One thing that distinguishes ScienceOfRelationships.com from other sites is the fact that we base all of our articles on published research. But, have you ever wondered “how’d they do that” when reading one of the research findings we’ve reported on? Sometimes learning how things are made, like hot dogs, can make them less enjoyable. However, in the case of relationships, learning how scientists go about studying relationships will give you greater appreciation for how research-based conclusions are drawn (and why they are more informative than others' advice based on their own idosyncratic observations). (For a recap of the importance of research compared to anecdotes and opinion, check out “What is Relationship Science?” and a post on Psychology Today by SofR contributor Dr. Bjarne Holmes on “Setting a Higher Standard for Relationship Advice.”) Basically, learning a bit about the research process will make you a better consumer of the information we discuss on this site.
It seems odd now, but not too long ago many thought that relationships, and love in particular, couldn’t (and shouldn't!) be studied scientifically. Thankfully, they were wrong; otherwise, all of us here at SofR would be out of a job and the world would be significantly less informed about what makes relationships tick. With our “Nuts & Bolts” section, we focus on some of the clever and creative methods that relationship scientists use in their research.
As you’ll see, there are a lot of different ways to answer questions and learn about relationships. However, it is worth pointing out some of the things that these methods have in common. Generally speaking, researchers make sure their studies have lots of participants (i.e., they collect data from many people). Having a generalizable sample is important because answers drawn from only a handful of people might not tell you a lot about the rest of the population, especially if the few people you ask are your own friends. After all, your friends become your friends because you have a lot in common and your unique experiences may not translate to most others.
Next, researchers gather information from participants in ways that seek to maximize the accuracy of any conclusions they draw. There are a few general approaches: (a) ask participants questions (“Are you in love with your partner?”), (b) watch their behavior (see how they act toward their partner), and/or (c) gather physiological data (how their body or brain reacts when thinking about a loved one). Researchers may also put participants in specific situations by manipulating or changing certain factors to see how those changes might influence feelings about the relationship or partner. For example, to determine what factors might influence passion, a researcher may ask one group of participants to write a love poem to their partner, but ask another group to write a shopping list, and then measure feelings of passion. The researcher might also track her or his participants over time, having them report on their feelings of love every day, or follow them up at a later point in time to see if those with a higher level of love at the beginning of the study were more likely to stay together. While these are broad, and admittedly simple generalizations, relationship scientists use variations of these basic design features in many ways. In addition, any researcher will tell you that no one method is perfect. As a result, we often run several studies, using different methods, to answer the same question so we can be sure our conclusions are reliable.
Part of what makes relationships fascinating is that everyone has some experience with them. As a result, there is a tendency for people to become “armchair relationship scientists” who attempt to detect patterns that will help them understand their relationships (e.g., partners who talk about themselves a lot aren’t good listeners). But how do you know if this is a true pattern, or just a fluke? This is where researchers’ other major tool, statistics, comes into play. In the most general sense, statistics help researchers determine whether their findings are real or if they could just have happened by chance. Rather than simply rely on whether something “feels right,” statistics provide researchers with an unbiased measure of how genuine a finding actually is. SofR contributors will regularly highlight any unique statistical methods and their implications given the important role statistical methods plays in our field.
In many ways, each step of the research process strives to eliminate potential “biases” (or systematic problems in the methods) in order to provide the most accurate and valid information possible. As you’ll see, relationship scientists invest a lot of time and effort into their research to making this happen.
Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the role of the self in romantic relationships with a specific focus on self-expansion. He has authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences and is a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.