employed
in higher-status jobs, and more likely to have
cohabited. If the researchers had carried out a
complete study with these people, would these
characteristics have affected their results?

The answer may depend on what ques-
tions are asked, but volunteer bias can color

the images that emerge from relationship re-
search. People who agree to participate in stud-
ies dealing with sexual behavior, for instance,
tend to be more sexually experienced and to
have more positive attitudes about sex than
nonvolunteers do (Dawson et al., 2019). Subtle
bias can occur even when people are required
to be research participants, as college students
often are. Conscientious students participate
earlier in the semester than slackers do, and
students who select face-to-face lab studies are
more extraverted than those who stay home
and participate online (Witt et al., 2011).

Volunteer bias can also occur when re-
searchers seek to get both members of a couple
to participate in their studies. When people ask
their partners to join them in a study and those
partners do, the relationships that get assessed
are happier and more satisfying on average
than is the case in relationships in which the
partners refuse to participate (Barton et al.,
2020). Clearly, volunteer bias can limit the ex-
tent to which research results apply to those
who did not participate in a particular study.

The people in a representative sample reflect the demographic characteristics (sex, age, race,
etc.) of the entire population of people that the researchers wish to study.
©Image Source/Digital Vision/Getty Images

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68 chapter 2: Research Methods

but those weaknesses may be answered by another study’s strengths. With a series of
investigations, each approaching a problem from a different angle, we gradually delineate
the truth. To be a thoughtful consumer of relationship science, you should think the
way the scientists do: No one study is perfect. Be cautious. Various methods are valu-
able. Wisdom takes time. But the truth is out there, and we’re getting closer all the time.


Okay, we’ve formulated a research question and obtained some participants. Now, we
need to arrange our observations in a way that will answer our question. How do we
do that?

Correlational Designs

Correlations describe patterns in which change in one event is accompanied to some
degree by change in another. The patterns can be of two types. If the two events are
positively correlated, they go up and down together—that is, as one goes up, so does
the other, and as the other goes down, so does the one. In speed-dating studies, for
instance, the more two strangers think they have in common after a brief interaction,
the more they tend to like each other (Tidwell et al., 2013). Higher levels of perceived
similarity are associated with greater liking.

In contrast, if two events are negatively correlated, they change in opposite direc-
tions: as one goes up, the other goes down, and as the one goes down, the other goes
up. For example, people who are high in negative emotionality2 tend to be less satisfied
with their marriages than others are; higher negative emotionality is associated with
lower marital satisfaction (Malouff et al., 2010). Positive and negative correlations are
portrayed in Figure 2.2, which also includes an example of what we see when two
events are uncorrelated: If events are unrelated, one of them doesn’t change in any
predictable way when the other goes up or down.

Patterns like these are often intriguing, and they can be very important, but they
are routinely misunderstood by unsophisticated consumers. Please, always remember
that correlations tell us that two events change together in some recognizable way, but,
all by themselves, they do not tell us why that occurs. Correlational designs typically
study naturally occurring behavior without trying to influence or control the situations
in which it unfolds—and the correlations that are observed do not tell us about the
causal connections between events. Be careful not to assume too much when you
encounter a correlation; many different plausible causal connections may all be pos-
sible when a correlation exists. Consider the fact that perceived similarity is positively
related to liking; here are three straightforward possibilities:

• one of these two may cause the other—perceived similarity might lead to greater
liking. Or,

• the other of these two could cause the one—so that liking others leads us to assume
that we have a lot in common with them. Or,

2Take a look back at page 30 if you’d like to refresh your memory of what negative emotionality is.

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chapter 2: Research Methods 69

• something else, a third variable, may explain why similarity and liking are related.
Similarity may not lead to liking, and liking may not lead to perceived similarity;
instead, something else, like really good looks, may cause us to like others and to
assume (or hope?) that we’re compatible with them.

Any of these three, along with many other more complex chains of events, may be
possible when two events are correlated. If all we have is a correlation, all we know is
that a predictable pattern exists. We don’t know what causal connections are involved.3

Experimental Designs

When it’s possible, the way to investigate causal connections is to use an experimental
design. Experiments provide straightforward information about causes and their effects
because experimenters create and control the conditions they study. In a true experi-
ment, researchers intentionally manipulate one or more variables and randomly assign
participants to the different conditions they have created to see how those changes
affect people. Thus, instead of just asking “Do two things change together?” experi-
menters ask “If we change one, what happens to the other?”

Let’s illustrate the difference between an experiment and a correlational study by
reconsidering Donn Byrne’s classic work on attitude similarity and attraction (e.g.,
Byrne & Nelson, 1965). Had Byrne simply measured partners’ perceptions of each

Liking for



Perceived Similarity
of Other

A Strong Positive Correlation


Liking for



with Other

A Strong Negative Correlation


Liking for



Number of Letters in
Other’s Middle Name

No Correlation


FIGURE 2.2. Correlational patterns.

3I should note, however, that if we have lots of correlations involving a number of variables, or if we have
taken our measurements on several occasions over a span of time, sophisticated statistical analyses can
usually rule out some of the possible causal connections that make correlational findings ambiguous. We
should be careful not to assume that simple correlations involve causal connections, but advanced statistical
techniques can make it possible to draw some defensible conclusions about cause and effect within correla-
tional designs.

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70 chapter 2: Research Methods

other’s attitudes and their liking for each other, he would have obtained a positive
correlation between perceived similarity and liking, but he would not have been sure
why they were related.

What Byrne did instead was an experiment. Once his participants arrived at his lab,
he flipped a coin to determine randomly who would encounter a similar stranger and
who would encounter one who didn’t agree with them at all. He controlled that apparent
agreement or disagreement, and it was the only difference between the two situations in
which participants found themselves. With this procedure, when Byrne observed higher
liking for the similar stranger, he could reasonably conclude that the greater agreement
had caused the higher liking. How? Because the participants were randomly assigned to
the two situations, the different degrees of liking could not be due to differences in the
people who encountered each situation; on average, the two groups of participants were
identical. Moreover, they all had identical experiences in the experiment except for the
apparent similarity of the stranger. The only reasonable explanation for the different
behavior Byrne observed was that similarity leads to liking. His experiment clearly showed
that the manipulated cause, attitude similarity, had a noticeable effect, higher liking.

Experiments provide clearer, more definitive tests of causal connections than other
designs do. Done well, they clearly delineate cause and effect. Why, then, do research-
ers ever do anything else? The key is that experimenters have to be able to control and
manipulate the events they wish to study. Byrne could control the information that his
participants received about someone they had never met, but he couldn’t manipulate
other important influences on intimate relationships. We still can’t. (How do you cre-
ate full-fledged experiences of romantic love in a laboratory?) You can’t do experiments
on events you cannot control.

So, correlational and experimental designs each have their own advantages. With
correlational designs, we can study compelling events in the real world—commitment to
a relationship, passionate love, unsafe sex—and examine the links among them. But cor-
relational designs are limited in what they can tell us about the causal relationships among
events. With experimental designs, we can examine causal connections, but we are limited
in what we can study. Hopefully, you can see why different researchers may study the
same topic in different ways, with different research designs—and why that’s a good thing.


Now, just what type of information will we actually be collecting? Are we recording
others’ judgments and perceptions of a relationship, or are we inspecting specific inter-
actions ourselves? Two major types of research measures are described here: (a) peo-
ple’s own reports about their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and (b) careful
observations of others’ behavior. We’ll also examine some variations on these themes.


The most common means of studying intimate relationships is to ask people about
their experiences. Their responses are self-reports, and they can be obtained in a variety
of formats: through written questionnaires, verbal interviews, or even diaries in which

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chapter 2: Research Methods 71

participants record the events of their day (Repetti et al., 2015). The common theme
linking such techniques is that people are telling us about their experiences—we’re not
watching them ourselves.

Self-report data have important benefits. For one thing, they allow us to “get inside
people’s heads” and understand personal points of view that may not be apparent to
outside observers. Self-report data are also inexpensive and easy to obtain. Consider,
for instance, the short self-report measure provided in Table 2.2: Those 12 questions
do a remarkably good job of assessing the extent to which a relationship is flourishing,
being healthy, close, and rewarding. For most purposes, there’s no reason to ask more
elaborate questions or use other means to distinguish fulfilling partnerships from those

Is your current relationship rich and rewarding? Does it offer you meaningful opportunities
for self-expression, personal growth, and fulfillment both as an individual and as a supportive
partner? This scale addresses those issues.

For the first four items, choose the response that best captures your agreement with the fol-
lowing statements about your relationship with your partner, using this scale:

1 2 3 4 5
strongly disagree disagree neutral agree strongly agree

_____  1. I have more success in my important goals because of my partner’s help.
_____  2. We look for activities that help us grow as a couple.
_____  3.  My partner has helped me grow in ways that I could not have done on my own.
_____  4.  It is worth it to share my most personal thoughts with my partner.

Now, choose the response that best captures aspects of your relationship with your partner, using
this scale:

1 2 3 4 5
never rarely sometimes often always

_____  5.  When making important decisions, I think about whether it will be good for our

_____  6. It is natural and easy for me to do things that keep our relationship going.
_____  7. Talking with my partner helps me to see things in new ways.
_____  8. I make a point to celebrate my partner’s successes.
_____  9. I really work to improve our relationship.
_____ 10. My partner shows interest in things that are important to me.
_____ 11. We do things that are deeply meaningful to us as a couple.
_____ 12. I make time when my partner needs to talk.

Source: Fowers, B. J., Laurenceau, J., Penfield, R. D., Cohen, L. M., Lang, S. F., Owenz, M. B., & Pasipandoya, E. (2016).
“Enhancing relationship quality measurement: The development of the Relationship Flourishing Scale,” Journal of Family
Psychology, 30, 997–1007.

The average sum of all these ratings for both men and women is 46.4, and the standard devia-
tion is 7.6. So, scores between 39 and 53 are average. But if your sum is 54 or higher, your
relationship is richer and closer than most, and if it’s 38 or lower, your partnership is less
rich than most.

TABLE 2.2. The Relationship Flourishing Scale

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72 chapter 2: Research Methods

that are less rich because this handful of straightforward questions works just fine
(Fowers et al., 2016). Self-report measures can be both very efficient and very informa-
tive. Still (and by now, this probably isn’t a surprise!), self-reports may also present
potential problems. Here are three things to worry about.

Participants’ Interpretations of the Questions

Self-reports always occur in response to a researcher’s instructions or questions.
If the participants misinterpret what the researcher means or intends, their subsequent
self-reports can be misleading. For instance, consider this question: “With how many
people have you had sex?” It sounds straightforward, but about half of us consider
oral-genital contact that brings us to orgasm to be “having sex,” and the other half of
us do not (Barnett et al., 2017). There are complexities here, and undetected problems
with people’s comprehension of terms describing sexual behavior—including what it
means to be a “virgin” (Barnett et al., 2017)—add difficulty to sexuality research (Sewell
et al., 2017).

Difficulties in Recall or Awareness

Even when people understand our questions, they may not be able to answer them
correctly. For one thing, they may lack insight into their actions, so that what they
think is going on isn’t entirely accurate. For instance, women say the physical attrac-
tiveness of a mate is less important to them than men do. However, when they encoun-
ter and evaluate several potential partners at once in speed-dating studies, looks do
matter just as much to women as they do to men (Eastwick & Finkel, 2008), and looks
are the most important influence on who likes whom for both sexes (Luo & Zhang,
2009). On occasion, what people can tell us about their preferences and behavior
doesn’t accurately reflect what they actually say and do.

Faulty memories can also be a problem. Self-reports are most accurate when peo-
ple describe specific, objective events that have occurred recently. They are more likely
to be inaccurate when we ask them about things that happened long ago. Specific
details may be forgotten—in one study ( Mitchell, 2010), 50 percent of a large sample
of divorced people did not correctly report in which month they were divorced—and
past feelings are especially likely to be misremembered. In particular, if a romance ends
in pain and discontent, the disappointed lovers are likely to have a very hard time
remembering how happy and enthusiastic they felt months earlier when they were still
in love (Smyth et al., 2020).

Bias in Participants’ Reports

A final worry—a big one—involves the possibility of systematic bias or distortion
in people’s reports. In particular, people may be reluctant to tell researchers anything
that makes them look bad or that portrays them in an undesirable light. This can
cause a social desirability bias, or distortion that results from people’s wishes to make
good impressions on others. For instance, studies that simply ask people how often
they’ve cheated on (Schick et al., 2014), or beaten (Follingstad & Rogers, 2013), their
partners are likely to get answers that underestimate the prevalence of both events. In
one case, 4 percent of those who had been divorced a few years earlier—the researchers

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chapter 2: Research Methods 73

knew this because they had seen the divorce decrees on file at county courthouses—
claimed that they had never been divorced (Mitchell, 2010)! In another instance,
women reported having more sex partners and losing their virginity at younger ages
when they were hooked up to lie detectors than when they were not (Fisher, 2013).
Procedures that guarantee participants’ anonymity—such as allowing them to take sur-
veys online instead of face-to-face (Robertson et al., 2018)—help reduce social desir-
ability problems such as these, but bias is always a concern when studies address
sensitive issues.


Another way to collect information about relationships is to observe behavior directly.
Scientific observations are rarely casual undertakings: Researchers either measure
behavior with sophisticated tools or carefully train their colleagues to make observa-
tions that are accurate, reliable, and often quite detailed.

Some studies involve direct observations of ongoing behavior, whereas others use
recordings that are inspected at a later time. Ecological momentary assessment uses inter-
mittent, short periods of observation to capture samples of behavior—slices of life—in real
time as they actually occur; investigators may randomly sample short spans of time when
a target behavior is likely to occur, scattering periods of observation through different
times on different days (Bernstein et al., 2018). The work being done by Matthias Mehl
(2017) with a smartphone app that turns a mobile device into a recorder is a fine exam-
ple of this technique. The app makes a phone an electronically activated recorder, or EAR
(get it?), that switches on for brief periods at regular intervals during the day to capture
the sounds of whatever interactions participants are having at the time. And if you give
your permission, smartphones can not only capture your conversations, they can also
record your location, your texts, and your use of social media (Harari et al., 2020). The
natural, real-life interactions that you share with others can then be examined quite

Other technologies provide additional measures of behavior. In an eye- tracking
study, for instance, participants don headgear that focuses tiny video cameras on their
eyes. Then, when they inspect various images, their eye movements indicate what
they’re looking at, and for how long (Garza et al., 2016). We’d be able to tell, for
instance, whether you prefer blondes or brunettes by presenting two images differing
only in hair color side-by-side: You’d spend more time scrutinizing the image you find
more alluring.

Observations such as these generally avoid the disadvantages of self-reports. On
the other hand, we need self-reports if we’re to understand people’s personal percep-
tions of their experiences (and indeed, studies may add self-reports to observations,
asking participants to provide brief ratings of the events that are being recorded
[Sun & Vazire, 2019]). Observational studies can also be expensive, sometimes
requiring costly equipment and consuming hours and hours of observers’ time. One
remarkable study filmed every waking moment experienced by the members of
32 different families over the course of four days, and the 1,540 hours of resulting
video required thousands of hours of careful inspection to code and categorize
(Ochs & Kremer-Sadlik, 2013).

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74 chapter 2: Research Methods

Assessing Attachment Styles

Studies of attachment have become a major
theme in relationship science, and I’ll men-
tion attachment in every chapter to come.
Where do all these findings come from? In
most cases, research participants have de-
scribed their feelings about close relation-
ships on a questionnaire. Now that we’ve
considered some of the nuances of self-report
data, let’s inspect the tool that’s most often
used to assess attachment.

The 12 items presented here are drawn
from a longer questionnaire created by Kelly
Brennan and her colleagues (1998), and they
obtain results that are very similar to those
obtained with the longer scale (Wei et al.,
2007). I’ve labeled the two dimensions of at-
tachment to which the items pertain, but

those labels do not appear on the actual
survey, and the items are mixed together. Re-
spondents are asked to rate the extent of their
agreement or disagreement with each item on
a seven-point scale r anging from 1 (disagree
strongly) to 7 (agree strongly). Note that you’d
report high levels of anxiety or avoidance by
agreeing with some items and disagreeing
with others; this is a common tactic that is
used to encourage thoughtful answers and to
help researchers detect careless responses.

Researchers typically derive two scores,
an anxiety score and an avoidance score, and
then determine how they predict different rela-
tional outcomes. People with a secure style of
attachment, as you may recall (from page 17),
would have low scores on both dimensions.

Items measuring
Anxiety about Abandonment:

1. I worry that romantic partners won’t care
about me as much as I care about them.

2. My desire to be close sometimes scares
people away.

3. I need a lot of reassurance that I am
loved by my partner.

4. I find that my partner(s) don’t want to
get as close as I would like.

5. I get frustrated when romantic partners
are not available when I need them.

6. I do not often worry about being

Items measuring
Avoidance of Intimacy:

1. I want to get close to my partner, but I
keep pulling back.

2. I am nervous when partners get too
close to me.

3. I try to avoid getting too close to my

4. I usually discuss my problems and con-
cerns with my partner.

5. It helps to turn to my romantic partner
in times of need.

6. I turn to my partner for many things,
including comfort and reassurance.

To get your own score on these items, reverse
your score on the sixth Anxiety item and on
numbers 4, 5, and 6 of the Avoidance items. A
score of 1 becomes a 7, a 3 becomes a 5, a 6
becomes a 2, and so on. An average score on the
Anxiety items is 22; a score below 15 is pretty
low, and a score above 29 is pretty high. Average
Avoidance is 15, with 9 being noticeably low
and 21 being notably high (Wei et al., 2007).

Do the answers that people give to ques-
tions such as these really matter? Yes, they

do. There are other means of assessing attach-
ment that involve extensive interviews, but
they are not used as often because these items
do such a fine job of identifying meaningful
individual differences (Gillath et al., 2016).
Despite possible biases, vocabulary prob-
lems, and all the other potential problems
with self- reports, these items delineate differ-
ent global orientations to intimate relation-
ships that are very influential, as we’ll see
throughout this book.

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chapter 2: Research Methods 75

Observational research can also suffer from the problem of reactivity: People may
change their behavior when they know they are being observed. (A camera in your
living room would probably change some of your behavior—at least until you got used
to it.) For that reason, researchers are always glad to conduct observations that cannot
possibly alter the behaviors they’re studying—and in one such investigation, relationship
scientists monitored the Facebook profiles of 1,640 people—almost the entire freshman
class at a particular university—as their college years went by (Wimmer & Lewis, 2010).
They tracked the public information in the profiles to determine how the users’ tastes
and values influenced the friendships they formed. The researchers had specific, seri-
ous aims—this was not informal browsing—and they couldn’t have unwanted influence
on the behavior they were studying because the participants did not know that they
were being watched! (There’s actually some controversy over this tactic [Kosinski
et al., 2015], but studies continue to mine public information from profile pages, Twitter
feeds, blog posts, and other digital activity [Rafaeli et al., 2019] without people’s knowl-
edge. Do you find this troubling? Why?)

Physiological Measures

We can also avoid any problems with reactivity if we observe behavior that people
cannot consciously control, and physiological measures of people’s autonomic and
biochemical reactions often do just that. Physiological measures assess such responses
as heart rate, muscle tension, genital arousal, brain activity, and hormone levels to
determine how our physical states are associated with our social behavior.

Some investigations examine the manner in which physiology shapes our interac-
tions with others. For instance, compared to those who are less content, satisfied
spouses have higher levels of the neuropeptide oxytocin in their blood (Holt-Lunstad
et al., 2015). This may be, in part, because inhaling a dose of oxytocin leads people
who avoid intimacy to feel warmer and kinder toward others (Bartz et al., 2015). It
also leads people who are low in extraversion to feel closer and more trusting toward
others (Human et al., 2016). Our biochemistry evidently shapes our affiliative motives.

Other studies seek to map the physiological foundations of social behavior
(Shamay-Tsoory & Mendelsohn, 2019). For example, fMRI has identified the structures
in our brains that seem to regulate love and lust (Tomlinson & Aron, 2012). fMRI
images show which parts of the brain are consuming more oxygen and are therefore
more active than others when certain states occur—and as it turns out, warm romantic
affection and yearning sexual desire appear to be controlled by different parts of our
brains. (Are you surprised?)

Physiological measures are often expensive, but their use is increasing because they
allow researchers to explore the physical foundations of our relationships. They are a
good example of the manner in which relationship science is becoming more complex
and sophisticated all the time.

Archival Materials

Researchers can also use stores of data collected by others, known as data archives, to
avoid the problem of reactivity. Personal documents such as photographs and diaries,

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76 chapter 2: Research Methods

public media such as newspapers and websites, governmental records such as marriage
licenses and census data, and social media of all sorts can all be valuable sources of
“archival” information about relationships (Heng et al., 2018). In one study, researchers
examined old university yearbook photos to determine if people’s expressions as young
adults could predict their chances of a future divorce (Hertenstein et al., 2009). (What
did they find? See chapter 5!) Archival materials are “nonreactive” because inspection
of existing data does not change the behaviors being studied. They can be limited,
however, because they may not contain all the information a researcher would really
like to have.


Studies using archival materials often run no risk at all of embarrassing anyone, but
research on relationships does occasionally require investigators to ask questions about
sensitive topics or to observe private behavior. Should we pry into people’s personal

This is not an issue I pose lightly. Although it’s enormously valuable and sorely
needed, relationship science presents important ethical dilemmas. Just asking people
to fill out questionnaires describing their relationships may have unintended effects on
those partnerships. When we ask people to specify what they get out of a relationship
or to rate their love for their partners, for instance, we focus their attention on delicate
matters they may not have thought much about. We stimulate their thinking and
encourage them to evaluate their relationships. Moreover, we arouse their natural curi-
osity about what their partners may be saying in response to the same questions.
Researchers’ innocent inquiries may alert people to relationship problems or frustra-
tions they didn’t know they had.

Some procedures may have even more impact. Consider John Gottman’s (2011)
method of asking spouses to revisit the issue that caused their last argument: He didn’t
encourage people to quarrel and bicker, but some of them did. Spouses who disagree
sourly and bitterly are at much greater risk for divorce than are spouses who disagree
with grace and humor, and Gottman’s work illuminated the specific behaviors that
forecast trouble ahead. This work was extremely important. But did it do damage? Is
it ethical to actually invite couples to return to a disagreement that may erode their
satisfaction even further?

The answer to that question isn’t simple. Relationship scientists ordinarily are very
careful to safeguard the welfare of their participants. Detailed information is provided
to potential participants before a study begins so that they can make an informed deci-
sion about whether or not to participate. Their consent to participate is voluntary and
can be withdrawn at any time. After the data are collected, the researchers provide
prompt feedback that explains any experimental manipulations and describes the larger
purposes of the investigation. Final reports regarding the outcomes of the study are
often made available when the study is complete. In addition, when ticklish matters
are being investigated, researchers may provide information about where participants
can obtain couples’ counseling should they wish to do so; psychological services may
even be offered for free.

A Point to Ponder

Relationship science studies
sensitive issues and private be-
havior such as infidelity and
partner abuse. Should it? Do
you support such studies? Are
you willing to participate in

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chapter 2: Research Methods 77

public media such as newspapers and websites, governmental records such as marriage
licenses and census data, and social media of all sorts can all be valuable sources of
“archival” information about relationships (Heng et al., 2018). In one study, researchers
examined old university yearbook photos to determine if people’s expressions as young
adults could predict their chances of a future divorce (Hertenstein et al., 2009). (What
did they find? See chapter 5!) Archival materials are “nonreactive” because inspection
of existing data does not change the behaviors being studied. They can be limited,
however, because they may not contain all the information a researcher would really
like to have.


Studies using archival materials often run no risk at all of embarrassing anyone, but
research on relationships does occasionally require investigators to ask questions about
sensitive topics or to observe private behavior. Should we pry into people’s personal

This is not an issue I pose lightly. Although it’s enormously valuable and sorely
needed, relationship science presents important ethical dilemmas. Just asking people
to fill out questionnaires describing their relationships may have unintended effects on
those partnerships. When we ask people to specify what they get out of a relationship
or to rate their love for their partners, for instance, we focus their attention on delicate
matters they may not have thought much about. We stimulate their thinking and
encourage them to evaluate their relationships. Moreover, we arouse their natural curi-
osity about what their partners may be saying in response to the same questions.
Researchers’ innocent inquiries may alert people to relationship problems or frustra-
tions they didn’t know they had.

Some procedures may have even more impact. Consider John Gottman’s (2011)
method of asking spouses to revisit the issue that caused their last argument: He didn’t
encourage people to quarrel and bicker, but some of them did. Spouses who disagree
sourly and bitterly are at much greater risk for divorce than are spouses who disagree
with grace and humor, and Gottman’s work illuminated the specific behaviors that
forecast trouble ahead. This work was extremely important. But did it do damage? Is
it ethical to actually invite couples to return to a disagreement that may erode their
satisfaction even further?

The answer to that question isn’t simple. Relationship scientists ordinarily are very
careful to safeguard the welfare of their participants. Detailed information is provided
to potential participants before a study begins so that they can make an informed deci-
sion about whether or not to participate. Their consent to participate is voluntary and
can be withdrawn at any time. After the data are collected, the researchers provide
prompt feedback that explains any experimental manipulations and describes the larger
purposes of the investigation. Final reports regarding the outcomes of the study are
often made available when the study is complete. In addition, when ticklish matters
are being investigated, researchers may provide information about where participants
can obtain couples’ counseling should they wish to do so; psychological services may
even be offered for free.

A Point to Ponder

Relationship science studies
sensitive issues and private be-
havior such as infidelity and
partner abuse. Should it? Do
you support such studies? Are
you willing to participate in

As you can see, relationship science begins with
compassionate concern for the well-being of its partici-
pants. People are treated with respect, thanked warmly
for their efforts, and may even be paid for their time.
They may also find their experiences to be interesting
and enlightening. People who participate in studies of
sexual behavior (Kuyper et al., 2014) and intimate part-
ner violence (Hamberger et al., 2020), for instance,
routinely have positive reactions and are distressed very
rarely. And being asked to reflect and report on their
experiences may even help people adjust to and recover from difficult situations. In
one study, compared to those who were asked fewer questions, people bounced back
from a breakup more quickly when they provided extensive self-reports about their
feelings on several occasions (Larson & Sbarra, 2015); the introspection prompted by
their participation was evidently good for them. In another investigation, most survivors
of sexual assault (58 percent) felt they had gained insight into their experiences and
most (55 percent) had sought additional services as a result of their participation
(Kirkner et al., 2019). All of this is reassuring. Still, should we be trying to study such
private and intimate matters?

The answer from here is absolutely yes. There’s another side to the issue of ethics
I haven’t yet mentioned: science’s ethical imperative to gain knowledge that can ben-
efit humanity. Ignorance can be wasteful. Since 2002, the U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services has spent more than $800 million on a variety of marriage and
relationship education programs that are intended to teach low-income families skills
that will help them sustain their marriages. Families of modest means are targets of
these marriage-enrichment programs because, compared to families with more resources,
they are less likely to marry and more likely to divorce (Johnson, 2012). The programs
all have good intentions, but on the whole, it’s hard to say that they have done much,
if any, good (Arnold & Beelmann, 2019); even their proponents admit that their out-
comes have been “mixed” and “modest,” sometimes actually making things worse
(Hawkins, 2014). An enduring problem is that too many of these programs miss the
point: They seek to teach low-income couples to value marriage more, but such couples
already want to get married (Trail & Karney, 2012). They don’t marry—and their mar-
riages are more fragile if they do—because of their financial worries, which put enor-
mous stress and strain on their relationships (Wickrama & Walker O’Neal, 2019). The
relative fragility of low-income marriages seems to have more to do with social class
than with the attitudes and skills of the spouses themselves (Karney et al., 2018).

So it’s pretty silly to expect that values education will change anything. A govern-
ment program that seeks to improve relationships would probably do better to increase
the minimum wage and to fund child care and effective training for better jobs than
to try to teach people to respect marriage. And clearly, if we seek to promote human
well-being, we need good information as well as good intentions. In a culture that offers
us bizarre examples of “love” on TV shows such as The Bachelor and The Bachelorette—
and in which real marriages are more likely to be failures than to be successes
(Cherlin, 2009)—it would be unethical not to try to understand how relationships work.
Intimate relationships can be a source of the grandest, most glorious pleasure human

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78 chapter 2: Research Methods

beings experience, but they can also be a source of terrible suffering and appalling
destructiveness. It is inherently ethical, relationship scientists assert, to try to learn
how the joy might be increased and the misery reduced.


This isn’t a statistics text (and I know you’re pleased by that), but there are a few
more aspects of the way relationship scientists do business that the thoughtful con-
sumer of the field should understand. Most relationship studies subject the data they
obtain to statistical analysis to determine whether their results are statistically “sig-
nificant.” This is a calculation of how likely it is that the results (e.g., the observed
correlations or the effects of the manipulated variables in an experiment) could have
occurred by chance. If it’s quite unlikely that the results could be due to chance, we
have a “significant” result. All of the research results reported in this book are sig-
nificant results. You can also be confident that the studies that have obtained these
results have passed critical inspection by other scientists. This does not mean, how-
ever, that every single specific result I may mention is unequivocally, absolutely,
positively true: Some of them might have occurred by chance, reflecting the influence
of odd samples of people or unwanted mistakes of various sorts. In particular, pat-
terns that are obvious in results obtained from college students routinely still exist
but are sometimes more muted when more diverse adult populations are studied
(Yeager et al., 2019).

Indeed, and importantly, when other researchers try to replicate some result of
interest—repeating the procedures used by a prior investigator to see if the same out-
comes are obtained—similar findings usually, but don’t always, result (e.g., Soto, 2019).
A failure to replicate is always a cause for concern (Fineberg et al., 2019), but the fact
that occasional errors get detected actually demonstrates “the fundamental soundness
of our field” (Wood & Wilson, 2019, p. 8). First, good science is public and repeatable,
so that we put our full faith only in findings that are consistently obtained. Toward
that end, relationship researchers routinely follow the practices of open science—in
which research materials and data are shared with other scientists who wish to replicate
one’s work—making it easier for any fluke results to be identified and corrected. And
second, in pursuit of (even) greater reliability of our results, relationship scientists are
studying more people and detailing their procedural and analytic decisions more fully
than ever before (Shrout & Rodgers, 2018). Never before have our scientific procedures
and practices been better (Chopik et al., 2020).

As you interpret our results, you should also remember that the results we’ll
encounter always describe patterns that are evident in the behavior of groups of people—
and because of differences among individuals (see chapter 1), those patterns will apply
to particular individuals to varying degrees. Please do not be so naïve as to think that
research results that do, in fact, apply to most people must be wrong because you know
someone to whom those results do not seem to apply. I’ll need you to be more sophis-
ticated and reasonable than that.

With those cautions in place, let’s note that the data obtained in relationship stud-
ies can also present unique challenges and complexities. Here are two examples:

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chapter 2: Research Methods 79

Paired, interdependent data. Most statistical procedures assume that the scores of
different participants are independent of each other—that is, one person’s responses
are not influenced by anyone else’s—but that’s not true when both members of a
couple are involved. Wilma’s satisfaction with her relationship with Fred is very likely
to be influenced by whether or not Fred is happy too, so her satisfaction is not inde-
pendent of his. Responses obtained from relationship partners are often interdepen-
dent, and special statistical procedures are advisable for analyzing such data (e.g.,
Kenny, 2020).

Three sources of influence. Furthermore, relationships emerge from the individual
contributions of the separate partners and from the unique effects of how they combine
as a pair. For example, imagine that Betty and Barney have a happy marriage. One
reason for this may be the fact that Barney is an especially pleasant fellow who gets
along well with everyone, including Betty. Alternatively (or, perhaps, in addition), Betty
may be the one who’s easy to live with. However, Betty and Barney may also have a
better relationship with each other than they could have with anyone else because of
the unique way their individual traits combine; the whole may be more than the sum
of its parts. Relationship researchers often encounter phenomena that result from the
combination of all three of these influences, the two individual partners and the idio-
syncratic partnership they share. Sophisticated statistical analyses are required to study
all of these components at once (Kenny, 2020), another indication of the complexity
of relationship science.

So what’s my point here? I’ve noted that studies of
close relationships tackle intricate matters and that sta-
tistical significance testing involves probabilities, not
certainties. Should you take everything I say with a
grain of salt, doubting me at every turn? Well, yes and
no. I want you to be more thoughtful and less gullible,
and I want you to appreciate the complexities underly-
ing the things you’re about to learn. Remember to think
like a scientist: No study is perfect, but the truth is out
there. We put more faith in patterns of results that are
obtained by different investigators working with differ-
ent samples of participants. We are also more confident when results are replicated
with diverse methods.

For these reasons, scientists now do frequent meta-analyses, which are studies that
statistically combine the results from several prior studies (e.g., Robles et al., 2014). In
a meta-analysis, an investigator compiles all existing studies of a particular phenomenon
and combines their results to identify the themes they contain. If the prior studies all
produce basically the same result, the meta- analysis makes that plain; if there are dis-
crepancies, the meta-analysis may reveal why.

With tools like this at its disposal, relationship science has made enormous strides
despite its short history and the complexity of its subject matter. And despite my ear-
lier cautions, (nearly all of) the things I’ll share with you in this text are dependable
facts, reliable results you can see for yourself if you do what the researchers did. Even
more impressively, most of them are facts that had not been discovered when your
parents were born.

A Point to Ponder

What’s your first thought
when you encounter a fact in
this book that you find sur-
prising? Is it, “Wow, I didn’t
know that,” or something
more like, “This is wrong”?
Where does your reaction
come from?

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80 chapter 2: Research Methods


In my desire to help you be more discerning, I’ve spent a lot of this chapter noting
various pros and cons of diverse procedures, usually concluding that no single option
is the best one in all cases. I hoped to encourage you to be more thoughtful about the
complexities of good research. But in closing, let me reassure you that relationship
science is in better shape than all of these uncertainties may make it seem. When
relationship science began, the typical study obtained self-reports from a convenience
sample of college students, and many studies are still of that sort. However, researchers
are now routinely studying more diverse samples with sophisticated designs that employ
more complex measures, and the variety of methods with which researchers now study
relationships is a strength, not a weakness (Mashek et al., 2018). Furthermore, the
field’s judicious ability to differentiate what it does and does not yet know is a mark
of its honesty and its developing maturity and wisdom.

People like easy answers. They like their information cut-and-dried. Many people
actually prefer simple nonsense—such as the idea that men come from Mars and women
come from Venus—to the scientific truth, if the truth is harder to grasp. However, as
a new consumer of the science of relationships, you have an obligation to prefer facts
to gossip, even if you have to work a little harder to make sense of their complexities.
Don’t mistake scientific caution for a lack of quality. To the contrary, I want to leave
you with the thought that it demonstrates scientific respectability to be forthright about
the strengths and weaknesses of one’s discipline. It’s more often the frauds and impos-
ters who claim they are always correct than the cautious scientists, who are really
trying to get it right.


Chris and Jamie had to participate in research studies if they wanted to pass the
Introductory Psychology course they were taking together, so they signed up for a study
of “Relationship Processes.” They had been dating for 2 months, and the study was
seeking “premarital romantic couples,” and they liked the fact that they would be paid
$5 if they both participated. So, they attended a session with a dozen other couples
in which they were separated and seated on opposite sides of a large room. They read
and signed a permission form that noted they could quit anytime they wanted and then
started to work on a long questionnaire.

Some of the questions were provocative. They were asked how many different
people they had had sex with in the last year and how many people they wanted
to have sex with in the next 5 years. Then, they were asked to answer the same
questions again, this time as they believed the other would. Chris had never pon-
dered such questions before, and he realized, once he thought about it, that he
actually knew very little about Jamie’s sexual history and future intentions. That
night, he was a little anxious, wondering and worrying about Jamie’s answers to
those questions.

Having read this chapter, do you think this research procedure was ethical? Why?

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chapter 2: Research Methods 81


The Short History of Relationship Science

The scientific study of relationships is a recent endeavor that has come of age only
in the last 40 years. The field has now grown to include the study of all types of rela-
tionships in their natural settings around the world.

Developing a Question

Research questions come from a number of sources, including personal experience,
recognition of social problems, the results of prior research, and theoretical predictions.
The questions usually seek either to describe events or to delineate causal connections
among variables.

Obtaining Participants

Convenience samples are composed of participants who are easily available. Repre-
sentative samples are more costly, but they better reflect the population of interest. Both
types of samples can suffer from volunteer bias.

Choosing a Design

Correlational Designs. A correlation describes the strength and direction of an
association between two variables. Correlations are inherently ambiguous because
events can be related for a variety of reasons.

Experimental Designs. Experiments control and manipulate situations to delineate
cause and effect. Experiments are very informative, but some events cannot be studied
experimentally for practical or ethical reasons.

The Nature of Our Data

Self-Reports. With self-reports, participants describe their own thoughts, feelings,
and behavior, but they may misunderstand the researchers’ questions, have faulty mem-
ories, and be subject to social desirability biases.

Observations. In ecological momentary assessment, brief observations are made
intermittently. Observations avoid the problems of self-reports, but they are expensive
to conduct, and reactivity can be a problem.

convenience sample ………………… p. 64
representative sample ……………… p. 65
volunteer bias …………………………. p. 67
correlations …………………………….. p. 68
experiments …………………………….. p. 69
self-reports ………………………………. p. 70
social desirability bias …………….. p. 72

ecological momentary
assessment ………………………………. p. 73
reactivity …………………………………. p. 75
archives …………………………………… p. 75
open science …………………………… p. 78
meta-analyses ………………………….. p. 79


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82 chapter 2: Research Methods

Physiological Measures. Measurements of people’s biological changes indicate
how our physical states are associated with our social interactions.

Archival Materials. Existing stores of public data records are nonreactive and
often allow researchers to compare the present with the past.

The Ethics of Such Endeavors

Participation in relationship research may change people’s relationships by encour-
aging them to think carefully about the situations they face. As a result, researchers
take pains to protect the welfare of their participants.

Interpreting and Integrating Results

Statistical analysis determines the likelihood that results could have occurred by
chance. When this likelihood is very low, the results are said to be significant. Some
such results may still be due to chance, however, so the thoughtful consumer does not
put undue faith in any one study. Meta-analysis lends confidence to conclusions by
statistically combining results from several studies.

A Final Note

Scientific caution is appropriate, but it should not be mistaken for weakness or
imprecision. Relationship science is in great shape.


• Don’t fall for fraudulent advice. Use your understanding of the methods of relation-
ship science to judge the credibility of the things you see and hear about

• Remember that correlations are ambiguous; there may be several possible reasons
why two events appear to be connected.


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social psychological effects by demographics in the U.S. adult population: New opportunities for theo-
retical advancement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117, e84–e99.

86 chapter 2: Research Methods

miL04267_ch02_059-086.indd 86 12/01/21 4:29 PM


C H A P T E R 3


The FundamenTal Basis oF aTTracTion ♦ ProximiTy: liking Those near
us ♦ Physical aTTracTiveness: liking Those Who are lovely ♦ reciProciTy:

liking Those Who like us ♦ similariTy: liking Those Who are like us ♦ So,
WhaT Do Men and Women WanT? ♦ For your consideraTion ♦ key

Terms ♦ chaPTer summary ♦ SuggesTions For saTisFacTion ♦ reFerences

You’re alone in a classroom, beginning to read this chapter, when the door opens and
a stranger walks in. Is this someone who appeals to you? Might you have just encountered
a potential friend or lover? Remarkably, you probably developed a tenta tive answer to
those questions much more quickly than you were able to read this sentence (Palomares &
Young, 2018). What’s going on? Where did your judgment come from? This chapter
considers these issues. Psychologically, the first step toward a relationship is always the
same: interpersonal attraction, the desire to approach someone. Feelings of attraction don’t
guarantee that a relationship will develop, but they do open the door to the possibility.
I’ll examine several major influences that shape our attraction to others, starting with a
basic principle about how attraction works.


A longstanding assumption about interpersonal attraction is that we are attracted to oth-
ers whose presence is rewarding to us (Clore & Byrne, 1974). And two different types
of rewards influence attraction: noticeable direct rewards we obviously receive from our
interaction with others, and more subtle indirect benefits of which we’re not always aware
and that are merely associated with someone else. Direct rewards refer to all the evident
pleasures people provide us. When they shower us with interest and approval, we’re usu-
ally gratified by the attention and acceptance. When they are witty and beautiful, we
enjoy their pleasing characteristics. And when they give us money or good advice, we
are clearly better off. Most of the time, the more direct rewards that people provide us,
the more attracted we are to them.

But attraction also results from a variety of subtle influences that are only indirectly
related to the obvious kindness, good looks, or pleasing personalities of those we meet
(McNulty et al., 2017). For instance, anything about new acquaintances that resembles
us, however tangentially, may make them seem more likable. Consider a fellow named
Dennis who is fond of his name; because of the shared first letter, “it might not be too

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88 chapter 3: Attraction

far-fetched [for] Dennis to gravitate toward cities such as Denver, careers such as
dentistry, and romantic partners such as Denise” (Pelham et al., 2005, p. 106). In fact,
that’s what happens: People are disproportionately likely to fall in love with someone
who has a name that resembles their own (Jones et al., 2004). Rewards like these are
indirect and mild, and we sometimes don’t even consciously notice them—but they do
illustrate just how diverse and varied the rewards that attract us to others can be.

Indeed, most of us simply think that we’re attracted to someone if he or she is an
appealing person, but it’s really more complex than that. Attraction does involve the
perceived characteristics of the person who appeals to us, but it also depends on our
current needs, goals, and desires, all of which can fluctuate over time and from one
situation to the next. Given that, theorists Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick (2015) asserted
that the fundamental basis of attraction is instrumentality, the extent to which someone
is able to help us achieve our present goals.1 Simply put, we’re attracted to others who
can help us get what we currently want. An instrumentality perspective acknowledges
that attraction can be idiosyncratic, differing from person to person according to one’s
present goals, and changing over time as needs are fulfilled. But we’re most attracted,
as you’d expect, to others whose company is consistently rewarding, those who routinely
fulfill several chronic and important desires—such as those whose company is pleasurable
and helpful and who fulfill our need to belong (Orehek et al., 2018).2 And as those
desires are pervasive, some specific influences on attraction are rather ubiquitous, clearly
influencing most people most of the time. We’ll consider them in this chapter, beginning
our survey with one that’s more important than most of us think.


We might get to know someone online, but isn’t interaction more rewarding when we
can hear others’ voices, see their smiles, and actually hold their hands? Most of the
time, relationships are more rewarding when they involve people who are near one
another (who are physically, as well as psychologically, close). Indeed, our physical
proximity to others often determines whether or not we ever meet them in the first
place. More often than not, our friendships and romances grow out of interactions
with those who are nearby.

In fact, there is a clear connection between physical proximity and interpersonal
attraction, and a few feet can make a big difference. Think about your Relationships
classroom: Who have you gotten to know since the semester started? Who is a new
friend? It’s likely that the people you know and like best sit near you in class. When
they are assigned seats in a classroom, college students are much more likely to become
friends with those sitting near them than with those sitting across the room, even when
the room is fairly small (Back et al., 2008). Indeed, when single men have a brief

1This is the second time I’ve introduced the term “instrumentality,” which we used to describe traits such
as assertiveness and self-reliance back on page 26. The idea remains the same. Our “instrumental” traits
promote our own accomplishments and achievements, and as Finkel and Eastwick use the term, “instrumen-
tality” describes the extent to which someone else can offer us help in accomplishing our present goals.
2Remember? A really fundamental goal that characterizes the human race. See page 4.

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chapter 3: Attraction 89

interaction with a moderately attractive woman, they like her better when she sits two-
and-a-half feet away from them than when she sits five feet away (Shin et al., 2019).

A similar phenomenon occurs in student housing complexes. In a classic study,
Festinger, Schachter, and Back (1950) examined the friendships among students living
in campus housing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Residents were ran-
domly assigned to rooms in 17 different buildings that were all like the one in Figure 3.1.
People who lived close to each other were much more likely to become friends than were
those whose rooms were further apart. Indeed, the chances that residents would become
friends were closely related to the distances between their rooms (see Table 3.1). And
the same result was also obtained from one building to the next: People were more likely
to know and like residents of other buildings that were close to their own.

Off campus, similar effects occur, and with real consequence. In another classic
study, examination of 5,000 marriage licenses in Philadelphia revealed that almost half
(48 percent) of the new spouses had lived within a mile of each other before they mar-
ried, and, even more remarkably, in one of every eight marriages, they had lived in the
same building (Bossard, 1932)! Obviously, even small distances have a much larger influ-
ence on our relationships than most people realize. Whenever we choose the exact place

TABLE 3.1. Friendship Choices in Campus Housing at MIT

Two hundred seventy people living in buildings like the one pictured in Figure 3.1 were
asked to list their three closest companions. Among those living on the same floor of a given
building, here’s how often the residents named someone living:

1 door away 41% of the time
2 doors away 22%
3 doors away 16%
4 doors away 10%

Only 88 feet separated residents living four doors apart, at opposite ends of the same floor,
but they were only one-quarter as likely to become friends as were people living in adjacent
rooms. Similar patterns were obtained from one floor to the next, and from building to
building in the housing complex, so it was clear that small distances played a large part
in determining who would and who would not be friends.

FIGURE 3.1. A student apartment building at MIT.
In the study by Festinger et al. (1950), residents were randomly assigned to rooms in
buildings like these.



2 3

7 8



Source: Myers, D. G. (2008). Social psychology (9th ed.). McGraw-Hill.

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90 chapter 3: Attraction

where we will live or work or go to school, we also take a major step toward determining
who the significant others in our lives are likely to be.

Familiarity: Repeated Contact

Why does proximity have such influence? For one thing, it increases the chances that
two people will cross paths often and become more familiar with each other. Folk
wisdom suggests that “familiarity breeds contempt,” but research evidence generally
disagrees. Instead of being irritating, repeated contact with—or mere exposure to—
someone usually increases our liking for him or her (Mrkva & Van Boven, 2020). Even
if we have never talked to them, we tend to like people whose faces we recognize more
than those whose faces are unfamiliar to us.

Moreland and Beach (1992) provided an interesting example of the mere exposure
effect when they had college women attend certain classes either 15 times, 10 times, or
5 times during a semester. These women never talked to anyone and simply sat there,
but they were present in the room frequently, sometimes, or rarely. Then at the end of
the semester, the real students were given pictures of the women and asked for their
reactions. The results were very clear: The more familiar the women were, the more the
students were attracted to them. And they were all liked better than women the students
had never seen at all. (See Figure 3.2.)

The proximity that occurs in college classrooms influences real relationships,
too. An intriguing analysis of a whole year’s worth of the millions of e-mail messages
passed among the tens of thousands of students at a large university—back before
texting became commonplace—demonstrated that, among students who did not
already share an acquaintance, taking a class together made it 140 times more likely
that they would message each other (Kossinets & Watts, 2006). And as we’ve seen,
small distances matter; students who are assigned seats next to each other are much

FIGURE 3.2. The mere exposure effect in college classrooms.
Even though they never interacted with anyone, other students liked women more the more
often they visited a class.



r t



Number of Visits to Class
0 5 10 15






Source: Data from Moreland, R. L., & Beach, S. R. (1992). “Exposure effects in the classroom: The development
of affinity among students,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28, 255–276.

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chapter 3: Attraction 91

more likely to become friends than are those who are given seats a couple of rows
apart (Segal, 1974).3

Of course, familiarity has it limits. As we gain information about others, we may
find that they are obnoxious, disagreeable, or inept, and increasing exposure to such
people may lead us to like them less, not more (Norton et al., 2013). Indeed, a study
in a condominium complex in California (Ebbesen et al., 1976) found that although
most of the residents’ friends lived nearby, most of their enemies did, too! Only rarely
did people report that they really disliked someone who lived several buildings away
from them. Instead, they despised fellow residents who were close enough to annoy
them often—by playing music too loudly, letting their dogs bark, and so on.

Proximity can also be disadvantageous when people who have come to know each
other online—see the “Digital Distance” box on page 92—meet in person for the first
time. People put their best foot (and face) forward when they’re writing personal pro-
files and posting pictures, so what you see on the Web is not necessarily what you get
when you finally meet someone face-to-face (Hall et al., 2010). In particular, men often
claim that they’re taller and richer, and women claim that they’re lighter and younger,
than they really are (“Online Dating Statistics,” 2017). They’ve also typically been
careful and selective in describing their attitudes and tastes, so there’s still a lot to
learn about them. Thus, on average, when people who have met online get together in
person for the first time, they’re mildly disappointed; the knowledge they have about
each other goes up, but their liking for each other goes down (Sharabi & Caughlin,
2017). When we find out who our online partners actually are—as opposed to who we
thought they were—our attraction to them often declines (Ramirez et al., 2015).

Proximity can also be surprisingly problematic when partners in long-distance rela-
tionships are reunited after some time apart. When partners have to separate—for instance,
when one of them is called to military service—“out of sight” does not inevitably lead to
“out of mind.” A separation can destroy a relationship, particularly if the partners start
dating other people who are close at hand (Sahlstein, 2006). But the more committed
partners are to their relationship, the more they miss each other, and the more they miss
each other, the harder they work to express their continued love and regard for each
other across the miles (Le et al., 2011). Their conversations tend to be longer and more
personal than those they would ordinarily have face-to-face, and they also tend to stay
positive and steer clear of touchy topics (Rossetto, 2013). As a result, they’re likely to
construct idealized images of their partnership that portray it as one that’s worth waiting
for (Kelmer et al., 2013), and absence can indeed (at least temporarily) make the heart
grow fonder (Jiang & Hancock, 2013). Unfortunately, reunions are often more stressful
than people expect. When soldiers return home, for instance, the reunited lovers lose
some of their autonomy and have to relearn how to comfortably depend on one another;
they have to renegotiate their roles and rhythms, and confront the things (which they
have often forgotten) that they didn’t like about each other (Knobloch & Wehrman,
2014). So perhaps it isn’t surprising that one-third of the long-distance dating partners—
and remember, commitment is a key influence on all of this—who get back together break
up within 3 months of their reunion (Stafford et al., 2006).
3This effect is so striking, I keep thinking that I should insist that my own students change seats halfway through
the semester and sit next to a whole new bunch of potential friends. They would probably leave the course
knowing—and liking—more people. But, because they’d probably also be annoyed to move, I’ve never done it.

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92 chapter 3: Attraction

Digital Distance
Where Almost Everybody Is Just a Click or Two Away

Proximity matters, but we also have astound-
ing reach to others online, where we can en-
counter potential mates that we’d never meet
any other way. “Today, if you own a smart-
phone, you’re carrying a 24-7 singles bar in
your pocket” (Ansari, 2015, p. 31), and it’s
now commonplace for romances to begin on-
line on dating apps or websites, or on social
media, in chat rooms, online communities,
multiplayer games, and other online locales.
Indeed, online encounters are now the most
common way couples get started. These days,
more heterosexual couples meet online than
through introductions by friends, family, or
coworkers (which used to be the way most
couples met; Rosenfeld et al., 2019), and this
pattern is even more pronounced among
LGBTQ folks, who are twice as likely as het-
erosexuals to be in a committed relationship
with someone they met on a dating app or site
(Vogels, 2020). And when it comes to those
sites, there’s something for everyone. Do you
have a passion for pets? Download Dig, the
“Dog Person’s Dating App.”4 Are you looking
for another vegetarian? A
sugar daddy? A hookup?, which used to feature
the “Booty Call® Commandment” “Thou
shalt kiss anything except my mouth.” An ex-
tramarital affair? in the
United States, and in the
United Kingdom. And of course, apps can
show you interested others who just happen
to be nearby; Tinder is for you if you’re hetero-
sexual, Grindr if you’re a gay man, and HER if
you’re a lesbian, bisexual, or queer.

So, there’s amazing access to others
online, and when we’re actively seeking oth-
ers, expectations are often high. But the
outcomes people experience with dating
apps and on dating sites can be disappoint-
ing, for several reasons. For one thing, most
users encounter a lot of ambiguous rejec-
tion. They “swipe right” to like others but

don’t get any interest in return. What does
that mean? Have potential partners consid-
ered you closely and found you unworthy?
Or are they simply otherwise engaged and
unaware of your interest? Either way, users
can begin to doubt themselves, and Tinder
users tend to have lower levels of satisfac-
tion with their faces and bodies than non-
users do (Strubel & Petrie, 2017). For
another thing, there are fewer partners out
there than it may seem; in order to make
their pages more impressive, dating web-
sites may be slow to remove inactive pro-
files of ex- subscribers who have left the
service. By one estimate in 2010, only
7 percent of the profiles that were visible
on belonged to people who were
still seeking partners (Slater, 2013). And
even when two people are in the same gen-
eral area, they get a match on Tinder (with
both of them swiping right to express inter-
est in the other) less than 2 percent of the
time (Julian, 2018). Then, only 2 percent of
those who match ever actually meet each
other face-to-face. (And then, a one-night
stand of casual sex ensues in only one-third
of 1 percent of the matches people make
[Grøntvedt et al., 2020], or about once for
every 15,000 swipes to the right. Hookups
do occur on Tinder, but not all that often.)
Successful connections with others are
scarcer than you might expect.

Moreover, the (apparent) abundance
of choices isn’t necessarily conducive to re-
lationship success. Overwhelmed by hun-
dreds of profiles, people can become sloppy
and less exacting in their choices, homing
in, for instance, on particularly attractive
people with whom they have little in com-
mon (Bruch & Newman, 2018). Faced with
so many options, they may also become
more picky and choosy (Pronk & Denissen,
2020) and less likely to commit to any one
partner (Pronk & Denissen, 2020); most

4I am not recommending any of these sites! Buyer beware. They’re just examples, and there are plenty more
where they came from.

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chapter 3: Attraction 93

So, the effects of familiarity depend both on what we learn about someone else
and on the amount of interdependence we are forced to share. It is certainly possible
to reach a point of saturation at which additional time with, and more information
about, other people begins to reduce our liking for them (Montoya et al., 2017). But in
general, when people first meet, we prefer others we recognize to those who are total
strangers (Van Dessel et al., 2019)—and one reason proximity is usually profitable is
that it increases the chances that others will be recognizable to us.

Convenience: Proximity Is Rewarding and Distance Is Costly

Another reason why proximity promotes most partnerships is that when others are
nearby, it’s easy to enjoy whatever rewards they offer. Everything else being equal, a
partner who is nearby has a big advantage over one who is far away: The expense and
effort of getting to a distant partner—such as expensive airfares or hours on the road—
make a distant relationship more costly overall than one that is closer to home. Distant
relationships are less rewarding, too; an expression of love over a video feed is less
delightful than an actual soft kiss on the lips.

The only notable thing about this is that anyone should find it surprising. However,
lovers who have to endure a period of separation may blithely believe, because their
relationship has been so rewarding up to that point, that some time apart will not
adversely affect their romance. If so, they may be surprised by the difference distance
makes. When a relationship that enjoys the convenience of proximity becomes incon-
venient due to distance, it may suffer more than either partner expects. Lovers who
are deeply committed to their relationship often survive a separation (Kelmer et al.,
2013), but other partnerships may ultimately be doomed by distance (Sahlstein, 2006).

The Power of Proximity

The bottom line is that proximity makes it more likely that two people will meet and
interact. What follows depends on the people involved, of course, but the good news is that
most of the time, when two strangers begin chatting, they like each other more the more
they chat (Reis et al., 2011). This does not occur with everyone we meet (Norton et al.,
2013), and over time, constant contact with someone also carries the possibility that unre-
warding monotony will set in (Montoya et al., 2017). Nevertheless, when we come to know
others and our goal is simply to get along and to have a good time, familiarity and conve-
nience increase our attraction to them. And that’s the power of proximity.

users (53 percent) have dated more than
one person simultaneously (“Online Dating
Statistics,” 2017). And finally, it’s unlikely
that a dating site that offers to identify peo-
ple who will be particularly perfect partners
for their subscribers will be able to actually
fulfill that promise; unique compatibility
is so complex, it’s almost impossible to
predict before two people have actually met
(Joel et al., 2017).

In any case, one thing is certain: Tech-
nology influences relationships, and there’s
no more dramatic example than the advent of
online dating and mating. It introduces us to a
much larger variety of people than we would
ever meet otherwise (Potarca, 2017), and it’s
now common for us to encounter people on-
line, research their backgrounds, and then
chat from a distance, often for some time,
before we actually meet (LeFebvre, 2018).

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94 chapter 3: Attraction


After proximity brings people together, what’s the first thing we’re likely to notice about
those we meet? Their looks, of course. And, although we all know that we shouldn’t
“judge books by their covers,” looks count. Physical attractiveness greatly influences
the first impressions that people form of one another. In general, right or wrong, we
tend to assume that good-looking people are more likable, better people than those
who are unattractive.

Our Bias for Beauty: “What Is Beautiful Is Good”

Imagine that you’re given a photograph of a stranger’s face and, using only the photo,
are asked to guess at the personality and prospects the person possesses. Studies of
judgments such as these routinely find that physically attractive people are presumed
to be interesting, sociable people who are likely to encounter personal and professional
success in love and life (see Table 3.2). In general, we seem to think that what is
beautiful is good; we assume that attractive people—especially those who share our own
ethnic background (Agthe et al., 2016)—have desirable traits such as agreeableness,
extraversion, and conscientiousness that complement their desirable appearances
(Segal-Caspi et al., 2012). And we seem to make these judgments automatically, with-
out any conscious thought; a beautiful face triggers a positive evaluation the instant we
see it (Olson & Marshuetz, 2005).

We don’t expect good-looking strangers to be wonderful in every respect; the more
attractive they are, the more promiscuous we think them to be (Brewer & Archer,
2007). (Is this just wishful thinking? It may be. One reason that we like to think that
pretty people are outgoing and kind is because we’re attracted to them, and we want
them to like us in return [Lemay et al., 2010]. Hope springs eternal.) Still, there’s no

TABLE 3.2. What Is Beautiful Is Good

Both male and female research participants judged that physically attractive people were
more likely than unattractive people to be:

Kind Interesting
Strong Poised
Outgoing Sociable
Nurturant Exciting date
Sensitive Good character
Sexually warm and responsive

These same judges also believed that, compared to those who were unattractive,
physically attractive people would have futures that involved

More prestige Happier marriages
More social and professional success More fulfilling lives

Source: Dion, K. K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). “What is beautiful is good.” Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 24, 285–290.

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chapter 3: Attraction 95

question that attractive people make better overall impressions on us than less attractive
people do, and this tends to be true all over the world (Wheeler & Kim, 1997).

The bias for beauty may also lead us to confuse beauty with talent. In the work-
place, physically attractive people make more money and are promoted more often
than are those with average looks. On average, good-looking folks earn $230,000 more
during their lifetimes than less lovely people do (Hamermesh, 2013). On campus,
attractive professors get better teaching evaluations than unattractive instructors do,
and students attend their classes more frequently (Wolbring & Riordan, 2016). The
more attractive U.S. politicians are, the more competent they are judged to be (Olivola &
Todorov, 2010). Attractive people even make better impressions in court; good-looking
culprits convicted of misdemeanors in Texas get lower fines than they would have
received had they been less attractive (Downs & Lyons, 1991).

But are the interactions and relationships of beautiful people really any different
from those of people who are less pretty? I’ll address that question shortly. First,
though, we need to assess whether we all tend to agree on who is pretty and who
is not.

Who’s Pretty?

Consider this: On the first day of a college class, researchers invite you to join a circle
that, including you, contains four men and four women. All of the others are strangers.
Your task is to take a close look at each person and to rate (secretly!) his or her
physical attractiveness while they all judge you in return. What would you expect?
Would all four members of the other sex in your group agree about how attractive you
are? Would you and the other three people of the same sex give each of the four oth-
ers exactly the same rating? David Marcus and I did a study just like this to determine
the extent to which beauty is in the “eye of the beholder” (Marcus & Miller, 2003).
We did find some mild disagreement among the observers that presumably resulted
from individual tastes. Judgments of beauty were somewhat idiosyncratic—but not
much. The take-home story of our study was the overwhelming consensus among
people about the physical beauty of the strangers they encountered. Our participants
clearly shared the same notions of who is and who isn’t pretty.

Moreover, this consensus exists across ethnic groups: Asians, Hispanics, and
Black and white Americans all tend to agree with each other about the attractive-
ness of women from all four groups (Cunningham et al., 1995). Even more striking
is the finding that newborn infants exhibit preferences for faces like those that
adults find attractive, too (Slater et al., 2000); when they are much too young to
be affected by social norms, babies spend more time gazing at attractive than unat-
tractive faces.

What faces are those? There’s little doubt that women are more attractive if they
have “baby-faced” features such as large eyes, a small nose, a small chin, and full lips
(Jones, 1995). The point is not to look childish, however, but to appear feminine and
youthful; beautiful women combine those baby-faced features with signs of maturity
such as prominent cheekbones, narrow cheeks, and a broad smile (Cunningham et al.,
2002). Long eyelashes are lovely, too (Adam, 2021), and women who present all these
features are thought to be attractive all over the world (Jones, 1995).

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96 chapter 3: Attraction

Male attractiveness is more complex. Men who have strong jaws and broad
foreheads—who look strong and dominant—are usually thought to be handsome (Rhodes,
2006). (Envision George Clooney.) On the other hand, when average male faces are
made slightly more feminine and baby-faced through computer imaging, the “feminized”
faces—which look warm and friendly—are attractive, too. ( Envision Tobey Maguire.)
Remarkably, which facial style is more attractive to women seems to be influenced both
by their average levels of the sex hormone progesterone during their menstrual cycles
and whether or not they currently have romantic partners: If they’re single, they find
rugged, manly features to be more attractive, the more progesterone they have—but if
they’re already partnered, higher levels of progesterone are associated with lower prefer-
ence for the masculine features (DeBruine et al., 2019).

In any case, good-looking faces in both sexes have features that are neither too
large nor too small. Indeed, they are quite average. If you use computer imaging soft-
ware to create composite images that combine the features of individual faces, the
average faces that result are more attractive than nearly all of the faces that make up
the composite (Little, 2015). This is true not only in the United States but also in
China, Nigeria, India, and Japan (Rhodes et al., 2002). (For a delightful set of exam-
ples from Germany, go to “‘BeautyCheck’ homepage!” with your search engine.)

However, this doesn’t mean that gorgeous people have bland, ordinary looks. The
images that result from this averaging process are actually rather unusual. Their features
are all proportional to one another; no nose is too big, and no eyes are too small, and
there is nothing about such faces that is exaggerated, underdeveloped, or odd. Averaged
faces are also symmetrical with the two sides of the face being mirror images of one
another; the eyes are the same size, the cheeks are the same width, and so on. Facial
symmetry is attractive in its own right, whether or not a face is “average” (Fink et al.,

Which of these two faces is more appealing to you? They are composite images of the same face
that have been altered to include feminine or masculine facial features, and if you’re a woman,
your answer may depend on your average levels of progesterone and whether or not you’re in a
romantic relationship. Single women with lots of progesterone tend to find the more masculine
face on the right to be more attractive, but when women have partners, higher levels of progester-
one predict higher interest in the more feminine face on the left. I’ll have more to say about phe-
nomena like this a few pages from now. Picture A is a 50 percent feminized male composite; B
is a 50 percent masculinized male composite.


Anthony Little

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chapter 3: Attraction 97

2006). In fact, if you take a close look at identical twins, whose faces are very similar,
you’ll probably think that the twin with the more symmetric face is the more attractive of
the two (Lee et al., 2016). Both symmetry and “averageness” make their own contribution
to facial beauty, so beautiful faces combine the best features of individual faces in a bal-
anced, well-proportioned whole.

Of course, some bodies are more attractive than others, too. Men find women’s
shapes most alluring when they are of normal weight, neither too heavy nor too thin,
and their waists are noticeably narrower than their hips (Lassek & Gaulin, 2016). The
most attractive waist-to-hip ratio, or WHR, is a curvy 0.7 in which the waist is 30 percent
smaller than the hips (see Figure 3.3); this “hourglass” shape appeals to men around
the world (Valentova et al., 2017).5 In the Czech Republic, for instance, the slimmer a
woman’s waist is, the more often she and her man have sex and the better his erectile
function is (Brody & Weiss, 2013). This appears to be a fundamental preference, too;
even men who have been blind from birth prefer a low WHR in women’s bodies when
they assess their shapes by touch (Karremans et al., 2010). (And if you’re still not
convinced, this should do it: The princesses in animated Disney movies have lower
WHRs than the female villains do [Aung & Williams, 2019].) Women who are over-
weight are usually judged to be less attractive than slender and normal-weight women
are (Faries & Bartholomew, 2012), and marriages are more satisfying to both spouses,
on average, when wives are thinner than their husbands (Meltzer et al., 2011); neverthe-
less, thin women are not more attractive to men than women of normal weight are

Look what happens when 2, 8, or 32 real faces are morphed together into composite images.
When more faces are combined, the resulting image portrays a face that is not odd or idiosyn-
cratic in any way and that has features and dimensions that are more and more typical of the
human race. The result is a more attractive image. Averaged faces are attractive faces.

a. 2-Face Composite b. 8-Face Composite c. 32-Face Composite

5If you want to measure your own WHR, find the circumference of your waist at its narrowest point and
divide that figure by the circumference of your hips at their broadest point, including your buttocks. Your
butt is included in your “waist-to-hip” ratio.

Judith Langlois/Langlois Social Development Lab

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98 chapter 3: Attraction

(Swami et al., 2007). Around the world, men like medium-sized breasts more than small
breasts (Havlíček et al., 2017), but even larger breasts do not make a woman any more
attractive (Kościński et al., 2020). In any case, breast size is less important than their
proportion to the rest of a woman’s body; a curvy 0.75 waist-to-bust ratio is very appeal-
ing ( Voracek & Fisher, 2006). In addition, a woman’s WHR has more influence on
men’s judgments of her attractiveness than her breast size does (Dixson et al., 2011).6

Once again, male attractiveness is more complex. Men’s bodies are most attractive
when their waists are only slightly narrower than their hips, with a WHR of 0.9. Broad
shoulders and muscles are also attractive; men with higher shoulder-to-hip ratios
(around 1.2) and bigger muscles have sex with more women and at earlier ages than
do men who have narrower shoulders (Hughes & Gallup, 2003) or smaller muscles
(Lassek & Gaulin, 2009)—and this, too, is true around the world (Frederick et al.,
2011). However, a nice shape doesn’t attract a woman to a man unless he has other
resources as well; a man’s WHR affects women’s evaluations of him only when he
earns a healthy salary (Singh, 1995). A man is not all that attractive to women if he
is handsome but poor.

Judgments of physical attractiveness are evidently multifaceted, and several
other characteristics also inf luence those perceptions. Both men and women tend
to prefer heterosexual partnerships in which he is taller than she is (Stulp et al.,
2013), but height matters more to women than to men (Yancey & Emerson, 2016).
So, tall men get more responses from women to their online profiles than short
men do. A guy who’s short—say, 5’ 4”—can get as many responses on a dating web-
site as a fellow who’s much taller—say, 6’ 1”—but only if he earns more money. A
lot more. In this particular case, the shorter man would have to earn $221,000 more
each year to be as interesting to women (Hitsch et al., 2010).

FIGURE 3.3. Waist-to-hip ratios.
These figures portray the range of different waist-to-hip ratios that are typically found in young
women. When men study a variety of images that present all of the possible WHRs from 0.6
to 0.85, they find an average WHR of 0.7 to be most attractive.

6I can also report that when men get 5 seconds to inspect full-body frontal images of naked women, the first
things they look at are the breasts and waist (Garza et al., 2016). The face comes later. (But if you’re a
woman, you already knew that.)

Krzysztof Kościński

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chapter 3: Attraction 99

A potential partner’s smell also matters more to women than to men (Herz &
Inzlicht, 2002), and remarkably, they prefer the smells of guys who have been eating
a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables to the smells of guys who’ve been consuming
a lot of carbohydrates (Zuniga et al., 2017). But men are sensitive to smell, too, prefer-
ring the natural scents of pretty women to those of women who are less attractive
(Thornhill et al., 2003). In a typical study of this sort, people shower using unscented
soap before they go to bed and then sleep in the same T-shirt for several nights. Then,
research participants who have never met those people take a big whiff of those shirts
and select the scents that are most appealing to them. Symmetrical, attractive people
evidently smell better than asymmetrical, less attractive people do, because strangers
prefer the aromas of attractive people to the smells of those who are more plain
(Thornhill et al., 2003). What’s more, heterosexual men don’t much like the smell of
gay men, who have aromas that are more attractive to other gay guys than to straight
men (Martins et al., 2005). I am not making this up, so there are evidently subtle
influences at work here.

Finally, women also like smart guys (which should be good news for most of the
men reading this book) (Karbowski et al., 2016). In one intriguing study, researchers
gave men intelligence tests and then filmed them throwing a Frisbee, reading news
headlines aloud, and pondering the possibility of life on Mars. When women watched
the videos, the smarter the men were, the more appealing they were (Prokosch et al.,
2009). This may be one reason that, when they are trying to impress a woman, men
use a more elaborate vocabulary—that is, bigger words—than they do in ordinary dis-
course (Rosenberg & Tunney, 2008).

An Evolutionary Perspective on Physical Attractiveness

I’ve just mentioned a lot of details, so you may not have noticed, but people’s prefer-
ences for prettiness generally fit the assumptions of an evolutionary perspective. Con-
sider these patterns:

• Cultures differ in several respects, but people all over the world still tend to agree
on who is and who is not attractive (Cunningham et al., 1995; Jones, 1995). That’s
one reason why the winners of international beauty pageants are usually gorgeous
no matter where they’re from.

• Babies are born with preferences for the same faces that adults find attractive
(Slater et al., 2000). Some reactions to good looks may be inherited.

• People with attractive symmetrical faces also tend to have symmetrical bodies and to
enjoy better mental and physical health—and therefore make better mates—than do
people with asymmetrical faces (Nedelec & Beaver, 2014; Perilloux et al., 2010). Sym-
metric people of both sexes are smarter (Luxen & Buunk, 2006) and get sick less
often (Van Dongen & Gangestad, 2011) than do those whose faces and bodies have
odd proportions.

• Women with WHRs near the attractive norm of 0.7 are usually young and are not
already pregnant (Lassek & Gaulin, 2019), so they look like they’d be good mates
(Bovet, 2019). They also tend to enjoy better physical health than do women with
fewer curves (Jasieńska et al., 2004). A man with an attractive WHR of 0.9 is also
likely to be in better health than another man with a plump belly (Payne, 2006).

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100 chapter 3: Attraction

So, both sexes are most attracted to the physical shapes that signal the highest
likelihood of good health in the other sex (Singh & Singh, 2011).

• Everybody likes good looks, but physical attractiveness matters most to people
who live in equatorial regions of the world where there are many parasites and
pathogens that can endanger good health (Gangestad & Buss, 1993). In such areas,
unblemished beauty may be an especially good sign that someone is in better
health—and will make a better mate—than someone whose face is in some way

• Ultimately, all things considered, attractive people in the United States reproduce
more successfully—they have more children—than do those who are less attractive
(Jokela, 2009).

• There are subtle but provocative changes in women’s desires that accompany their
monthly menstrual cycles. Women are only fertile for the few days that precede
their ovulation each month (see Figure 3.4), and during that period, they experi-
ence increases in sexual desire both for their current partners and for other men
(Arslan et al., 2020). They generally find men’s bodies to be more attractive
(Jünger et al., 2018), and they are better able to judge whether a guy is gay or
straight (Rule et al., 2011). These cyclic changes do not occur if women are taking
birth control pills (and therefore are not ovulating) (Alvergne & Lummaa, 2010).

FIGURE 3.4. Women’s probability of conception during the menstrual cycle.
Women are fertile during the few days just before they ovulate at the end of the follicular
phase of their menstrual cycles. During that period, they experience more sexual desire, for both
their partners and for others, than they do during the rest of the month.

1 3 5 7 9 11 13 15 17 19 21 23 25 27 29

Day in Cycle




f C











Follicular Phase Luteal Phase

Source: Jöchle, W. (1973). “Coitus-induced ovulation,” Contraception, 7, 523–564.

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chapter 3: Attraction 101

• For their part, men think women smell better
when they’re about to ovulate than at other times
of the month (Gildersleeve et al., 2012). Smelling
the T-shirts of such women causes men to experi-
ence a surge of testosterone (Miller & Maner,
2010) and to start thinking sexy thoughts (Miller &
Maner, 2011). When women are fertile, their
voices (Ostrander et al., 2018) and bodies (Grillot et al., 2014) are more attractive
to men, too. All in all, it seems pretty clear that in subtle but real ways—and
without necessarily being aware of it—men can tell there’s something slightly
different and desirable about a woman when she’s about to ovulate (Haselton
& Gildersleeve, 2016).7

These patterns convince some theorists that our standards of physical beauty
have an evolutionary basis (Eastwick & Tidwell, 2013). Presumably, early humans
who successfully sought fertile, robust, and healthy mates were more likely to
reproduce successfully than were those who simply mated at random. As a result,
the common preferences of modern men for symmetrical, low-WHR partners and
of modern (fertile) women for symmetrical, masculine men may be evolved incli-
nations that are rooted more in their human natures than in their particular
cultural heritage.

Culture Counts, Too

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that standards of attractiveness are also affected
by changing economic and cultural conditions. Have you seen those Renaissance
paintings of women who look fat by modern standards? During hard times, when
a culture’s food supply is unreliable and people are hungry, slender women are
actually less desirable than heavy women are (Nelson & Morrison, 2005). Around
the world, only during times of plenty are slender women considered to be attrac-
tive (Swami et al., 2010). Indeed, as economic prosperity spread through the
United States during the twentieth century, women were expected to be slimmer
and slimmer so that, back when they were popular, the average Playboy Playmate
was so slender she met the weight criterion for having an eating disorder (Owen
& Laurel-Seller, 2000).

Norms can differ across ethnic groups as well (influenced in part, perhaps, by
different patterns of economic well-being). Black and Latina women in the United
States are more accepting of some extra weight than white women are, and indeed,

7Once again, and as always, I am not making any of this up. More importantly, aren’t these findings remark-
able? Keep in mind that if a woman is changing the normal ebb and flow of her hormones by taking birth
control pills, none of this happens (Alvergne & Lummaa, 2010). But when women are cycling normally,
these patterns support the possibility that estrous cycles exist in humans just as they do in other animals.
The actual frequency with which heterosexual women have sex with their men does not fluctuate with ovula-
tion (Grebe et al., 2013), so such cycles are more subtle in humans, to be sure—but they may exist nonetheless
(Gangestad & Haselton, 2015).

A Point to Ponder

Are you intrigued or are you
annoyed by an evolutionary
perspective on physical attrac-
tiveness? Why?

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102 chapter 3: Attraction

Black and Latino men like heavier women than white men do (Glasser et al., 2009).
(But watch out: They still prefer the same curvaceous 0.7 WHR that is universally
appealing to men [Singh & Luis, 1995]. In fact, even those Renaissance paintings
depicted women with 0.7 WHRs.)

Collectively, these findings suggest that human nature and environmental condi-
tions work together to shape our judgments of who is and who isn’t pretty (Eastwick,
2013). We’re usually attracted to people who appear to be good mates, but what looks
good depends somewhat on the conditions we inhabit. Still, beauty is not just in the
eye of the beholder. There is remarkable agreement about who’s gorgeous and who’s
ugly around the world.

Looks Matter

When a stranger walks into the room, you’ll know with a glance how attractive he
or she is (Palomares & Young, 2018). Does that matter? Indeed, it does. During
speed dates—in which people meet a variety of potential partners and get a chance
to exchange any information they want—the biggest inf luence on their liking for
others is outward appearance. “Participants are given 3 minutes in which to make
their judgments, but they could mostly be made in 3 seconds” ( Kurzban & Weeden,
2005, p. 240). Men are attracted to women who are slender, young, and physically
attractive, and women are attracted to men who are tall, young, and physically
attractive. Of all the things people could learn about each other in a few minutes
of conversation, the one that matters most is physical attractiveness (Li et al., 2013).
Take someone’s Big 5 personality traits, attachment style, political attitudes, and
other values and interests into account, and the best predictor of interest in him or
her after a brief first meeting remains physical attractiveness. As you’d expect,
friendly, outgoing people tend to be well liked, and nobody much likes people who
are shy or high in anxiety about abandonment (McClure & Lydon, 2014), but noth-
ing else about someone is as important at first meeting as his or her looks (Olderbak
et al., 2017).

Of course, speed-dating events can be a bit hectic—have you ever introduced
yourself to 25 different potential partners in a busy hour and a half?—and when they
ponder the question, men all over the world report higher interest in having a phys-
ically attractive romantic partner than women do (Walter et al., 2020; see

Figure 3.5). This is true of gays and lesbians, too (Ha
et al., 2012). And indeed, 4 years into a marriage, a
man’s satisfaction is correlated with his spouse’s attrac-
tiveness, but a woman’s contentment is unrelated to her
partner’s looks (Meltzer et al., 2014). Women know
that men are judging them by their looks, which may
be why 87 percent of the cosmetic surgery performed
in the United States in 2018 was done on women
(American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2019).

But remember, despite the different emphasis men
and women (say they) put on good looks, physical

A Point to Ponder

Modern culture is full of im-
ages of tall, slender, shapely
women and tall, muscular,
handsome men. How are
these idealized images of
the two sexes subtly inf lu-
encing your real-life

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chapter 3: Attraction 103

attractiveness influences both sexes when people get together (Eastwick et al., 2014),
and on online dating sites, women are just as likely as men to want to see a photo of
a potential partner (Vogels, 2020). Looks matter. They’re the most potent influence
on how much any two people will initially like each other.

The Interactive Costs and Benefits of Beauty

So, what effects do our looks have on our interactions with others? Notably, despite
men’s interest in women’s looks, there is actually no correlation overall between a
woman’s beauty and the amount of time she spends interacting with men (Reis et al.,
1982). Attractive women get more dates, but plain women spend plenty of time inter-
acting with men in group settings where others are present. In contrast, men’s looks
are correlated with the number and length of the interactions they have with women.
Unattractive men have fewer interactions of any sort with fewer women than good-
looking guys do. In this sense, then, physical attractiveness has a bigger effect on the
social lives of men than it does on women.

Being more popular, attractive people tend to be less lonely, more socially skilled,
and a little happier than the rest of us (Feingold, 1992), and they’re able to have sex with
a wider variety of people if they want (Weeden & Sabini, 2007). Physical attractiveness
may even account for as much as 10 percent of the variability in people’s adjustment and
well-being over their lifetimes (Burns & Farina, 1992). But being attractive has disadvan-
tages, too. For one thing, perhaps because they’re so highly sought (even when they’re
already in a relationship), the marriages of gorgeous people are less stable than those of
the rest of us; they divorce more often than plain people do (Ma-Kellams et al., 2017).
Others lie to pretty people more often, too. People are more willing to misrepresent their
interests, personalities, and incomes to get close to an attractive person than they are to
fabricate an image for a plain partner (Rowatt et al., 1999). As a result, realizing that
others are often “brown-nosing,” or trying to ingratiate themselves, gorgeous people may
cautiously begin mistrusting or discounting some of the praise they receive from others.

FIGURE 3.5. Desire for physical attractiveness in a romantic partner.
Around the world, according to their self-reports, men care about a partner’s looks more than
women do.







3.0Indispensable Men

Bulgaria Nigeria Indonesia West



Source: Data from Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). “Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective
on human mating,” Psychological Review, 100, 204–232.

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104 chapter 3: Attraction

Consider this clever study: Attractive or unattractive people receive a written eval-
uation of their work from a person of the other sex who either does or does not know
what they look like (Major et al., 1984). In every case, each participant receives a
flattering, complimentary evaluation. (Indeed, everyone gets exactly the same praise.)
How did the recipients react to this good news? Attractive men and women trusted
the praise more and assumed that it was more sincere when it came from someone
who didn’t know they were good-looking. They were evidently used to getting insincere
compliments from people who were impressed by their looks. On the other hand, unat-
tractive people found the praise more compelling when the evaluator did know they
were plain; sadly, they probably weren’t used to compliments from people who were
aware of their unappealing appearances.

So, gorgeous people are used to pleasant interactions with others, but they tend
not to trust other people as much as less attractive people do (Reis et al., 1982). In
particular, others’ praise may be ambiguous. If you’re very attractive, you may never
be sure whether people are complimenting you because they respect your abilities or
because they like your looks.

Matching in Physical Attractiveness

I’ve spent several pages discussing physical attractiveness—which is an indication of
its importance—but there is one last point to make about its influence at the begin-
ning of a relationship. We all may want gorgeous partners, but we’re likely to end up
paired off with others who are only about as attractive as we are (Hitsch et al., 2010).
Partners in established romantic relationships tend to have similar levels of physical
attractiveness; that is, their looks are well matched, and this pattern is known as

The more serious and committed a relationship becomes, the more obvious match-
ing usually is. People may pursue others who are better-looking than they—on dating
sites, they’ll often pursue others who are about 25 percent more desirable than they
are (Bruch & Newman, 2018)—but they are unlikely to go steady with, or become
engaged to, someone who is “out of their league” (Taylor et al., 2011). What this means
is that, even if everybody wants a physically attractive partner, only those who are also
good-looking are likely to get them. None of the really good-looking people want to
pair off with us folks of average looks, and we, in turn, don’t want partners who are
“beneath us,” either (Lee et al., 2008).

Thus, it’s not very romantic, but similarity in physical attractiveness seems to
operate as a screening device. If people generally value good looks, matching will occur
as they settle for the best-looking partner who will have them in return (Montoya,
2008). There is, however, a heartwarming exception to this rule: Matching is less
obvious—and mismatches in attractiveness are more likely to occur—in partners who
were platonic friends before a romance developed between them (Hunt et al., 2015).
Evidently, matching matters less if people grow close before the issue of relative attrac-
tiveness rears its ugly head (so to speak). Husbands and wives do tend to be noticeably
similar in physical attractiveness (Little et al., 2006), and some relationships never get
started because the two people don’t look enough alike (van Straaten et al., 2009)—but
that needn’t always be the case.

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chapter 3: Attraction 105


The matching phenomenon suggests that, to enjoy the most success in the relationship
marketplace, we should pursue partners who are likely to return our interest—and in
fact, most people do just that. When we ponder possible partners, most of us rate our
realistic interest in others—and the likelihood that we will approach them and try to
start a relationship—using a formula like this (Shanteau & Nagy, 1979):

A Potential
Partner’s Desirability


Physical Attractiveness

His/Her Probability
of Accepting You

Everything else being equal, the better-looking people are, the more desirable
they are. However, this formula suggests that people’s physical attractiveness is mul-
tiplied by our judgments of how likely it is that they will like us in return to determine
their overall appeal. Do the math. If someone likes us a lot but is rather ugly, that
person probably won’t be our first choice for a date. If someone else is gorgeous but
doesn’t like us back, we won’t waste our time. The most appealing potential partner
is often someone who is moderately attractive and who seems to offer a reasonably
good chance of accepting us (perhaps because he or she isn’t gorgeous) (Montoya &
Horton, 2014).

Our expectations regarding the probability of others’ acceptance have much to do
with our mate value, or overall attractiveness as a reproductive partner. People with
high mate values are highly sought by others, and as a result, they’re able to insist on
partners of high quality. And they do (Arnocky, 2018). For instance, women who are
very good-looking have very high standards in men; they don’t just want a kind man
who would be a good father, or a sexy man who has good economic prospects; they
want all of those desirable characteristics in their partners (Buss & Shackelford, 2008).
If their mate values are high enough, they might be able to attract such perfect partners
(Conroy-Beam & Buss, 2016)—but if they’re overestimating their desirability and over-
reaching, they’re likely to remain frustrated (Bredow, 2015).

In general, our histories of acceptance and rejection from others have taught us
what to expect when we approach new potential partners (Charlot et al., 2020). Com-
pared to the rest of us, for instance, people who are shy (Wenzel & Emerson, 2009)
or who have low self-esteem (Bale & Archer, 2013) nervously expect more rejection
from others, so they pursue less desirable partners. But it’s common to be cautious
when we are unsure of others’ acceptance. A clever demonstration of this point
emerged from a study in which college men had to choose where to sit to watch a
movie (Bernstein et al., 1983). They had two choices: squeeze into a small cubicle next
to a very attractive woman, or sit in an adjacent cubicle—alone—where there was plenty
of room. The key point is that some of the men believed that the same movie was
playing on both monitors, whereas other men believed that different movies were show-
ing on the two screens. Let’s consider the guys’ dilemma. Presumably, most of them
wanted to become acquainted with the beautiful woman. However, when only one
movie was available, squeezing in next to her entailed some risk of rejection; their
intentions would be obvious, and there was some chance that the woman would tell
them to “back off.” However, when two different movies were available, they were on

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106 chapter 3: Attraction

safer ground. Sitting next to the woman could mean that they just wanted to see that
particular movie, and a rebuff from her would be rude. In fact, only 25 percent of the
men dared to sit next to the woman when the same movie was on both monitors, but
75 percent did so when two movies were available and their intentions were more
ambiguous. Moreover, we can be sure that the men were taking advantage of the
uncertain situation to move in on the woman—instead of really wanting to see that
particular movie—because the experimenters kept changing which movie played on
which screen. Three-fourths of the men squeezed in with the gorgeous woman no mat-
ter which movie was playing there!

In general, then, people seem to take heed of the likelihood that they will be
accepted and liked by others, and they are more likely to approach those who offer
acceptance than rejection. Our judgments of our mate values can vary from one rela-
tionship to another, as we assess our compatibility—and appeal—to particular partners
(Eastwick & Hunt, 2014). But the best acceptance usually comes from potential part-
ners who are selective and choosy and who don’t offer acceptance to everyone. In
speed-dating situations, for example, people who are eager to go out with everyone they
meet are liked less by others—and make fewer matches—than those who are more

What’s a Good Opening Line?

You’re shopping for groceries, and you keep
crossing paths with an attractive person who
smiles at you warmly when your eyes meet.
You’d like to meet him or her. What should
you say? You need to do more than just say,
“Hi,” and wait for a response, don’t you? Per-
haps some clever food-related witticism is the
way to go: “Is your dad a baker? You’ve sure
got a nice set of buns.”

Common sense suggests that such at-
tempts at humor are good opening lines. In-
deed, the Web is full of sites with lists of
funny pickup lines that are supposed to make
a good impression. Be careful, though; seri-
ous research has compared the effectiveness
of various types of opening lines, and a cute
or flippant remark may be among the worst
things to say.

Let’s distinguish cute lines from innocu-
ous openers (such as just saying, “Hi” or
“How’re you doing?”) and direct lines that
honestly communicate your interest (such as
“Hi, I’d like to get to know you”). When
women e valuate lines like these by watching
tapes of men who use them, they like the cute

lines much less than the other two types
(Kleinke & Dean, 1990). More importantly,
when a guy actually uses one of these lines on
a woman in a singles bar, the innocuous and
direct openers get a favorable response 70 per-
cent of the time compared to a success rate of
only 24 percent for the cute lines (Cunning-
ham, 1989). A line that is sexually forward
(such as “I may not be Fred Flintstone, but I
bet I can make your bed rock”) usually does
even worse (Cooper et al., 2007). There’s no
comparison: Simply saying hello is a much
smarter strategy than trying to be cute or for-
ward (Weber et al., 2010).

Why, then, do people create long lists of
flippant pickup lines? Because they’re men.
When a woman uses a cute line on a man in a
singles bar, it usually works—but that’s because
any opening line from a woman works well with
a man. But the approach men like best is for a
woman to honestly announce her interest with
a direct approach (such as “Want to have a
drink together?”) (Fisher et al., 2020). Whether
you’re a man or woman, if you’d like to get to
know someone, the best thing to do is to say so.

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chapter 3: Attraction 107

discriminating; people who say “yes” to everybody get few “yesses” in return, whereas
those who record interest in only a select few are more enticing to those they pick
(Eastwick et al., 2007). These results jive nicely, by the way, with classic studies of
what happens when people play “hard to get.” Because people like to be liked, pretend-
ing to be aloof and only mildly interested in someone is a dumb way to try to attract
him or her. Playing hard to get doesn’t work. What does work is being selectively hard
to get—that is, being a difficult catch for everyone but the person you’re trying to attract
(Walster et al., 1973). Those who can afford to say “no” to most people but who are
happy to say “yes” to us are the most alluring potential partners of all.

Still, everything else being equal, it’s hard not to like those who like us (Birnbaum
et al., 2018). Imagine that the first thing you hear about a new transfer student is that
he or she has noticed you and really likes you; don’t you feel positively toward him or
her in return? Liking and acceptance from others is powerfully rewarding, and we’re
attracted to those who provide it.


So, it’s rewarding to meet people who like us. It’s also enjoyable to find others who
are just like us and who share the same background, interests, and tastes. Indeed, when
it comes to our attitudes, age, race (and, to some degree, our personalities), the old
cliché that “birds of a feather flock together” is absolutely correct (Bahns et al., 2017;
Hampton et al., 2019). Like attracts like. Consider these classic examples:

• At the University of Michigan, previously unacquainted men were given free rooms
in a boardinghouse in exchange for their participation in a study of developing
friendships (Newcomb, 1961). At the end of the semester, the men’s closest friend-
ships were with those housemates with whom they had the most in common.

• At the University of Texas, researchers intentionally created blind dates between
men and women who held either similar social and political attitudes or dissimilar
views (Byrne et al., 1970). Each couple spent 30 minutes at the student union
getting to know each other over soft drinks. After the “dates,” similar couples liked
each other more than dissimilar couples did.

• At Kansas State University, 13 men spent 10 days jammed together in a simulated
fallout shelter, and their feelings about each other were assessed along the way
(Griffitt & Veitch, 1974). The men got along fine with those with whom they had
a lot in common, but would have thrown out of the shelter, if they could, those
who were the least similar to themselves.

As these examples suggest, similarity is attractive.

What Kind of Similarity?

But what kinds of similarities are we talking about? Well, lots. Whether they are lovers
or friends, happy relationship partners resemble each other more than random strang-
ers do in several ways. First, there’s demographic similarity in age, sex, race, education,
religion, and social class (Hitsch et al., 2010). Most of your best friends in high school

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108 chapter 3: Attraction

were probably of the same age, sex, and race (Hartl et al., 2015), and if you marry,
you and your spouse are likely to have similar levels of education (Jonason & Antoon,
2019). People are even more likely than you’d expect to marry someone whose last
name begins with the same last letter as their own (Jones et al., 2004)!

Then there’s similarity in attitudes and values. There is a straightforward link between
the proportion of the attitudes two people think they share and their attraction to each
other: the more agreement, the more liking. Take note of the pattern in Figure 3.6. When
people were told that they agreed on a lot of issues, attraction didn’t level off after a
certain amount of similarity was reached, and there was no danger in having “too much
in common.” Instead, where attitudes are concerned, the more similar two people are,
the more they like each other (Sprecher, 2019). For whom did you vote in the last elec-
tion? It’s likely you and your sweetheart cast similar ballots (and if you didn’t, there may
be trouble ahead [Afifi et al., 2020]).

Finally, to a lesser degree, partners may have similar personalities—but this pattern
is a bit complex. When it comes to me being happy with you, it’s not vital that you
and I have similar personalities (van Scheppingen et al., 2019); what matters is that
you are agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable, and so are easy and pleasant
to live with (Watson et al., 2014). My contentment will have more to do with your
desirable qualities than with how similar we are (Weidmann et al., 2017). Of course,
if I have a congenial, dependable personality, too, then you’re also happy, and our
personalities are fairly similar—but it’s not our similarity per se that’s promoting our

Attraction is influenced by similarity.
People who are similar in background
characteristics, physical attractiveness,
and attitudes are more likely to be
attracted to each other than are those
who are dissimilar.

FIGURE 3.6. The relationship between attraction
and perceived similarity in attitudes.
People expected to like a stranger when they
were led to believe that the stranger shared
their attitudes.






Proportion of Similar Attitudes
1.00.00 .10 .20 .30 .40 .50 .60 .70 .80.90

1 1.00





Source: Adapted from Byrne, D., & Nelson, D. (1965).
“Attraction as a linear function of proportion of positive
reinforcements,” Journal of Personality and Social Psy-
chology, 1, 659–663.Asia Images Group/Getty Images

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chapter 3: Attraction 109

satisfaction (Wood & Furr, 2016). The key here is that the link between similarity and
attraction is stronger for attitudes than for personalities (Watson et al., 2004), and it
actually varies some from country to country. In China, a country that values group
harmony, for instance, the personalities of husbands and wives are typically more
similar than those of spouses in the United States, a country that celebrates individu-
alism (Chen et al., 2009). (And that sounds like a point
to ponder.)

In any case, people with similar styles and traits
usually get along well when they encounter each other
(Sharabi & Caughlin, 2017); for instance, the first meet-
ings of two gregarious people or two shy people are
typically more enjoyable than the first conversation of
a gregarious person and a shy person is (Cuperman &
Ickes, 2009). People even like others better, when they
meet online, if they have similar avatars (van der Land
et al., 2015).

Do Opposites Attract?

So, in general, the more two people have in common, the more they like each other.
“Relationships are formed, in part, by the selection of partners who share important
attitudes, values, prejudices, activities, and some personality traits” (Bahns et al., 2017,
p. 341).8 When others share our views, we assume that they like us, we trust them
(Singh et al., 2017), and we enjoy time with them more than is the case when we
disagree (Hampton et al., 2019). Why, then, do some of us believe that “opposites
attract”? Are people really more attracted to each other when they are less alike? The
simple answer is no. There are some nuances at work, but people are not routinely
more content with dissimilar, rather than similar, partners. However, there are several
important subtleties in the way similarity operates that may mislead people into think-
ing that opposites do sometimes attract.

How Much Do We Think We Have in Common?
Perceived Similarity Matters

The first subtlety is that our perceptions of how much we have in common affect our
attraction to each more than our actual similarity does. For instance, 4 minutes after
people have met in a speed-dating study, their interest in each other has little to do with
how much they really have in common; instead, to the extent their liking for each other
is influenced by their personalities and interests, it depends on how similar they think
they are (Tidwell et al., 2013). And perceived similarity remains important even if a
relationship develops and the partners come to know each other better. After years of
friendship—or marriage!—partners still routinely think that they have more in common
with each other than they really do (Goel et al., 2010). They overestimate the similarities
they share (de Jong & Reis, 2014)—and discovering how wrong they are (if they ever do)

A Point to Ponder

Husbands and wives in
China typically have person-
alities that are more similar
to one another than spouses
in the United States do.
When it comes to marital
satisfaction, is that a good or
a bad thing?

8I added the italics to this quote.

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110 chapter 3: Attraction

can take some time. Meanwhile, interested onlookers—friends, family, co-workers—may
correctly observe that the partners are two very different people and infer, therefore, that
opposites must attract. No, the partners aren’t together because their differences are
desirable, they’re together because they think they’re not very different, and they’re wrong
(Sprecher, 2014).

Discovering Dissimilarities Can Take Time

If we like others when we meet them (perhaps simply because they’re good-looking),
we tend to expect (or is it hope?) that they have attitudes and values that are similar to
our own (Rodrigues et al., 2017)—and of course, sometimes we’re mistaken. If we get to
know them better, the interests and attitudes we actually share will become influential
(Luo, 2009), but it may take a while for us to figure that out.

A process like this was evident in Newcomb’s (1961) study of developing friend-
ships among men sharing a boardinghouse. Soon after they met, the men liked best
the housemates who they thought were most like them; thus, at first, their friendships
were influenced mostly by perceived similarity. As the semester progressed, however,
the actual similarities the men shared with each other played a larger and larger role
in their friendships. When they got to know each other better, the men clearly pre-
ferred those who really were similar to them, although this was not always the case
at first.

Then, even when we do know our partners well, there may still be surprises ahead.
According to Bernard Murstein’s (1987) stimulus-value-role theory, we gain three

Interethnic Relationships

Most of our intimate relationships are likely
to be with others of the same race. Neverthe-
less, marriages between spouses from differ-
ent ethnic groups are occurring at a record
pace in the United States, with 17 percent of
newlyweds marrying someone of a different
race (Geiger & Livingston, 2019). Those
couples raise an interesting question: If simi-
larity attracts, what’s going on? The answer is
actually straightforward: nothing special. If
you ignore the fact of their dissimilar ethnic-
ity, interethnic couples appear to be influ-
enced by the same motives that guide
everyone else. The partners tend to be similar
in age, education, and attractiveness, and
their relationships, like most, are based on
common interests and personal compatibil-
ity (Brummett, 2017). A few things distin-
guish people who date partners from other

cultural groups: Compared to their peers,
they’ve had closer contact with other ethnici-
ties (Skinner & Rae, 2019) and they’re more
accepting of other cultures (Brooks &
Neville, 2017). They also tend to live in areas
where potential partners of the same race are
relatively scarce (Choi & Tienda, 2017). In
general, however, inter ethnic partners are
just as satisfied as other couples (Troy et al.,
2006) and despite some lingering disap-
proval from others (Skinner & Rae, 2019),
they have the same chances for marital suc-
cess as their peers (Zhang & Van Hook,
2009). Their relationships operate the same
way: Two people who consider each other to
be good-looking and smart (Wu et al., 2015)—
and who are more alike than different—
decide to stay together because they’re happy
and they’ve fallen in love.

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chapter 3: Attraction 111

different broad types of information about our partners as a new relationship develops.
When we first meet, our attraction to each other is primarily based on “stimulus”
information involving obvious attributes such as age, sex, and, of course, looks. There-
after, during the “value” stage, attraction depends on similarity in attitudes and beliefs
as we learn whether we like the same kinds of pizzas, movies, and politics (see
Figure 3.7). Only later does “role” compatibility become important, when we finally
find out if we agree on the basics of parenting, careers, and housecleaning, among
other life tasks. The point is that partners can be perfectly content with each other’s
tastes in music (for instance) without ever realizing that they disagree fundamentally
about where they’d like to live and how many kids—if any!—they want to have. Impor-
tant dissimilarities sometimes become apparent only after couples have married—
and such spouses may stay together despite their differences, but it’s not because
opposites attract.

The influence of time and experience is also apparent in fatal attractions (Felmlee,
2001). These occur when a quality that initially attracts one person to another gradu-
ally becomes one of the most obnoxious, irritating things about that partner. For
instance, partners who initially seem spontaneous and fun may later seem irresponsible
and foolish, and those who appear strong and assertive may later seem domineering.
Those who initially welcome a partner’s high level of attention and devotion may come
to resent such behavior when it later seems too possessive. In such cases, the annoying
trait is no secret, but people fail to appreciate how their judgments of it will change
with time. Importantly, such fatal qualities are often different from one’s own; they
may seem admirable and desirable at first—so that a spendthrift who’s always broke
may initially admire a tightwad who counts every penny—but over time people realize
that such opposites aren’t attractive (Rick et al., 2011).

FIGURE 3.7. Three different phases of relationship development.
Murstein’s (1987) stimulus-value-role theory suggests that developing relationships are influ-
enced by three different types of information that differ in importance and influence as time
goes by and the partners learn more about each other.




f I




Increasing Intimacy




Source: Data from Murstein, B. I. (1987). “A clarification and extension of the SVR theory of dyadic pairing,”
Journal of Marriage and the Family, 49, 929–933.

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112 chapter 3: Attraction

You May Be the Person I Want to Become

Along those lines, people also admire those who possess skills and talents they
wish they had. Another nuance in the operation of similarity lies in our attraction to
others who are similar to our ideal selves, that is, who exhibit desirable qualities that
we want to, but do not yet, possess (Strauss et al., 2012). This tendency is complex
because it’s threatening and unpleasant when people surpass us and make us look bad
by comparison (Herbst et al., 2003). However, if others are only a little better than
us—so that they offer us implicit encouragement instead of humiliation—we may be
attracted to those who are actually a little different from us (for now) (Cemalcilar
et al., 2018). Let’s not overstate this subtlety. The most appealing partners of all are
those who are similar to us in most dimensions but who fit our attainable ideals in
others (Liu et al., 2018). Such people are hardly our “opposites.” But as long as the
differences are not too great, we may prefer a partner who is someone we’d like to
become to one who more closely resembles who we really are now.

Dissimilarity May Decrease over Time

Moreover, relationships can change people (Denzinger et al., 2018). Their per-
sonalities don’t change much (Rammstedt et al., 2013), but as time goes by, the
members of a couple often come to share more similar attitudes (Gonzaga et al.,
2010). Some of this decrease in dissimilarity probably occurs automatically as a cou-
ple shares compelling experiences, but some of it also occurs as the partners con-
sciously seek compatibility and contentment (Luo, 2017). Thus, opposites don’t
attract, but some opposites may gradually fade if a couple stays together for some
other reason.

Some Types of Similarity Are More Important than Others

A further nuance is that some similarities may be quite influential, whereas other
similarities—or opposites—may be rather innocuous. In particular, it’s especially reward-
ing to have someone agree with us on issues that are very important to us (Bahns
et al., 2017). Religion is often one such issue; shared beliefs are quite satisfying to a
couple when they are highly religious, but they have little effect—and even disagreement
is immaterial—when neither of the partners actively observes a faith (Lutz-Zois et al.,
2006). Thus, opposites don’t attract, but they also may not matter if no one attaches
much importance to them.

Housework and gender roles appear to be among the similarities that do routinely
matter. Cohabiting couples who disagree with each other about the division of household
labor are more likely to break up than are those who share similar views (Hohmann-
Marriott, 2006), and spouses who share such work are more satisfied than those who
divide it unequally (Amato et al., 2007). And husbands and wives who are more similar
in their gender roles—not less, as a traditional outlook would lead us to expect—are more
happily married than those who differ from one another in their styles and skills (Gaunt,
2006). In particular, compared to spouses who are more alike, macho husbands and
feminine wives (who clearly have different gender roles) feel less understood, share less
companionship, and experience less love and contentment in their marriages as time goes
by (Helms et al., 2006).

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chapter 3: Attraction 113

Matching Is a Broad Process

Another source of confusion arises when people pair off with others who are
obviously very different but who nevertheless have a similar mate value—as may be the
case when an old rich guy marries a lovely young woman. In such cases, the partners
are clearly dissimilar, and “opposites” may seem to attract. That’s a rather unsophisti-
cated view, however, because such partners are really just matching in a broader sense,
trading looks for money and vice versa. They may have different assets, but such
partners are still seeking good matches with others who have similar standing overall
in the interpersonal marketplace. People usually end up with others of similar mate
value, but the specific rewards they offer each other may be quite different.

This sort of thing goes on all the time. A study of 6,485 users of an online dating
service found that very homely—okay, ugly—men (those in the bottom 10 percent of
attractiveness among men) needed $186,000 more in annual income in order to attract
as much attention from women as fine-looking fellows (i.e., those in the top 10 percent);
nevertheless, if they did make that much more money, ugly guys received just as many
inquiries as handsome men did (Hitsch et al., 2010). Indeed, we tend to assume, don’t
we, that when a lovely woman is paired with a homely fellow, he must be pretty well
off or fairly famous (Hoplock et al., 2019).

It’s not very romantic, but fame, wealth, health, talent, and looks all appear to be
commodities that people use to attract more desirable partners than they might other-
wise entice. If we think of matching as a broad process that involves both physical
attractiveness and various other assets and traits, it’s evident that people usually pair
off with others of similar status, and like attracts like.

In fact, trade-offs like these are central ideas in evolutionary psychology. Because
men are more likely to reproduce successfully when they mate with healthy, fertile
women, sexual selection has presumably promoted men’s interest in youthful and beau-
tiful partners (Buss, 2019). Youth is important because women are no longer fertile
after they reach menopause in middle age. Beauty is meaningful because, as we’ve
already seen, it is roughly correlated with some aspects of good health (Van Dongen &
Gangestad, 2011). Thus, men especially value good looks in women (see Figure 3.5),
and, as they age, they seek partners who are increasingly younger than they are
(Conroy-Beam & Buss, 2019). They pay more for prostitutes in their teens and early 20s
than for women in their 30s (Dunn, 2018), and if they purchase a bride (as may hap-
pen in South Korea), they never buy one older than 25 even when they’re in their 40s
or 50s (Sohn, 2017). On dating sites, younger women get many more messages from
men than older women do (see Figure 3.8), and around the world, men who marry in
their twenties pair off with women who are 2 years younger than they are, on average,
but men who marry in their fifties seek wives who are 15 years younger than they
(Dunn et al., 2010).

Women don’t need to be as concerned about their partners’ youth because men
normally retain their capacity for reproduction as long as they live. Instead, given
their vastly greater parental investment in their offspring,9 women should seek mates
with resources who can provide for the well-being of mother and child during the long

9If a reminder regarding parental investment will be welcome, look back at page 38.

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114 chapter 3: Attraction

period of pregnancy and nursing. In fact, as Figure 3.9 illustrates, around the world,
women do care more about their partners’ financial prospects than men do (Walter
et al., 2020), and men who flash their cash attract more sexual partners than stingy
men do (Sundie et al., 2011). When he asks a woman who is walking by, for instance,
a guy climbing out of a luxury car (an Audi A5) is more likely to get her phone
number than he would be if he had a cheap car (a Renault Mégane) (Guéguen &
Lamy, 2012). Furthermore, women’s preferences for the age of their mates do not
change much as they age (Conroy-Beam & Buss, 2019); women don’t start seeking
younger men as mates until they (the women) are around 75 years old (Alterovitz &
Mendelsohn, 2011).

Thus, matching based on the exchange of feminine youth and beauty for masculine
status and resources is commonplace (Zhang et al., 2019). Sure enough, when they
advertise for partners on Craig’s List, women get the most interest from men when
they say they’re “lovely, slim, and very attractive,” but men get the most interest from
women when they describe themselves as “financially independent and successful”
(Strassberg & English, 2015). In addition, a high salary improves a woman’s impression
of an ugly man to a much greater extent than it affects a man’s (lack of) interest in
an ugly woman (Wang et al., 2018).10 Still, is all this the result of evolutionary pres-
sures? Advocates of a cultural perspective argue that women pursue desirable resources
through their partners because they are so often denied direct access to political and

FIGURE 3.8. Age and desirability online.
The figure compares the number of messages received, on average, by men and women who
were seeking partners of the other sex on a “popular, free online dating service” in New York,
Boston, Chicago, and Seattle. Users with higher rankings were more popular than those with
lower ranks. Men reached their peak desirability to women at age 50, but women were most
sought-after by men when they were 18 years old—and their comparative desirability declined
sharply thereafter.






20 25 30 35 40 45 50 55 60 65







10Here’s joke that acknowledges this pattern: “If I had a dollar for every girl that found me unattractive,
they’d eventually find me attractive” (Anand, 2017).

Source: Data from Bruch, E. E., & Newman, M. E. J. (2018). “Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating
markets,” Science Advances, 4(8), eaap 9815.

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chapter 3: Attraction 115

economic power of their own (Wood & Eagly, 2007). Indeed, in the United States—a
culture in which smart women have access to career opportunities—the more intelligent
a woman is, the lower her desire is for wealth and status in a romantic partner (Stanik
& Ellsworth, 2010). Nevertheless, around the world, even in countries that support and
promote female equality, women care a lot more about a mate’s financial prospects,
on average, than men do (Zhang et al., 2019).

So, the origins of the feminine-beauty-for-masculine-money trade-off remain uncer-
tain. But in any case, the bottom line here is that matching is a broad process that
involves multiple resources and traits. When “opposites” seem to attract, people may
be trading one asset for another in order to obtain partners of similar social status,
and it’s their similar mate values, not any desired differences, that make them attractive
to each other.

One Way “Opposites” May Attract Now and Then: Complementarity

Finally, there are times when different types of behavior can fit together well. In keep-
ing with the principle of instrumentality (back on page 88), we like responses from
others that help us reach our goals (Fitzsimons et al., 2015). When two partners have
different skills, each is usually happy to allow the other to take the lead on those tasks
at which the other is more talented (Beach et al., 2001). Such behavior is said to
complement our own, and complementarity—reactions that provide a good fit to our
own—can be attractive. Most complementary behaviors are actually similar actions;
people who are warm and agreeable, for instance, are happiest when they are met with
warmth and good humor in return.

However, some profitable forms of complementarity involve different behaviors from
two partners. Consider a couple’s sexual interactions; if one of them enjoys receiving oral
sex, their satisfaction is likely to be higher when the other enjoys giving it (de Jong &
Reis, 2014). Divisions of labor that suit our talents in pursuit of shared goals are often
advantageous: If I’m a dreamer who comes up with great ideas and you’re a details person
who’s a careful planner, we can enjoy some terrific vacations if we like to go to the same
places (Bohns et al., 2013). And when we really want something, it’s nice when our

FIGURE 3.9. Desire for good financial prospects in a romantic partner.
Around the world, women care more about a partner’s financial prospects than men do.







3.0Indispensable Men

Japan Zambia Yugoslavia Australia USA


Source: Data from Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). “Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on
human mating,” Psychological Review, 100, 204–232.

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116 chapter 3: Attraction

partners let us have our way. When we feel very sure of ourselves, we want our partners
to heed our advice; on other occasions, when we need help and advice, we want our
partners to give it (Markey et al., 2010).

Do these examples of rewarding complementarity sound like “opposites attract”
to you? I hope not. In general, patterns of behavior in others that are genuinely oppo-
site to our own—such as cool aloofness instead of our warmth, or submissive passivity
instead of our assertion and self-confidence—are annoying and frustrating (Hopwood
et al., 2011). Dominant people like to get their way, but they like other assertive folks
more than they like those who are chronically servile (Markey & Markey, 2007)—and
in any case, there’s not a lot of one spouse bossing the other around in happy mar-
riages (Cundiff et al., 2015). And trust me, if you’re an impulsive person who tends to
act without thinking, you do not want to pair off with a partner who is cautious and
planful (why? to keep you out of trouble?); you’ll be happier if you partner with some-
one who is just as impetuous and reckless as you are (Derrick et al., 2016).

The bottom line appears to be that we like partners who entertain and support us
but we don’t like partners who frustrate or impede us, and a partnership is fulfilling
when we desire the same goals and are able to work together to successfully achieve
them. So, the blend of similarities and differences that form an optimal mix may vary
from couple to couple (Baxter & West, 2003). Personal growth and novel activities are
also rewarding, so we like people with interests that are different from (but not incom-
patible with) our own when they introduce us to things we’ll both like (Aron et al.,
2006). The important thing to remember is that similar partners are more likely than
others to share our goals (Gray & Coons, 2017), so they supply us what we want more
often than anyone else can.

Add it all up, and opposites may sometimes seem to attract, but birds of a feather
are more likely to flock together. Similarity is usually rewarding; opposition is not.


We are nearly at the end of our survey of major influences on attraction, but one
important point remains. As we’ve seen, men and women differ in the value they place
on a partner’s physical attractiveness and income (Walter et al., 2020). I don’t want
those results to leave you with the wrong impression, however, because despite those
differences, men and women generally seek the same qualities in their relational part-
ners (Thomas et al., 2020). Let’s look more closely at what men and women want.

Around the world, there are three themes in the criteria with which people evalu-
ate potential mates (Lam et al., 2016). If we had our way, almost all of us would have
partners who offered

• warmth and loyalty, being trustworthy, kind, supportive, and understanding;
• attractiveness and vitality, being good-looking, sexy, and outgoing; and
• status and resources, being financially secure and living well.

All of these characteristics are desirable, but they’re not of equal importance, and their
prominence depends on whether we’re seeking a relatively casual, short-term fling or
a more committed long-term romance.

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chapter 3: Attraction 117

Men and women have the same (relatively low) standards when they’re pursuing
short-term flings (Eastwick et al., 2014). They both want a casual lover to be good-
looking (Perilloux & Cloud, 2019), and both sexes are less picky when they’re evaluating
partners for short-term liaisons than for lasting unions (Fletcher et al., 2004). For
instance, both sexes will accept lower intelligence, warmth, and earning potential in a
lover with whom they have a casual fling than they would require in a spouse (Buunk
et al., 2002). In particular, when they are contemplating short-term affairs, women will
accept men who aren’t especially kind, dependable, or understanding as long as their
lovers are muscular, sexy, and “hot” (Frederick & Haselton, 2007).

But women clearly recognize that attractive, dominant, masculine men who might
make compelling lovers often make unreliable long-term mates (Boothroyd et al., 2007).
When they are picking husbands, women consider a man’s good character to be more
important than his good looks. They attach more importance to the criteria of warmth
and loyalty and status and resources than to the criterion of attractiveness and vitality
when they are thinking long term (Thomas et al., 2020). When she finds she can’t
have it all, the average woman prefers a man who is kind, understanding, and well to
do—but not particularly handsome—to a good-looking but poor one, or a rich and good-
looking but cold and disloyal one (Li, 2008).

Men have different priorities. Like women, they value warmth and loyalty, but
unlike women, they attach more importance to attractiveness and vitality in a long-term
partner than to status and resources (Thomas et al., 2020). The average guy prefers a
kind, beautiful woman without any money to wealthy women who are gorgeous grouches
or women who are sweet but ugly (Li, 2008).

Of course, we typically have to accept some trade-offs like these when we’re seek-
ing intimate partners. Fulfilling all of our diverse desires by finding (and winning!) the
perfect mate is hard to do. If we insist that our partners be kind and understanding
and gorgeous and rich, we’re likely to stay frustrated for a long time. So, when they’re
evaluating potential mates, men typically check first to make sure that a woman has
at least average looks, and then they seek as much warmth, kindness, honesty, open-
ness, stability, humor, and intelligence as they can get (Li et al., 2002). Great beauty
is desirable to men, but it’s not as important as high levels of warmth and loyalty are
(with status and resources coming in a distant third). Women usually check first to
make sure that a man has at least some money or prospects, and then they, too, seek
as much warmth, kindness, honesty, openness, stability, humor, and intelligence as they
can get (Li et al., 2002). Wealth is desirable to women, but it’s not as important as
high levels of warmth and loyalty, and looks are in third place.

Gays and lesbians behave similarly, wanting the same things that heterosexual men
and women do (Lawson et al., 2014). And although most of the research results
described in this chapter were obtained in the United States, people all over the world
concur; a global sample of 218,000 Internet users ranked intelligence, humor, kindness,
and dependability as the top four traits they sought in a relationship partner (Lippa,
2007), and studies in Brazil ( Castro & de Araújo Lopes, 2010), Russia (Pearce et al.,
2010), Singapore (Li et al., 2011), China (Chen et al., 2015), and Iran, Pakistan, and
Turkey (Atari et al., 2020) have all yielded similar results.

Men and women generally agree on the things they don’t want in a mate, too.
When they are asked to identify dealbreakers, the characteristics that would lead them

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118 chapter 3: Attraction

to reject someone as a partner, both sexes put objectionable traits (such as being
untrustworthy, unfeeling, or abusive), ill-health (STDs or alcoholism), and poor hygiene
(“smells bad”) at the top of their lists (Jonason et al., 2015). Women are a bit more
cautious and choosy (Fletcher et al., 2014), having more dealbreakers than men, and
as you would expect (given our discussion back on page 105), people with higher mate
value have more dealbreakers, too (Jonason et al., 2015).

There is, of course, some idiosyncrasy in particular preferences from person to
person11—but individual preferences tend to be rather stable (Gerlach et al., 2019), so
that, if you change romantic partners, your past and present lovers may be noticeably
similar, resembling each other in attractiveness, IQ (Eastwick et al., 2017), and person-
ality (Park & MacDonald, 2019). And if your standards are changing, there may be
several reasons why (Bredow & Hames, 2019). Your mate value may have risen; did

There’s some idiosyncrasy in what we want in our partners, but in general, men and women
around the world share preferences for warmth, kindness, humor, and dependability in their mates.

11There are some different emphases in different cultures, too. People in Western cultures value a partner’s
sense of humor more than do those in Eastern cultures, and a partner’s financial prospects are judged to
be even more important in the East than in the West. But as noted above, the take home message is that
mate preferences are generally quite similar from one culture to the next (Thomas et al., 2020).

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chapter 3: Attraction 119

you just get a big promotion and pay raise? Or, if you’ve been struggling to find a
partner, you may be gradually lowering your standards (Jonason et al., 2020). If you’re
already in a relationship, you’re probably adjusting your preferences some so that they
fit your current partner (Kučerová et al., 2018); “when it comes to matters of the heart,
we tend to love what we currently have” (Gunaydin et al., 2018, p. 598). Or perhaps
you’re simply getting older; if they’re seeking a partner, people are less picky when
they’re 40 than when they’re 25 (Sprecher et al., 2019).

Still, add all this up, and attraction isn’t so mysterious after all. Men attend to looks
and women take note of resources, but everybody seems to want partners who are ami-
able, agreeable, loving, and kind. Men and women do not differ in this regard and their
preference for warmth and kindness in a mate grows stronger as they get older (and
wiser?) (Brumbaugh & Wood, 2013). As long as she’s moderately pretty and he has some
money, both sexes want as much warmth and loyalty as they can get. To the extent there
is any surprise here, it’s in the news that women don’t simply want strong, dominant
men; they want their fellows to be warm and kind and capable of commitment, too
(Thomae & Houston, 2016). If you’re an unemotional, stoic, macho male, take note:
Women will be more impressed if you develop some affectionate warmth to go with your
strength and power.


Rasheed introduced himself to Rebecca because she was really hot, and he was mildly
disappointed when she turned out to be a little suspicious, self-centered, and vain. On
the other hand, she was really hot, so he asked her out anyway. Because she was
impressed with his designer clothes and bold style, Rebecca was intrigued by Rasheed,
but after a few minutes she thought him a little pushy and arrogant. Still, he had tick-
ets to an expensive concert, so she accepted his invitation to go out on a date.

Having read this chapter, what do you think the date—and the future—hold for
Rebecca and Rasheed? Why?


rewards ……………………………………. p. 87
instrumentality …………………………. p. 88
proximity …………………………………. p. 88
mere exposure …………………………. p. 90
waist-to-hip ratio ………………………. p. 97

matching ………………………………… p. 104
mate value ……………………………… p. 105
stimulus-value-role theory ……….. p. 110
fatal attractions………………………. p. 111
complementarity …………………….. p. 115


The Fundamental Basis of Attraction

We are attracted to people whose presence is rewarding because they offer us
instrumentality, assistance in achieving our goals.

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120 chapter 3: Attraction

Proximity: Liking Those Near Us

We select our friends, and our enemies, from those around us.

Familiarity: Repeated Contact. In general, familiarity breeds attraction. Even brief,
mere exposure to others usually increases our liking for them.

Convenience: Proximity Is Rewarding, Distance Is Costly. Relationships with dis-
tant partners are ordinarily less satisfying than they would be if the partners were nearby.

The Power of Proximity. Close proximity makes it more likely that two people will
meet and interact, for better or for worse.

Physical Attractiveness: Liking Those Who Are Lovely

Our Bias for Beauty: “What Is Beautiful Is Good.” We assume that attractive
people have other desirable personal characteristics.

Who’s Pretty? Symmetrical faces with features of average dimensions are espe-
cially beautiful. Waist-to-hip ratios of 0.7 are very appealing in women, whereas a WHR
of 0.9 is attractive in a man if he has money.

An Evolutionary Perspective on Physical Attractiveness. Cross-cultural agreement
about beauty, cyclical variations in women’s desires, and the link between attractiveness
and good health are all consistent with the assumptions of evolutionary psychology.

Culture Counts, Too. Standards of beauty also fluctuate with changing economic
and cultural conditions.

Looks Matter.  When people first meet, nothing else affects attraction as much
as their looks do.

The Interactive Costs and Benefits of Beauty. Physical attractiveness has a larger
influence on men’s social lives than on women’s. Attractive people doubt the praise
they receive from others, but they’re still happier than unattractive people are.

Matching in Physical Attractiveness. People tend to pair off with others of similar
levels of beauty.

Reciprocity: Liking Those Who Like Us

People are reluctant to risk rejection. Most people calculate others’ overall desir-
ability by multiplying their physical attractiveness by their probability of reciprocal
liking. People who are desirable partners—that is, those with high mate value—insist
that their partners be desirable, too.

Similarity: Liking Those Who Are Like Us

Birds of a feather flock together. People like those who share their attitudes.

What Kind of Similarity? Happy relationship partners resemble each other in
demographic origin, attitudes, and, to a lesser degree, in personalities.

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chapter 3: Attraction 121

Do Opposites Attract? Opposites do not attract, but they may seem to for several
reasons. First, we are attracted to those who we think are like us, and we can be wrong.
Then, it takes time for perceived similarity to be replaced by more accurate understand-
ing of the attributes we share with others. People may be attracted to those who are
mildly different from themselves but similar to their ideal selves. People also tend to
become more similar over time, and some types of similarity are more important than
others. Matching is also a broad process; fame, wealth, talent, and looks can all be
used to attract others. Finally, we may appreciate behavior from a partner that differs
from our own but that complements our actions and helps us to reach our goals.

So, What Do Men and Women Want?

People evaluate potential partners with regard to (a) warmth and loyalty, (b) attrac-
tiveness and vitality, and (c) status and resources. For lasting romances, women want
men who are warm and kind and who are not poor, and men want women who are
warm and kind and who are not unattractive. Thus, everybody wants intimate partners
who are amiable, agreeable, and loving.


• Proximity is attractive; don’t expect absence to make the heart grow fonder.
• Don’t be fooled: A dating site that promises to find a perfect partner for you
probably won’t.

• Don’t judge a book by its cover; beauty isn’t talent.
• Seek friends and lovers with whom you agree on all of the things that are impor-
tant to you.

• Join the crowd: Put a potential partner’s warmth and kindness at the top of your
list of priorities.


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C H A P T E R 4

Social Cognition

First Impressions (and Beyond) ♦ The Power of Perceptions ♦ Impression
Management ♦ So, Just How Well Do We Know Our Partners? ♦ For Your

Consideration ♦ Key terms ♦ chapter summary ♦ suggestions for
satisfaction ♦ references

Imagine that you’re home in bed, sick with a flu, and your lover doesn’t call you dur-
ing the day to see how you’re doing. You’re disappointed. Why didn’t your partner call?
Is he or she thoughtless and inconsiderate? Is this just another frustrating example of
his or her self-centered lack of compassion? Or is it more likely that your loving, caring
partner didn’t want to risk waking you from a nap? There are several possible explana-
tions, and you can choose a forgiving rationale, a blaming one, or something in between.
And importantly, the choice may really be up to you; the facts of the case may allow
several different interpretations. But whatever you decide, your judgments are likely to
be consequential. At the end of the day, your perceptions will have either sustained or
undermined the happiness of your relationship.

We’ll focus on judgments like these in this chapter on social cognition, a term that
refers to all the processes of perception, interpretation, belief, and memory with which
we evaluate and understand ourselves and other people (Fiske & Taylor, 2017). So, in
short, this chapter will be concerned with the ways we think about our relationships.
We’ll explore how our judgments of our partners and their behavior set the stage for the
events that follow. We’ll consider our own efforts to influence and control what our
partners think of us. And we’ll ponder just how well two people are likely to know each
other, even in an intimate relationship. Throughout the chapter, we’ll find that our per-
ceptions and interpretations of our partnerships are of enormous importance: What we
think helps to determine what we feel, and then how we act. This wouldn’t be a problem
if our judgments were always accurate. However, there are usually a variety of reasonable
ways to interpret an event (as my opening example suggests), and we can make mistakes
even when we’re confident that we have arrived at the truth. Indeed, some of those
mistakes may begin the moment we meet someone, as studies of first impressions reveal.


First impressions matter. The judgments we form of others after a brief first meeting
often have enormous staying power, with our initial perceptions continuing to be influ-
ential months later (Brown & Bernieri, 2017). This fact may be obvious if we dislike


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134 chapter 4: Social Cognition

someone so much after an initial interaction that we avoid any further contact with him
or her (Denrell, 2005); in such cases, our first impressions are the only impressions we
ever get. However, first impressions continue to be influential even when we do see more
of a new acquaintance. When researchers formally arranged get-acquainted conversations
between new classmates, the initial impressions the students formed continued to influ-
ence their feelings about each other 10 weeks later (Human et al., 2013).

Conceivably, some first impressions last because they are discerning and correct.
Sometimes it doesn’t take us long to accurately decide who’s nice and who’s not, and
if we’re right, there’s no need to revise our initial perceptions. On the other hand, first
impressions can be remarkably persistent even when they’re erroneous (Harris &
Garris, 2008). Right or wrong, first impressions linger, and that’s why they matter so
much. Let’s consider how they operate.

We start judging people from the moment we meet them. And by “moment,”
I mean the first one-thirtieth of a second. That’s all it takes—only 33 milliseconds1—for
us to form judgments of a stranger’s attractiveness, trustworthiness, and status that are
very similar to those we’ll hold after a minute’s careful inspection of the person’s face
(Palomares & Young, 2018). “Before we can finish blinking our eyes, we’ve already
decided whether we want to hire, date, hate, or make friends with a person we’re
encountering for the first time” (Rule, 2014, p. 18). Then, after watching the stranger
chat with someone of the other sex for only 5 seconds, we’ve decided how extraverted,
conscientious, and intelligent he or she is (Carney et al., 2007). We jump to conclu-
sions very, very quickly.

Our snap judgments are influenced by the fact that everyone we meet fits some
category of people about whom we already hold stereotyped first impressions. This
may sound like a daring assertion, but it isn’t, really. Think about it: Everyone is either
male or female, and (as we saw in chapter 1), we expect different behavior from men
and women. (And if we can’t decide what sex you are, we probably won’t like you very
much [Stern & Rule, 2018].) Furthermore, at a glance, we can tell whether someone
is beautiful or plain, and (as we saw in chapter 3), we assume that pretty people are
likable people. Dozens of other distinctions may come into play: young/old, Black/
white, pierced/unpierced, rural/urban, and many more. The specifics of these stereo-
types may vary from one perceiver to the next, but they operate similarly in anyone:
Stereotypes supply us with preconceptions about what people are like. The judgments
that result are often quite incorrect (Olivola & Todorov, 2010), but they’re hard to
avoid: Stereotypes influence us automatically, even when we are unaware of using them
(Nestler & Back, 2013). So, some initial feelings about others may spring up unbidden
even when we want to be impartial and open minded.

Then, if we take a close look at others before we say hello, there may be a surpris-
ing amount of specific information about them that is available from afar. Examine
their shoes: Students at the University of Kansas gained some insight into others’ age,
gender, income, and even anxiety about abandonment from nothing more than a pic-
ture of their shoes (Gillath et al., 2012). Study their faces: We tend to assume that
men with high facial width-to-height ratios—whose faces are wide and short—are more

1A millisecond is a thousandth of a second. So, after 33 milliseconds have passed, there’s still 96.7 percent
of a second yet to come before one full second has passed.

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chapter 4: Social Cognition 135

likely to be prejudiced than those whose faces are narrower and taller. And we’re right.
They are (Hehman et al., 2013). With a quick glance at a politician’s face, we’re also
fairly good at judging whether he is conservative or liberal (Wänke et al., 2012) and
how corruptible he is (Lin et al., 2018)!

If we do interact with someone, we continue jumping to conclusions. Please take
a moment—seriously, take your time and read the next line slowly—and consider some-
one who is

envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, and intelligent.

Would you want this person as a co-worker? Probably not much. Now, please take
another moment to size up someone else who is

intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious.

More impressive, yes? This person isn’t perfect, but he or she seems competent and
ambitious. The point, of course, is that the two descriptions offer the same information
in a different order, and that’s enough to engender two different impressions (Fourakis

What is your first impression of these two people? The man on the left has a lower facial
width-to-height ratio (fWHR), so his face is narrower and taller than the face of the man on
the right. The white rectangles indicate the measurements that are used to calculate fWHR,
across the face at the top of the jaw and vertically from the top of the upper lip to the middle
of the eyebrows. To a modest degree, men with higher fWHRs are more likely than other men
to report prejudicial attitudes (possibly because they’re more likely to tell the truth, no matter
what anyone thinks). Indeed, we judge men with narrower faces to have more integrity and to
be more trustworthy (Ormiston et al., 2017). Women actually prefer men with larger fWHRs
as short-term mates—which makes sense because they have higher sex drives and are more
open to casual sex (Arnocky et al., 2018) but they’re not more desirable when women are
evaluating them as potential future husbands (Valentine et al., 2014).

Dr. Eric Hehman

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& Cone, 2020). Our judgments of others are influenced by a primacy effect, a tendency
for the first information we receive about others to carry special weight, along with
our instant impressions and our stereotypes, in shaping our overall impressions
of them.

Primacy effects provide one important indication of why first impressions matter
so much: Right or wrong, our quick first judgments of others influence our interpreta-
tions of the later information we encounter. Once a judgment forms, it affects how
we use the data that follow, and often in subtle ways that are difficult to detect. John
Darley and Paget Gross (1983) demonstrated this when they showed Princeton stu-
dents a video that established the social class of a young girl named “Hannah.” Two
different videos were prepared, and some people learned that Hannah was pretty poor,
whereas others found that she was rather rich; she either played in a deteriorating,
paved schoolyard and returned home to a dingy, small duplex or played on expansive,
grassy fields and went home to a large, lovely house. The good news is that when
Darley and Gross asked the participants to guess how well Hannah was doing in
school, they did not assume the rich kid was smarter than the poor kid; the two groups
both assumed she was getting average grades (see Figure 4.1). After that, however, the
researchers showed the participants a video of Hannah taking an aptitude test and
doing an inconsistent job, answering some difficult questions correctly but blowing
some easy ones. Everyone saw the same video, but—and here’s the bad news—they
interpreted it very differently depending on their impressions of her social class.
People who thought that Hannah was poor cited her mistakes and judged her as
performing below average, whereas those who thought she was rich noted her suc-










Test Information




Social Class

Social Class

FIGURE 4.1. Our preconceptions control our interpretations of information about others.
People equipped with different expectations about the social class of a fourth-grade girl drew
very different conclusions about her performance on an achievement test, although they all
witnessed the very same performance. Those who thought they were watching a rich kid
judged her to be performing at a level that was an entire grade better than did those who
thought they were watching a girl from a more modest background.

Source: Data from Darley, J. M., & Gross, P. H. (1983). “A hypothesis-confirming bias in labeling effects,” Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 20–33.

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cesses and rated her as considerably better than average. Perceivers equipped with
different preconceptions about Hannah’s social class interpreted the same sample of her
behavior in very different ways and came to very different conclusions. And note how
subtle this process was: They didn’t leap to biased assumptions about Hannah simply
by knowing her social class, making an obvious mistake that might easily be noticed.
Instead, their knowledge of her social class lingered in their minds and contaminated
their interpretations of her later actions. And they probably made their biased judg-
ments with confidence, feeling fair and impartial. Both groups could point to a portion
of her test performance—the part that fit their preconceptions—and feel perfectly jus-
tified in making the judgments they did, never realizing that people with other
first impressions were watching the same videotape and reaching contradictory

Thus, first impressions affect our interpretations of the subsequent information we
encounter about others. They also affect our choices of the new information we seek.
When we want to test a first impression about someone, we’re more likely to pursue
information that will confirm that belief than to inquire after data that could prove it
wrong. That is, people ordinarily display a confirmation bias: They seek information
that will prove them right more often than they look for examples that would prove
them wrong (Costabile & Madon, 2019). For instance, imagine that you’re instructed
to interview a fellow student to find out if he or she is a sociable extravert, and you’re
handed a list of possible questions to ask. Some of the questions are neutral (e.g.,
“What are the good and bad points of acting friendly and open?”) but others are
slanted toward eliciting introverted responses (“What do you dislike about loud par-
ties?”) while still others are likely to get extraverted answers (“What do you do when
you want to liven things up at a party?”). How would you conduct the interview? If
you’re like most people, you’d select questions that probe for evidence that your expec-
tation is correct.

That’s just what happened when researchers asked some people to find out if a
stranger was extraverted, but asked others to find out if the person was introverted
(Snyder & Swann, 1978b). The two groups of interviewers adopted two very different
lines of investigation, asking questions that made it likely that they’d get examples of
the behaviors they expected to find. In fact, the interviews were so biased that audi-
ences eavesdropping on them actually believed that the strangers really were rather
extraverted or introverted, depending on the interviewers’ preconceptions.

Indeed, the problem with confirmatory biases is that they elicit one-sided informa-
tion about others that fits our preconceptions—and as a result, we too rarely confront
evidence that shows that our first impressions are wrong. Thus, not only may we cling
to snap judgments that are incorrect, but we routinely also experience overconfidence,
thinking that we’re more accurate than we really are and making more mistakes than
we realize (Ames et al., 2010). Here’s an example. After you begin dating a new roman-
tic partner, you’re likely to become confident that you understand his or her sexual
history as time goes by. You’ll probably feel increasingly certain, for instance, that you
know whether or not he or she has a sexually transmitted infection. Unfortunately,
you’re not likely to be as well-informed as you think. Studies at the University of Texas
at Austin found that people could not estimate the risk that a new acquaintance was
HIV-positive as well as they thought they could (Swann et al., 1995). They were

chapter 4: Social Cognition 137

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overconfident when a new relationship began, and as the relationship developed, they
only got worse (Swann & Gill, 1997). With greater familiarity, they became more cer-
tain that they understood their new partners well, but their accuracy did not change
(see Figure 4.2).

So, first impressions matter (Gunaydin et al., 2017). We rarely process information
about others in an unbiased, evenhanded manner. Instead, our existing notions, whether
they’re simple stereotypes or quick first impressions, affect how we access and what
we make of the new data we encounter. We are usually unaware of how readily we
overlook evidence that we could be wrong. We’re not tentative. Armed with only some
of the facts—those that tend to support our case—we put misplaced faith in our judg-
ments of others, being wrong more often than we realize. And this all adds up to our
early impressions of others being “more resistant to change than our intuitions would
have us believe” (Brown & Bernieri, 2017, p. 725).

Now, of course, we come to know our partners better with time and experience,
and first impressions can certainly change as people learn more about each other
(Satchell, 2019). However—and this is the fundamental point I wish to make—existing
beliefs are influential at every stage of a relationship, and when it comes to our friends
and lovers, we may see what we want to see and hold confident judgments that aren’t
always right (Leising et al., 2014).

For instance, who are the better judges of how long your current romantic rela-
tionship will last, you or your parents? Remarkably, when university students, their
roommates, and their parents were all asked to forecast the future of the students’
dating relationships, the parents made better predictions than the students did, and
the roommates did better still (MacDonald & Ross, 1999). You’d think that people
would be the best judges of their own relationships, but the students focused on the



Length of Relationship

Actual Accuracy


l a















FIGURE 4.2. Accuracy and (over) confidence in developing relationships.
At the beginning of their relationships, people felt that they knew more about the sexual histo-
ries of their new partners than they really did. Then, as time went by, they became quite certain
that they were familiar with all the facts, when in truth, their actual accuracy did not improve.

Source: Data from Swann, W. B., Jr., & Gill, M. J. (1997). “Confidence and accuracy in person perception: Do
we know what we think we know about our relationship partners?”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
73, 747–757.

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strengths of their partnerships and ignored the weaknesses, and as a result, they con-
fidently and optimistically predicted that the relationships would last longer than they
usually did. Parents and roommates were more dispassionate and evenhanded, and
although they were less confident in their predictions, they were more accurate in
predicting what the future would hold. In fact, the most accurate predictions of all
regarding the future of a heterosexual relationship often come from the friends of the
woman involved (Loving, 2006). If her friends approve of a partnership, it’s likely to
continue, but if they think the relationship is doomed, it probably is (Etcheverry &
Agnew, 2004).

Thus, the same overconfidence, confirmatory biases, and preconceptions that com-
plicate our perceptions of new acquaintances operate in established relationships as
well. Obviously, we’re not clueless about our relationships, and when we’re deliberate
and cautious, we make more accurate predictions about their futures than we do when
we’re in a romantic mood. But it’s hard to be dispassionate when we’re devoted to a
relationship and want it to continue; in such cases, we are particularly prone to con-
firmation biases that support our optimistic misperceptions of our partners (Gagné &
Lydon, 2004).

So, our perceptions of our relationships are often less detached and completely
correct than we think they are. And, for better or for worse, they have considerable
impact on our subsequent feelings and behavior, as we’ll see next.

When we meet others for the first time, stereotypes and primacy effects influence our inter-
pretations of the behavior we observe. Confirmation biases and overconfidence may follow.

MB Images/Shutterstock

chapter 4: Social Cognition 139

miL04267_ch04_133-178.indd 139 12/01/21 5:53 PM


Our judgments of our relationships and our partners seem to come to us naturally, as
if there were only one reasonable way to view them. Little do we realize that we’re
often choosing to adopt the perspectives we use, and we facilitate or inhibit our satisfac-
tion with our partners by the choices we make.

Idealizing Our Partners

What are you looking for in an ideal romantic relationship? As we saw in chapter 3,
most of us want a partner who is warm and trustworthy, loyal and passionate, and
attractive and rich, and our satisfaction depends on how well our lovers approach those
ideals (Tran et al., 2008). What we usually get, however, is something less. How, then,
do we ever stay happy with the real people we attract?

One way is to construct charitable, generous perceptions of our partners that
emphasize their virtues and minimize their faults. People often judge their lovers with
positive illusions that portray their partners in the best possible light (Fletcher et al.,
2013). Such “illusions” are a mix of realistic knowledge about our partners and ideal-
ized perceptions of them. They do not ignore a partner’s faults; they just consider them
to be circumscribed, specific drawbacks that are less important and influential than
their many assets and advantages are (Neff & Karney, 2003). They have all the facts,
but they interpret them differently than everyone else—so they judge their partners more
positively than other people do, and even more positively than the partners judge
themselves (Gignac & Zajenkowski, 2019).

We Don’t Always Know Why We Think What We Do

Consider this: When you show up for a psy-
chology study, the researcher asks you to
hold her cup of warm coffee for about 20 sec-
onds while she records your name on a clip-
board. Then, you’re asked to form an
impression of a stranger who is described in
a brief vignette. Would your warm hands lead
you to intuit that the stranger is a warm and
generous person? Would you have liked the
stranger less if you had been holding a cup of
iced coffee instead? Remarkably, the answer
to both of those questions is yes. Warm
hands lead research participants to think
warmer thoughts about a stranger than cool
hands do (Bargh & Melnikoff, 2019).

How about this? Would sitting at a
wobbly table on a wobbly chair increase

your desire for stability (such as trustworthi-
ness and reliability) in a mate? The answer
is yes, again (Kille et al., 2013), and there
are two aspects of these phenomena that are
intriguing. First, our impressions of others
can be shaped by a variety of inf luences,
and some of them have nothing to do with
the person who’s being judged. Second, the
people in these studies were completely un-
aware that current conditions such as the
temporary temperature of their hands were
swaying their judgments. We don’t always
know why we hold the opinions we do, and
on occasion, our impressions of others are
unwarranted. Both points are valuable les-
sons for a discerning student of social

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Isn’t it a little dangerous to hold a lover in such high esteem? Won’t people inevi-
tably be disappointed when their partners fail to fulfill such positive perceptions? The
answers may depend on just how unrealistic our positive illusions are (Neff & Karney,
2005). If we’re genuinely fooling ourselves, imagining desirable qualities in a partner
that he or she does not possess, we may be dooming ourselves to disillusionment (Niehuis
et al., 2011). On the other hand, if we’re aware of all the facts but are merely interpret-
ing them in a kind, benevolent fashion, such “illusions” can be very beneficial (Fletcher,
2015). When we idealize our partners, we’re predisposed to judge their behavior in
positive ways, and we are more willing to commit ourselves to maintaining the relation-
ship (Park & Young, 2020). And we can slowly convince our partners that they actually
are the wonderful people we believe them to be because our high regard improves their
self-esteem (Murray et al., 1996). Add it all up, and idealized images of romantic part-
ners are associated with greater satisfaction as time goes by (Murray et al., 2011).

In addition, as I mentioned in chapter 3, there’s a clever way in which we protect
ourselves from disillusionment: Over time, as we come to know our partners well, we
tend to revise our opinions of what we want in an ideal partner so that our standards
fit the partners we’ve got (Kučerová et al., 2018). To a degree, we conveniently decide
that the qualities our partners have are the ones we want.

Thus, by choosing to look on the bright side—perceiving our partners as the best they can
be—and by editing our ideals and hopes so that they fit the realities we face, we can increase
the chances that we’ll be happy with our present partners. Indeed, our partners generally know
that we’re idolizing them, and they usually want us to, within reason (Boyes & Fletcher, 2007)—
and if we receive such positive, charitable perceptions in return, everybody wins.

Attributional Processes

Our delight or distress is also affected by the manner in which we choose to explain our
partners’ behavior. The explanations we generate for why things happen—and in particu-
lar why a person did or did not do something—are called attributions. An attribution
identifies the causes of an event, emphasizing the impact of some influences and mini-
mizing the role of others. Studies of such judgments are important because there are
usually several possible explanations for most events in our lives, and they can differ in
meaningful ways (Weiner, 2018). We can emphasize influences that are either internal
to someone, such as the person’s personality, ability, or effort, or external, implicating
the situation or circumstances the person faced. For instance (as you’ve probably
noticed), students who do well on exams typically attribute their success to internal
causes (such as their preparation and talent), whereas those who do poorly blame exter-
nal factors (such as a tricky test) (Forsyth & Schlenker, 1977). The causes of events may
also be rather stable and lasting, as our abilities are, or unstable and transient, such as
moods that come and go. Finally, causes can be said to be controllable, so that we can
manage them, or uncontrollable, so that there’s nothing we can do about them. With all
of these distinctions in play, diverse explanations for a given event may be plausible. And
in a close relationship in which interdependent partners may both be partly responsible
for much of what occurs, judgments of cause and effect can be especially complicated.

Nevertheless, three broad patterns routinely emerge from studies of attributions in
relationships. First, despite their intimate knowledge of each other, partners are affected

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by robust actor/observer effects: They generate different explanations for their own behav-
ior than they do for the similar things they see their partners do (Malle, 2006). People
are often acutely aware of the external pressures that have shaped their own behavior, but
they overlook how the same circumstances affect others; as a result, they acknowledge
external pressures when they explain their own actions, but they make internal attributions
(for instance, to others’ personalities) when other people behave exactly the same way.
What makes this phenomenon provocative in close relationships is that it leads the partners
to overlook how they often personally provoke the behavior they observe in each other.
During an argument, if one partner thinks, “she infuriates me so when she does that,” the
other is likely to be thinking, “he’s so temperamental. He needs to learn to control himself.”
This bias is so pervasive that two people in almost any interaction are reasonably likely to
agree about what each of them did but to disagree about why each of them did it (Robins
et al., 2004). And to complicate things further, the two partners are unlikely to be aware
of the discrepancies in their attributions; each is likely to believe that the other sees things
his or her way. When partners make a conscious effort to try to understand the other’s
point of view, the actor/observer discrepancy gets smaller (Arriaga & Rusbult, 1998), but
it rarely vanishes completely (Malle, 2006). The safest strategy is to assume that even your
closest partners seldom comprehend all your reasons for doing what you do.

Second, despite genuine affection for each other, partners are also likely to display
self-serving biases in which they readily take credit for their successes but try to avoid
the blame for their failures. People like to feel responsible for the good things that
happen to them, but they prefer external excuses when things go wrong (Allen et al.,
2020). Thus, although they won’t tell their partners (Miller & Schlenker, 1985), they
usually think that they personally deserve much of the credit when their relationships
are going well, but they’re not much to blame if a partnership is doing poorly
(Thompson & Kelley, 1981). One quality that makes this phenomenon interesting is
that most of us readily recognize overreaching ownership of success and flimsy excuses
for failure when they come from other people, but we think that our own similar, self-
serving perceptions are sensible and accurate (Ross, 2018). This occurs in part because
we are aware of—and we give ourselves credit for—our own good intentions, even when
we fail to follow through on them, but we judge other people only by what they do,
not what they may have intended to do (Kruger & Gilovich, 2004).

This is a provocative pattern, so let’s consider how it works. Imagine that Fred
goes to sleep thinking, “I bet Wilma would like breakfast in bed in the morning.” He
intends to do something special for her, and he proudly gives himself credit for being
a thoughtful partner. But when he oversleeps and has to dash off to work without
actually having done anything generous, he’s likely to continue feeling good about
himself: After all, he had kind intentions. In contrast, Wilma can only judge Fred by
his actions; she’s not a party to what he was thinking, and she has no evidence in this
instance that he was thoughtful at all. Their different sources of information may lead
Fred to consider himself a better, more considerate partner than Wilma (or anyone
else) perceives him to be (Lemay, 2014). (Remember those thank-you notes you were
intending to write but never did? You probably give yourself some credit for wanting
to get around to them, but all your disappointed grandmother knows is that you never
thanked her, and you’re behaving like an impolite ingrate!)

Subtle processes like these make self-serving explanations of events routine in
social life. It’s true that loving partners are less self-serving toward each other than

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they are with other people (Sedikides et al., 1998). Nev-
ertheless, self-serving biases exist even in contented
relationships. In particular, when they fight with each
other, spouses tend to believe that the argument is
mostly their partner’s fault (Schütz, 1999). And if they
have extramarital affairs, people usually consider their
own affairs to be innocuous dalliances, but they con-
sider their spouse’s affairs to be grievous betrayals
(Warach et al., 2019).

Thus, partners’ idiosyncratic perspectives allow them to feel that they have better
excuses for their mistakes than their friends and lovers do. They also tend to believe
that their partners are the source of most disagreements and conflict. Most of us feel
that we’re pretty easy to live with, but they’re hard to put up with sometimes. Such
perceptions are undoubtedly influential, and, indeed, a third important pattern is that
the general pattern of a couple’s attributions helps determine how satisfied they will
be with their relationship (Osterhout et al., 2011). Happy people make attributions for
their partners’ behavior that are relationship enhancing. Positive actions by the partner
are judged to be intentional, habitual, and indicative of the partner’s fine character;
that is, happy couples make controllable, stable, and internal attributions for each
other’s positive behavior. They also tend to discount one another’s transgressions, see-
ing them as accidental, unusual, and circumstantial; thus, negative behavior is excused
with attributions to external, unstable, and uncontrollable causes (Walsh & Neff, 2020).

Through such attributions, satisfied partners magnify their partner’s kindnesses
and minimize their missteps, and, as long as a partner’s misbehavior really is just an
occasional oversight, these benevolent explanations keep the partners happy (McNulty,
2011). But dissatisfied partners do just the opposite, exaggerating the bad and minimiz-
ing the good (Fincham, 2001). Unhappy people make distress-maintaining attributions
that regard a partner’s negative actions as deliberate and routine and positive behavior
as unintended and accidental. (See Figure 4.3.) Thus, whereas satisfied partners judge
each other in generous ways that are likely to keep them happy, distressed couples
perceive each other in an unforgiving fashion that can keep them dissatisfied no mat-
ter how each behaves (Durtschi et al., 2011). When distressed partners are nice to one
another, each is likely to write off the other’s thoughtfulness as a temporary, unchar-
acteristic lull in the negative routine. When kindnesses seem accidental and hurts seem
deliberate, satisfaction is hard to come by (Hook et al., 2015).

Where does such a self-defeating pattern come from? Attachment styles are
inf luential. People with secure styles tend to tolerantly employ relationship-enhancing
attributions, but insecure people—particularly those who are high in anxiety about
abandonment—are more pessimistic (Kimmes et al., 2015). And disappointments
of various sorts may cause anyone to gradually adopt a pessimistic perspective
(Karney & Bradbury, 2000). But one thing is clear: Maladaptive attributions can
lead to cantankerous behavior and ineffective problem solving (Hrapczynski et al.,
2011), and they can cause dissatisfaction that would not have occurred otherwise
(Kimmes et al., 2015). With various points of view at their disposal, people can
choose to explain a partner’s behavior in ways that are endearing and forgiving, or
pessimistic and pejorative—and the success of their relationship may ultimately
hang in the balance.

A Point to Ponder

To what extent are you able to
comprehend your partner’s
perceptions of the role you
played in escalating your last
argument with him or her?

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Our perceptions of the current events in our relationships are obviously influential. So
are our memories of the things that have happened in the past.

We usually assume that our memories are faithful representations of past events. In
particular, we’re likely to trust vivid memories because they seem so certain and detailed.
But years of research (Loftus, 2019) have clearly demonstrated that, although our memories
are mostly reliable (Brewin et al., 2020), we nevertheless edit and update our memories—
even seemingly vivid ones—as new events unfold, so that what we remember about the past
is always a mix of what h appened then and what we know now. Psychologists use the term
reconstructive memory to describe the manner in which our memories are continually
revised and rewritten as new information is obtained.

Reconstructive memory influences our relationships. For one thing, partners’ cur-
rent feelings about each other influence what they remember about their shared past
(Smyth et al., 2020). If they’re presently happy, people tend to forget past disappoint-
ments; but if they’re unhappy and their relationship is
failing, they underestimate how happy and loving they
used to be. These tricks of memory help us adjust to
the situations we encounter, but they often leave us feel-
ing that our relationships have always been more stable
and predictable than they really were—and that can pro-
mote damaging overconfidence.

FIGURE 4.3. Attributions made by happy and unhappy couples.
Relationship-enhancing attributions give partners credit for thoughtful, generous actions and excuse
undesirable behavior as a temporary aberration. Distress-maintaining attributions do just the opposite;
they blame partners for undesirable conduct but give them no credit for the nice things they do.












State of the



Source: Data from Brehm, S., & Kassin, S. M. (1990). Social Psychology (6th ed.), Houghton Mifflin.

A Point to Ponder

When a relationship ends
badly, how accurately are you
able to remember how won-
derful it seemed back when it
was going well?

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The good news is that by misremembering their past, partners can remain opti-
mistic about their future (Lemay & Neal, 2013). At any given point in time, contented
lovers are likely to recall that they have had some problems in the past but that things
have recently gotten better, so they are happier now than they used to be (Karney &
Frye, 2002). What’s notable about this pattern is that, if you follow couples over time,
they’ll tell you this over and over even when their satisfaction with each other is
gradually eroding instead of increasing (Frye & Karney, 2004). Evidently, by remember-
ing recent improvement in their partnerships that has not occurred, people remain
happier than they might otherwise be. Like other perceptions, our memories influence
our subsequent behavior and emotions in our intimate relationships (Cao et al., 2020).

Relationship Beliefs

People also enter their partnerships with established beliefs about how relation-
ships work. For instance, Brian Willoughby and his colleagues (2015a) suggest that
we have a collection of beliefs about getting and being married that take the forms
of marital paradigms, which are broad assumptions about whether, when, and under
what circumstances we should marry that are accompanied by beliefs about what
it’s like to be married. About one-third of a sizable sample of students at Ball State
University in Indiana were enthusiastic about marriage and eager to get married,
but a greater number of them (58 percent) were more cautious: They attached less
priority to being married, wanted to wait longer to get married, and were more
accepting of divorce. And the remaining 10 percent of the group judged marriage
to be even less important, thinking they’d be 35 years old when (or if) they mar-
ried (Willoughby & Hall, 2015).

Underpinning such broad outlooks are a variety of more specific beliefs, and some of
them are clearly disadvantageous. Certain beliefs that people have about relationships are
dysfunctional; that is, they appear to have adverse effects on the quality of relationships,
making it less likely that the partners will be satisfied (Goodwin & Gaines, 2004). What
ideas could people have that could have such deleterious effects? Here are six:

• Disagreements are destructive. Disagreements mean that my partner doesn’t love
me enough. If we loved each other sufficiently, we would never disagree.

• “Mindreading” is essential. People who really care about each other ought to be
able to intuit each other’s needs and preferences without having to be told what
they are. My partner doesn’t love me enough if I have to tell him or her what I
want or need.

• Partners cannot change. Once things go wrong, they’ll stay that way. If a lover has
faults, he or she won’t improve.

• Sex should be perfect every time. Sex should always be wonderful and fulfilling if
our love is pure. We should always want, and be ready for, sex.

• Men and women are different. The personalities and needs of men and women are
so dissimilar, you really can’t understand someone of the other sex.2

• Great relationships just happen. You don’t need to work at maintaining a good
relationship. People are either compatible with each other and destined to be
happy together or they’re not.

2 You don’t really still think that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, do you?

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Most of these beliefs were identified by Roy Eidelson and Norman Epstein (1982)
years ago, and since then, studies have shown that they put people at risk for distress
and dissatisfaction in close relationships (Wright & Roloff, 2015). They’re unrealistic.
When disagreements do occur—as they always do—they seem momentous to people
who hold these views. Any dispute implies that their love is imperfect. Worse, people
with these perspectives don’t exert much effort to nurture and maintain their relation-
ships (Weigel et al., 2016)—after all, if you’re made for each other, you shouldn’t have
to break a sweat to live happily ever after—and they don’t behave constructively when
problems arise. Believing that people can’t change and that true love just happens, such
people don’t strive to solve problems; they report more interest in ending the relation-
ship than in working to repair it (Knee & Petty, 2013).

In their work on relationship beliefs, Chip Knee and his colleagues refer to per-
spectives like these as destiny beliefs because they assume that two people are either
well suited for each other and destined to live happily ever after, or they’re not (Knee
& Petty, 2013). Destiny beliefs take an inflexible view of intimate partnerships
(see Table 4.1). They suggest that if two people are meant to be happy, they’ll know it
as soon as they meet; they’ll not encounter early doubts or difficulties, and once two

TABLE 4.1. Destiny and Growth Beliefs

Chip Knee (1998) measured destiny and growth beliefs with these items. Respondents were
asked to rate their agreement or disagreement with each item using this scale:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
strongly disagree strongly agree

1. Potential relationship partners are either compatible or they are not.

2. The ideal relationship develops gradually over time.

3. A successful relationship is mostly a matter of finding a compatible partner right from
the start.

4. Challenges and obstacles in a relationship can make love even stronger.

5. Potential relationship partners are either destined to get along or they are not.

6. A successful relationship is mostly a matter of learning to resolve conflicts with
a partner.

7. Relationships that do not start off well inevitably fail.

8. A successful relationship evolves through hard work and resolution of incompatibilities.

As you undoubtedly surmised, the odd-numbered items assess a destiny orientation and the
even-numbered items assess a growth orientation. A scale with these items and 14 more is
now used in destiny and growth research (Knee & Petty, 2013), but these classic items are
still excellent examples of the two sets of beliefs. Do you agree with one set of ideas more
than the other?

146 chapter 4: Social Cognition

Source: Knee, C. R. (1998). “Implicit theories of relationships: Assessment and prediction of romantic relationship initiation,
coping, and longevity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 360–370.

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soulmates find each other, a happy future is ensured. This is the manner in which
Hollywood often portrays love in romantic comedies, and people who watch such
movies do tend to believe that true loves are meant to be (Hefner, 2019). And
sure enough, more than half (56 percent) of American adults believe that soulmates—
practically perfect partners—exist (Ballard, 2020).

Different views, which you see less often at the movies, assume that happy relation-
ships are the result of hard work (Knee & Petty, 2013). According to growth beliefs,
good relationships are believed to develop gradually as the partners work at surmount-
ing challenges and overcoming obstacles, and a basic presumption is that with enough
effort, almost any relationship can succeed.

As you might expect, these different perspectives generate different outcomes when
difficulties arise (and as it turns out, Hollywood isn’t doing us any favors). When
couples argue or a partner misbehaves, people who hold growth beliefs remain more
committed to the relationship and more optimistic that any damage can be repaired
than do those who do not hold such views. Those who endorse destiny beliefs are more
likely than others to have ended a relationship obnoxiously by ghosting their partners,
simply cutting off all contact (Freedman et al., 2019). “It may be romantic for lovers
to think they were made for each other, but it backfires when conflicts arise and reality
pokes the bubble of perfect unity. Instead, thinking of love as a journey, often involving
twists and turns but ultimately moving toward a destination, takes away some of the
repercussions of relational conflicts” (Lee & Schwarz, 2014, p. 64).

The belief that all you have to do to live happily ever after is to find the right, perfect partner
is not advantageous.

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Barbara Smaller/

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Thus, some relationship beliefs are more adaptive than others (Cobb et al., 2013).
These perspectives can gradually change over time as our romances wax and wane
(Willoughby et al., 2015b), but they can also change with education and insight (Sharp
& Ganong, 2000). Indeed, if you recognize any of your own views among the dysfunc-
tional beliefs three pages back, I hope that these findings are enlightening. Unrealistic
assumptions can be so idealistic and starry-eyed that no relationship measures up to
them, and distress and disappointment are certain to follow.


Sometimes, we have judgments of others that are initially false but that, knowingly or
not, we make come true (Rosenthal, 2006). I’m referring here to self-fulfilling prophecies,
which are false predictions that become true because they lead people to behave in
ways that make the erroneous expectations come true. Self- fulfilling prophecies are
extraordinary examples of the power of perceptions because the events that result from
them occur only because people expect them to, and then act as if they will.

Mark Snyder and his colleagues (1977) provided an elegant example of a self-
fulfilling prophecy when they led men at the University of Minnesota to believe that
they were chatting on the phone with women who were either very attractive or
quite unattractive. The experimenters gave each man a fake photograph of the
woman with whom he’d be getting acquainted and then recorded the ensuing

Attachment Styles and Perceptions of Partners

Relationship beliefs can vary a lot from per-
son to person, and another individual differ-
ence that’s closely tied to the way people
think about their partnerships is attachment
style (Gillath et al., 2016). People with differ-
ent styles are thought to have different “men-
tal models” of relationships; they hold
different beliefs about what relationships are
like, expect different behavior from their part-
ners, and form different judgments of what
their partners do. I’ve already noted that se-
cure people are more likely than those
with insecure styles to employ relationship-
enhancing attributions (Kimmes et al., 2015);
they’re also less likely to hold maladaptive
relationship beliefs (Stackert & Bursik,
2003). Secure people trust their partners
more (Mikulincer, 1998), believe that their
partners are more supportive (Collins & Feeney,
2004), and have more positive expectations
about what the future holds (Birnie et al.,

2009). They’re also more likely than insecure
people to remember positive things that have
happened in the past (Miller & Noirot, 1999).
Even their dreams are different; compared to
those who are insecure, secure people portray
others in their dreams as being more available
and supportive and as offering greater com-
fort (Mikulincer et al., 2011). In general, then,
people with secure styles are more generous,
optimistic, and kindly in their judgments of
others than insecure people are (Rodriguez
et al., 2019).

Attachment styles can change, as we saw
in chapter 1, but no matter what style people
have, they tend to remember the past as being
consistent with what they’re thinking now
(Feeney & Cassidy, 2003). Happily, if positive
experiences in a rewarding relationship help
us gradually develop a more relaxed and trust-
ing outlook on intimacy with others, we may
slowly forget that we ever felt any other way.

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conversations to see what happened. Men who thought they’d be talking to gorgeous
women had higher expectations than those who anticipated a conversation with a
plain partner, and they were much more eager and interested when the interactions
began; listeners rated them as more sociable, warm, outgoing, and bold. The men’s
(often erroneous) judgments of the women were clearly ref lected in their behavior.
How did the women respond to such treatment? They had no knowledge of having
been labeled as gorgeous or homely, but they did know that they were talking to a
man who sounded either enthusiastic or aloof. As a result, the men got what they
expected: The women who were presumed to be attractive really did sound more
alluring, reacting to their obviously interested partners with warmth and appeal of
their own. By comparison, the women who talked with relatively detached men who
thought they were unattractive sounded pretty drab. In both cases, the men elicited
from the women the behavior they expected whether or not their expectations were
accurate. By behaving in a manner that fit their expectations, they made their pre-
dictions come true.

Let’s examine Figure 4.4 together to detail how this process works. As a first step
in a self-fulfilling prophecy, a person whom we’ll call the perceiver forms an expectancy
about someone else—the target—that predicts how the target will behave. The men in
Snyder et al.’s (1977) study were influenced by the women’s apparent physical attrac-
tiveness, but various other types of information, such as a target’s age, sex, race, or
social class may also affect the perceiver’s judgments in ways of which the perceiver
is unaware (Bjornsdottir & Rule, 2017).

P interprets the
target’s response.

Ignoring his or her
role in producing
it; support for the
expectancy is likely
to be perceived.

P forms an expectancy
about the target.

Based on stereotype,
casual knowledge,
or prior contact.

T interprets the
perceiver’s behavior.

T responds.

Usually in a reciprocal
fashion, meeting kind-
ness with kindness,
hostility with hostility.

P acts.

Subtly communicating
his or her expectancy
to the target.

FIGURE 4.4. A self-fulfilling prophecy.
Originally false expectations held by a perceiver (P) can seem to come true when he or she
interacts with someone else, his or her target (T).

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Then, in an important second step, the perceiver acts, usually in a fashion that is
in accord with his or her expectations. Indeed, it may be hard for the perceiver to avoid
subtly communicating what he or she really thinks about the target. People with favor-
able expectations, for instance, interact longer and more often with their targets, shar-
ing more eye contact, sitting closer, smiling more, asking more questions, and
encouraging more responses than do perceivers who have less positive expectations
(Rosenthal, 2006). In Snyder’s study, men who thought they were talking to lovely
women were more enthusiastic and engaged than were men who believed their partners
were plain.

The recipient of the perceiver’s behavior is likely to notice all of this, and the
target’s interpretation will influence his or her response (Stukas & Snyder, 2002). In
most cases, however, when the target responds in the fourth step, it will be in a manner
that is similar to the perceiver’s behavior toward him or her. Enthusiasm is usually met
with interest (Snyder et al., 1977), hostility with counterattacks (Snyder & Swann,
1978a), and flirtatiousness with allurement (Lemay & Wolf, 2016). Sure enough, the
women in Snyder’s study who were thought to be attractive really did sound more
enticing because they responded to the men’s enthusiasm with energy of their own.
Thus, the perceiver usually elicits from the target the behavior he or she expected, and
that may be nothing like the way the target would have behaved if the perceiver hadn’t
expected it.

But such is the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy that, as the perceiver interprets
the target’s response, the perceiver is unlikely to recognize the role that he or she played
in producing it (McNulty & Karney, 2002). The actor/observer effect will lead the
perceiver to attribute the target’s behavior to the target’s personality or mood. And
after all, the perceiver found in the target the behavior he or she expected; what better
evidence is there that his or her expectations were correct? (This is another reason
that we tend to be overconfident in our judgments of others; when we make our false
expectations come true, we never realize that we were ever wrong!)

Here, then, is another fundamental reason that our perceptions of others are so
influential. They not only influence our interpretations of the information we gain, they
also guide our behavior toward others (Gunaydin et al., 2017). We often get what we
expect from others, and that is sometimes behavior that would not have occurred
without our prompting—but we’re rarely aware of how our expectations have created
their own realities.

Because they guide our actions toward others, our expectations are clearly not
inert. Another fascinating example of this was obtained when researchers sent people
to chat with strangers after leading them to expect that the strangers would probably
either like or dislike them (Curtis & Miller, 1986). Participants in the study were told
that, to study different types of interactions, the researchers had given a stranger bogus
advance information about them, and they could anticipate either a friendly or an
unfriendly reaction from the stranger when they met. In truth, however, none of the
strangers had been told anything at all about the participants, and the false expectations
that the interaction would go well or poorly existed only in the minds of the partici-
pants themselves. (Imagine yourself in this intriguing position: You think someone
you’re about to meet already likes or dislikes you, but the other person really doesn’t
know anything about you at all.) What happened? People got what they expected.

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Expecting to be liked, people greeted others in an engaging, open, positive way—they
behaved in a likable manner—and really were liked by the strangers they met. However,
those who expected to be disliked were cautious and defensive and were much less
forthcoming, and they actually got their partners to dislike them. Once again, false
expectations created their own behavioral reality—and positive expectations were ben-
eficial and advantageous, whereas negative expectations were not.

Indeed, over time, people who chronically hold different sorts of expectations
about others may create different sorts of social worlds for themselves (Stinson et al.,
2009). For instance, Geraldine Downey and her colleagues have demonstrated that
people who tend to worry about rejection from others often behave in ways that make
such rejection more likely (Romero-Canyas et al., 2009). People who are high in rejec-
tion sensitivity tend to anxiously perceive snubs from others when none are intended.
Then they overreact, fearfully displaying more hostility and defensiveness than others
would (Romero-Canyas et al., 2010). Their behavior is obnoxious, and as a result, both
they and their partners tend to be dissatisfied with their close relationships.

The flip side of rejection sensitivity may be optimism, the tendency to expect good
things to happen. People who are chronically optimistic enjoy more satisfying close
relationships than do those who are less hopeful because their positive expectations
have beneficial effects on their partnerships (Carver & Scheier, 2009). They perceive
their partners to be more supportive than pessimists do (Srivastava et al., 2006), and
they report that they’re able to solve problems with their partners cooperatively and
creatively and well (Assad et al., 2007). Their expectations that they can resolve their
difficulties evidently lead them to address any problems with hopeful confidence and
energy that actually do make the problems more manageable.

Altogether, then, our perceptions of our partners, the attributions we make, and
the beliefs and expectations we bring to our relationships can exert a p owerful influ-
ence on the events that follow. Our judgments of each other matter. And those of us
who expect others to be trustworthy, generous, and loving may find that others actually
are good to us more often than those with more pessimistic perspectives find others
being kind to them (Lemay et al., 2015).


Yet another example of the power of our perceptions lies in the judgments we form of
ourselves. Our discussion of self-esteem in chapter 1 noted that our self-evaluations are
potent influences on our interactions. But self-esteem is just one part of our broader
self-concepts, which encompass all of the beliefs and feelings we have about ourselves.
Our self-concepts include a wide array of self-knowledge along with our self-esteem,
and all the components of the self-concept are intimately tied to our relationships with

During social interaction, our self-concepts try to fulfill two different functions
(Swann & Buhrmester, 2012). On the one hand, people seek feedback from others that
will enhance their self-concepts and allow them to think of themselves as desirable,