A happy marriage? It’s all about gut feelings

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  • Published 29.11.13

New Delhi, Nov. 28: Gut-level, hidden impressions about a spouse that are beyond the reach of conscious thought appear to hold the key to happiness in marriage, scientists said today after a landmark study.

Based on a sample of 135 newlywed couples in the US, the study has suggested that hidden impressions are more reliable in predicting marital success than conscious impressions that guide people’s actions and words.

The study, described as the first to examine the implications of hidden impressions — also called automatic attitudes — on marital satisfaction, has found that spouses who had positive hidden impressions were less likely to experience a decline in marital happiness over a four-year period.

It has also suggested that spouses’ automatic attitudes need not be similar to their conscious impressions. The findings are to be published in the US journal Science on Friday.

“Automatic attitudes are our gut-level feelings — basically our evaluations of our partners; but they’re different from conscious attitudes,” James McNulty, professor of psychology at the Florida State University, who led the study, told The Telegraph.

“Our desires and our motivations to believe what we want to believe are less likely to influence automatic attitudes,” said McNulty, who is investigating how personality and behavioural factors influence marital satisfaction among newlywed couples.

While getting married is typically associated with high levels of satisfaction and expectations of long-term happiness, McNulty and his colleagues say, such positive sentiments might in some marriages give way to feelings of dissatisfaction, even despair.

The researchers designed laboratory experiments to explore spouses’ reactions to 300-millisecond exposures to pictures of their partners to extract their hidden responses, and observed that these “automatic evaluations” could foretell their marital satisfaction. The volunteers were couples in their mid-20s drawn from eastern Tennessee.

Scientists not associated with the study say it provides a significant advance in understanding satisfaction in marriages.

“It shows that automatic evaluations are likely to shape day-to-day perceptions of interactions with spouses,” Shelly Gable, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told this newspaper.

“This study also contributes to the puzzling finding that at the beginning of a marriage, most people report feeling very positive toward their spouses, but nevertheless some marriages become unhappy and unstable,” Gable said.

An Indian psychologist who was not associated with the study but has herself explored marital relationships in India said the findings were relevant to this country where there was increasing emphasis on “wavelength matching” in the process of finding partners.

“If such a study were to be replicated in India, we would probably see a much more pronounced effect of hidden impressions,” said Varsha Singh, assistant professor of psychology at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi.

“India differs in the degree of restrictions, whether perceived or real, on any explicit expressions of marital dissatisfaction,” Singh told this newspaper.

“There is also greater social pressure to give an impression that the marriage is successful.”

Singh said the new results were in line with earlier studies by the late Nalini Ambady, an Indian American psychologist, which had suggested that quick first impressions or intuitive judgements based on very brief experience were more accurate than previously believed.

But some scientists have urged caution in interpreting the results of the new study.

“The findings appear tantalising, but we should exercise caution until the results are corroborated by more research,” Etienne LeBel, assistant professor of psychology at Montclair State University in the US, told this newspaper.

“Automatic attitudes have been shown to be highly sensitive to context and transient (short-lasting) factors present at the time of measurement.”

Psychologists say explicit attitudes — driven by conscious thoughts — are not good predictors of future satisfaction or stability. Explicit attitudes may be influenced by factors such as a desire to be in a good marriage or a motivation to see a partner in a good light, Gable said, but they may have little to do with actual attitudes.

Six years ago, Gable and her colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, had independently shown that explicit attitudes and hidden impressions can be similar in some people and dissimilar in others.