A New Zealand man who was asked by scientists to agree with everything his wife said had to call off the experiment after 12 days because it was proving so harmful to his mental health.
The study was set up to examine the old marriage advice about whether it’s more important to be happy or to be right. Couples therapists sometimes suggest that in a bid to avoid constant arguments, spouses weigh up whether pressing the point is worth the misery of marital discord. The researchers, who are doctors and professors at the University of Auckland, noticed that many of their patients were adding stress to their lives by insisting on being right, even when it worked against their well-being.
So they found a couple who were willing to record their quality of life on a scale of 1 to 10. They told the man, who wanted to be happy more than right, about the purpose of the study and asked him to agree with every opinion and request his wife had without complaint, even when he profoundly didn’t agree. The wife was not informed of the purpose of the study and just asked to record her quality of life. The results were published in BMJ, albeit in the esteemed publication’s lighthearted Christmas issue.
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Things went rapidly downhill for the couple. The man’s quality-of-life scores fell, from 7 to 3, over the course of the experiment. The wife’s scores rose modestly, from 8 to 8.5, before she became hostile to the idea of recording the scores. Rather than causing harmony, the husband’s agreeableness led to the wife becoming increasingly critical of what he did and said (in the husband’s opinion). After 12 days he broke down, made his wife a cup of tea (New Zealand is, after all, a Commonwealth country), and explained the experiment. At this point the Data Safety Monitoring Committee, as the researchers called it, stopped the study because of “severe adverse outcomes.”
“This was a genuine piece of research where we hoped that both parties would be happy as part of one person agreeing with everything the other said,” says the study’s chief author, Dr. Bruce Arroll, who seems to have a pretty well-developed sense of humor. “We thought that we would find a method of creating marital bliss (and probably a Nobel Prize if we had succeeded).”
The researchers concluded, shockingly, that humans need to be right and acknowledged as right, at least some of the time, to be happy. In politics, people often note that there can be no peace without justice, and that’s true of the domestic sphere as well. The researchers also noted that this was further proof that if given too much power, humans tend to “assume the alpha position and, as with chimpanzees, they become very aggressive and dangerous.”
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Obviously the results are to be taken with extreme caution, since this was just one couple with who-knows-what underlying issues beforehand. But Arroll maintains that the question of happiness vs. rightness, theoretically, could be settled by scientific inquiry with a wider sample. “This would include a randomized controlled trial,” he says. “However we would be reluctant to do the definitive study because of the concern about divorce or homicide.”
The couple, whose identity is confidential, have reconciled and are even now hopefully having healthy and constructive arguments about whether the husband was right to agree to the experiment.