The measure isn’t the high tech detector of romantic emotions that you might expect. Instead, it looks a lot like that familiar thing we know as our gut feeling.
Next time somebody who just went through a messy breakup says that they always knew that the relationship would never work, it may not just be hindsight talking. In an intriguing new experiment on how much our automatic responses can tell us about what we really feel, a group of researchers discovered that there may be a test that predicts whether a marriage will last.
First, they asked more than 100 recently married people in Tennessee to rate their spouse. Unsurprisingly, everybody declared that their spouses were swell. Then they asked the folks to look at photos of their new spouse as they identified whether a word was negative or positive.
Having recorded those responses, the researchers then followed the couples for four years to see how the marriages fared. People who took a little longer to identify negative words or who more quickly identified positive words were more likely to be happily married at the end of the study than newlyweds whose responses went the other way, according to a new study in Science. “Although [four years] is a relatively short period of time,” says lead author James McNulty, Associate Professor in psychology at Florida State University, “some people experienced rather dramatic declines in satisfaction over the interval.”
The theory behind these first responses is that the brain needs a tiny bit more time to get from something that makes it happy to something that makes it sad. So if the picture of the loved one produces only a positive response, then the brain has to do a few more gymnastics to get to a negative notion. “It takes “switching gears” to process a negative concept like “awful” after seeing a picture of one’s partner, if one has a really positive attitude toward the partner,” says McNulty. “It does not take quite as long, however, to process negative concepts after seeing a picture of the partner if one has a less positive attitude toward the partner.”
Interestingly, the study did not predict whether or not the couple would have problems, but whether or not “dissatisfaction and despair” would set in to the marriage. In other words, it was more about the individuals’ attitude to their marriage than how sunny life really was. The researchers also controlled for some of the factors that could have skewed the results, such as general neuroticism or negative affect, high levels of which can make people difficult partners.
Engaged couples may not be able to make use of this information as a love reader just yet, however. McNulty is cautious about his experiment’s use as a predictive tool. “I imagine if we had assessed people before they got married we would have seen very similar effects,” he says. “I think we are a long way away from using this as a diagnostic tool to identify specific individuals who will become unhappy, though. What we observed was an average tendency; there were certainly people who were exceptions to this trend.”
But there’s nothing to stop you from sitting down that friend whose fiance you can’t stand and trying a little test of your own. All you need is a photo and a machine that can measure in milliseconds. And then, possibly, a box of tissues.