..and conversely, negativity predicts turmoil and failure. In attachment type terms, both avoidant types (Dismissive-Avoidant and Fearful-Avoidant) have a negative view of attached others in general, while Secure and Anxious-Preoccupied types are positive about others.
The Wall Street Journal reports on an experiment which measures newlywed’s subconscious attitudes about their partners and found those with negative subconscious attitudes experienced a faster decline in marital satisfaction over time:
First off, they found that ratings of marital satisfaction declined over time, something reported previously. They also learned that the [written test] answers from newlyweds predicted nothing about marital satisfaction four years later.
But the scientists also measured something else in those newlyweds, using an “associative priming task.”
This involves briefly flashing a series of words like “wonderful” or “odious” on a screen; subjects have to quickly press one of two buttons, depending on whether the word has positive or negative connotations.
Now comes the subconscious manipulation.
Just before each word, the researchers flashed up a picture of a random face for an instant—300 milliseconds—too fast for people to be consciously certain about what they saw but enough time for our subconscious, emotional brain circuitry to be certain. If the face evokes positive feelings, the brain immediately takes on something akin to a positive mind-set; if the word flashed up an instant later is a positive one, the brain quickly detects it as such. But if the word is negative, there is an instant of subconscious dissonance—”I was feeling great, but now I have to think about that word that means ‘inconsiderate jerk who doesn’t replace the toilet paper.’ ” And it takes a few milliseconds longer to hit the “negative” key. Conversely, display faces with negative connotations, and there is that dissonance-induced minuscule delay in identifying positive terms.
So in the study, the rapid-fire sequence of faces/words included a picture of one’s new spouse, revealing automatic feelings about the person’s beloved. That led to the key finding: The more subconscious negativity in a newlywed, the larger the decline in marital satisfaction four years later.
Did subjects understand what the priming task was about? No, and people’s automatic responses were unrelated to their answers on the questionnaire. Was that discrepancy due to an unwillingness to answer honestly, or were people unaware of their automatic attitudes? It is impossible to tell. Did people with the most positive automatic feelings about their spouses subsequently develop fewer problems in their marriages, or were they less sensitive to the usual number of problems? Subtle data analysis suggested the latter.
What does this study tell us, beyond suggesting that lovebirds should probably take this nifty computerized test before marrying? It reminds us, like much we learn about the brain and behavior, that we are subject to endless, internal biological forces of which we are unaware.
The original Science writeup is here.
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