Using word association games to predict break-ups?

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For psychologists conducting relationship studies, it can sometimes be tricky getting a straight answer. If you ask a participant how happy he is in a relationship, sometimes he may be in denial, just not want to open up to you (ostensibly a complete stranger holding a clipboard), or may simply not truly know himself. So, to circumvent this particular problem in the search for broader truths about romantic relationships, in a new study published in the journal Psychological Science a group of researchers from the University of Rochester decided to take a less direct approach: instead of asking participants directly, they asked them to play word association games. The benefit of this tactic, the researchers write, is that:

“In relationships that are functioning well, people may associate their partners with good things and not with bad things, but in deteriorating relationships, these associations may begin to reverse. Both explicit and implicit evaluations can provide insight into relationship quality, but implicit evaluations may help researchers detect relationship deterioration independently of, or earlier than, explicit evaluations.”

In other words, word association may convey something about the deterioration of a relationship before the people actually in that relationship are even consciously aware that the romance is starting to sour. Or, at least that’s the theory. To test it out, the researchers recruited 222 people in romantic relationships. In two experiments, participants were asked to complete a word-sorting exercise known as a “partner-focused go/no-go association task” or partner-GNAT. Prior to beginning, they were asked to give three words about their partners — which could include their names, pet names or a word describing the partner. They then watched a computer screen as three different types words flashed, positive words (such as sharing or vacation), generic negative words (such as accident or tragedy), or the words that they had supplied about their partners. (Those participating in the second experiment saw positive and negative words that were more relationship-specific, such as understanding and accepting or attacking and criticizing.)

In each experiment, individuals participated in two phases: in the first, they were asked to press a button whenever they saw partner-related words and positive words; in the second, they pressed the button whenever they saw partner-related words and negative words. The researchers suggested that, in keeping with their theory, subjects who performed better on tasks associating their partner with bad things were more likely to be in struggling relationships, whereas those who excelled at exercises associating their significant other with good things were likely to be in stronger relationships. To find out, they followed up with study participants one year later.

The researchers found that, as they’d hypothesized, respondents who were better at the negative tasks were more likely to be broken up months later, while those who associated their partners with positive words were more likely to still be together. The findings suggest that well before people are aware of the deterioration of their relationship, negative perceptions may already have seeped into their subconscious. As the authors sum up:

“Current theories suggest that ‘positive illusions’ — assessing a partner’s traits more favorably than the partner does — are beneficial for long-term committed relationships and that the shattering of these ideal views (as positive behaviors and feelings fade during day-to-day interactions) contributes to relationship decay. Implicit measures such as ours may offer early markers of such erosion.”

Or, as Ronald Rogge, one of the study authors, said in a statement about the findings, “[The technique] really is giving us a unique glimpse into how people were feeling about their partners — giving us information that they were unable or unwilling to report.”