Resist Relationship “Math”

Newspapers love relationship science. So do women’s magazines and pop psych mags, because love (and sex) are, if not universal, certainly near-universally desired. And because we live in a scientific age, we keep hoping that there will be some magic formula that will dictate human interaction. I’m the same – the teen mags I read as a kid with ‘how to tell if he likes you’ quizzes and bizarre high school chat-up lines I read like a script. After three or four awkward moments, I decided that, following that sort of vague and romantic advice was ultimately unhelpful.

Now there’s a new study out that supports this kind of thinking. Marriages succeed or fail based on the couple’s “type” in terms of how they deal with conflict. And there’s a mathematician, so obviously it’s waaaaay more valid that those Cosmo quizzes. The Daily Mail article and an op-ed in the Times today (I couldn’t find it online) both started out comparing the simplistic thinking to those mockable magazine quizzes, then backing up the findings since, you know, it was a big, math-y, science-y, study.

Who doesn’t want to believe that by taking a simple quiz (or being observed by people with clipboards and labcoats while having a discussion on a heavy topic), one can determine the sort of person with whom one is most compatible? Or rather, whom one would be the least likely to divorce? Unless, of course, you’re ‘volatile’, in which case, it’s a crapshoot. That caveat alone should have sent off flares.

Because the methodology was 1) watch couples talk about a ‘fraught’ subject 2) judge their manner of discussion as one of 4 types of behavior 3) watch for several years to see who gets divorced.

All right class, who can point out the flaws here? Let’s start with

1) Choosing what is a fraught subject is highly subjective, and time sensitive. A couple just starting out on a tight budget might find talking about money a little more tense than one where at least one person has a massive savings account or inherited property. The selection of the matter under discussion presumes that everyone will find the subjects more of less equally important. Obvious logical flaw.

2) In coding behavior and speech in a discussion in one of 4 ways automatically presumes there are only four categories. If I say everything is either red, white, or blue, and something turns up green or black, they’re both going in the ‘blue’ column, even though that’s not necessarily accurate, it’s just as close to accurate as you can get given the methodology. Ergo, saying people’s behavior proves they fall into these categories begs the question.

3) Just wait? No checking to see if discussion styles change over the years? No looking for other parameters, like infidelity, depression, death, bankruptcy, etc?

It bugs me that people, and particularly journalists, don’t think critically about scientific studies (or reports thereof). The temptation to simplify people and relationships into types is significant, which is all the more reason to be logically cautious. What’s different between someone classifying themselves as ‘avoiders’ and therefore only seriously considering other ‘avoiders’ for long term bliss (when a ‘validator’ or ‘volatile’ could teach them to be less afraid to speak up and maybe have a better quality of life because they aren’t as afraid of confrontation, assuming these aren’t terribly simplistic categorizations anyway and highly unlikely to represent someone’s behavior all the time), and a Scorpio refusing to date an Aries because they’re just ‘too insensitive’?

image from Royal Holloway University of London

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