“Married at First Sight”: Can Science Predict Love? | In your heads

I watched an episode of the reality show Married at First sight. At one point in the show, one of the candidates told the camera, “I trust science finds me a man …”. The show uses the so-called scientific nature of the experiment to legitimize itself and encourage candidates to participate. But is the scientific backing of the show solid?

What is the scientific guarantee of “Married at First Sight”?

The approach of the show’s “experts” is as follows: they ask candidates to answer various questionnaires, such as the “Big Five” (a personality assessment test well known to psychologists), but also to other tests with questionable psychometric qualities1. The experts then rely on the candidates’ answers to determine a degree of compatibility. For example, if a man and a woman have 85% common answers to all the tests, they will be told that they are 85% compatible.

The problem is that this rate of 85% does not predict that the two candidates will actually fall in love with each other or that their marriage will be a long-term success (otherwise the success rate of the couples formed in the program would not exceed 20% ). Today, it has never been proven by a scientific method that ordinary answers to questionnaires are a guarantee of marital success. In other words, it is not enough that the partners enjoy animals, fishing or movies, that they easily express their feelings, or that they share the same values ​​to assume that they will “match” in love. And you can increase the number of questions, but you do not want to increase the reliability of the prediction.

In the end, the show not only lacks scientific backing2, but in addition, it spreads a misconception about science and love. Unfortunately, this is also what most dating sites promise you: “tell us who you are and we will find your ideal match!”. What do you want, science is a tool marketing powerful.

Does it exist Actually a science of love?

At present, therefore, science does not make it possible to know whether two complete aliens have been created for each other. On the other hand, there is scientific work that has made it possible to identify certain risk factors for separation of couples that have already formed3. The most important research on this subject is certainly that of Dr. John Gottman. By analyzing data collected over several decades, this researcher was able to identify certain characteristics common to couples who end up divorcing. More precisely, it is the characteristics related to the dynamics of the conflict that would be important4. Here are some of the characteristics that lead to fractures:

  • the defensive attitude (puts all the blame on the other)
  • criticism of the partner as a whole (more than his behavior)
  • withdrawal (rejection of any discussion)
  • difficulty controlling one’s emotions, or emotional inertia (the conflict sometimes generates so many emotions that it makes any discussion impossible)

What matters, therefore, is not the characteristics of the individual, but the characteristics of the relationship: it is the way in which the lovers will control their interactions, especially in moments of conflict, that will determine the solidity of the relationship. And that’s also why it’s hard to predict something before the couple is formed and therefore has never interacted.

Conversely, relationships that hold also share common characteristics. Gottman showed that couples who function “well” have 5 times more exchanges of positive emotional value than exchanges of negative emotional value, that is, a ratio of 1/5 (for comparison, unstable couples have a ratio of 0, 8 / 1). Here are some examples of exchanges with positive emotional value:

  • to show affection
  • compliment each other
  • show interest in another
  • support your partner
  • act with the other in mind and not just in one’s own interest
  • show that you are there for your partner in the moments that matter

These positive exchanges serve as “shock absorbers” in times of strife. For there will always be conflicts in a couple, even when the partners are perfectly compatible (moreover, the couples who last are not necessarily the ones who never quarrel!). It is therefore not the conflict itself that is the problem, it is the way it will be handled and which will or will not lead the couple into a spiral of negativity.

The science of marital relationships for the sake of well-being

A “good” romantic relationship is a factor in physical and mental well-being not only for the spouses but also for their children. In the United States, nearly one million couples divorce each year (divorce rate of 45%). Divorce is therefore potentially a public health problem and it is therefore in our interest to improve marital relations. We have seen that science can help us better understand how an already established couple works and identify certain risk and protective factors. Knowing these factors then makes it possible to change the trajectory of the relationship, to avoid sometimes useless divorces and therefore to improve the well-being of individuals.5.

Sources:

Deval, C. and Bernard-Curie, S. (2016). Simplify your relationships with others. France: InterEditions.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uazFBCDvVw

https://www.sciencesetavenir.fr/decouvrir/tele-cinema/maries-au-premier-regard-peut-on-vraiment-trouver-l-amour-grace-a-la-science_108054

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ib7Ain2aVR0

https://www.ted.com/talks/george_blair_west_3_ways_to_build_a_happy_marriage_and_avoid_divorce/transcript#t-34495

References:

  1. Psychometry is the science of measurement in psychology. It allows for the development of methods for assessing individual characteristics. Contrary to the objective assessment of a quantity (such as, for example, distance in physical sciences), the measurement of a psychological trait is more delicate because it is subjective. Therefore, what is evaluated in psychology is more the relative positioning of an individual compared to a selection of people with the same characteristics. Creating a psychology test requires you to follow certain steps to ensure its reliability. Although the “Big Five” is a relatively reliable test, participants may provide biased answers (e.g., lying to meet certain social norms). Thus, the results obtained in this type of test reflect more what the person claims to be than what he really is. Psychometry can also be used to test theoretical models. In the 2000s, a group of researchers tried to model love by creating a measurement tool consisting of 20 questions divided into 4 dimensions: commitment, intimacy, erotic passion and romantic passion. The idea was to verify whether the scores obtained were correlated with behaviors or attitudes related to love (e.g., a relationship between fidelity in the couple and romantic passion). By having several models, one can test them and see which one best describes “reality”. It is nothing more than a modeling of a complex phenomenon to try to put a little more rationality into it, but it does not claim to define love in absolute terms and in no way detracts from its character “magical”.
  2. The experts could quickly use the candidates as participants in a study aimed at confirming or not confirming their hypothesis, but the research procedure would then not respect the code of ethics at all.
  3. The prediction would be 90% reliable.
  4. The start of conflicting conversations would be critical: the way the partners interact in the first 3 minutes could actually be enough to predict separation.
  5. With the mathematician James Murray, Gottman managed to model the conflict dynamics in a pair and put it into equation. They can thus simulate any conflict by changing the parameters of the interaction, such as the way a partner starts the discussion (more or less positive), the emotional inertia (the fact of pondering outrage), their repair threshold (how much a partner tries to “fix” “conflict, etc.). The model then makes it possible to observe a more or less positive development of the discussion according to the parameters being modified, and therefore to predict a more or less favorable outcome of the conflict. We can then identify relevant therapeutic goals and thus select the best interventions to help couples. The therapies that result from this research have also proven their effectiveness (via randomized trial trials with a control group).

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