"To continue down the long, well-lit path, turn to page 63. To take a shortcut through the dark alleyway, turn to page 107."
Those of us who were kids in the 1980s and 1990s have fond memories of these interactive, second-person narratives, in which you, the reader, get to choose the protagonist’s fate. But as fun as these stories are, it turns out that they aren’t just for playin’. Researchers have found a way to harness the power of "choose your own adventure" stories to study how people make important decisions about their relationships.1,2
In a "choose your own adventure" relationships study, participants read a story about a fictional romantic relationship. Every so often, they encounter some sort of dilemma. Perhaps you read that your partner gets a call from an ex and ends up spending a little too long on the phone. At this point, you, the participant, must choose how to handle the situation. Do you stay cool, or do you get upset with your partner? Because the participants think that their choices will influence what happens next in the story, the decision feels like it has consequences, which makes the situation feel pretty realistic for a lab experiment.
So far, Vicary and colleagues have used this paradigm to discover how different types of people handle relationship situations. For example, Vicary and Fraley1 found that people with an anxious attachment style (colloquially described as “needy” or “clingy”) tend to react pretty negatively to jealousy-inducing situations such as the one described above. Turan and Vicary2 also found that people with more knowledge about relationships (S of R readers, perhaps?) were better at recognizing which choices were beneficial for romantic relationships, and which choices were potentially damaging. However, only people who were also motivated to maintain and improve their relationships actually chose more relationship-enhancing behaviors. Thus, knowledge about relationships is useful, but not sufficient: people make the best relationship choices when they also feel secure in their relationships, and when they are motivated to make those relationships work.
Altogether, the "choose your own adventure" paradigm is helping researchers learn more about relationship decision making, which has not received a lot of empirical attention until now. Of course, when scientists try to investigate a particular phenomenon, relational or otherwise, it’s important not to rely on just one research technique. Researchers who use this “simulated relationship” method should also follow it up with other methods, such as retrospective accounts (asking people to recount their past relationship experiences), or longitudinal studies (surveying real couples as their relationships develop over time). But hypothetical stories have the advantage of experimental control: researchers can use them to examine precisely the sort of scenarios they are interested in without having to wait for them to appear in the real world, and without having to worry about confounding factors. And that makes these techniques incredibly useful. It will be very interesting to see what sort of relationship findings will be uncovered in the future, just by having people decide which page they want to turn to.
1Vicary, A. M., & Fraley, R. C. (2007). Choose your own adventure: Attachment dynamics in a simulated relationship. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 1279-1291.
2Turan, B., & Vicary, A. M. (2010). Who recognizes and chooses behaviors that are best for a relationship? The separate roles of knowledge, attachment, and motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 119-131.
Samantha Joel - Science of Relationships articles
Samantha's research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner?