Blake Riley

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Psychology of Intimate Relationships video course

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Lectures from a UCLA course on love, attraction, marriage, and conflict are available free online. As a way to escape everything else on my plate right now, I started listening to these yesterday. The course is taught by Benjamin Karney, with assistance from Thomas Bradbury. Karney in particular is an entertaining speaker, and who doesn’t want to have a better understanding of love and relationships? My notes on the first four lectures follow.

Flash videos:
RealPlayer videos and mp3s:
Additional accompanying videos at: (Based on the first few, these videos are not that interesting and don’t add much. Despite being less than ten minutes each, my attention wandered quickly.)

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Lecture 1: Course Introduction

In this lecture, Karney defines intimate relationships, points out how important they are in our lives, and identifies the big mystery in the field. To him, the really interesting question about love is why it changes over time,  possibly despite our desires for it to stay the same.

04:00 — Interdependence as a measure of whether a relationship exists; the degree to which the actions of one entity affects the outcomes of another determines the degree the two are related.
06:30 — Dimensions of interdependence: frequency of contact, duration of contact, diversity of types of interactions, direction of influence (uni- vs. bi-directional), and strength of influence
13:30 — Hence, a close relationship is one of strong, frequent, and diverse interdependence that lasts over a considerable period of time.
14:30 — Close relationships include family, friends, and intimate relationships, but this course only focuses on intimate ones, so what is intimacy?
16:30 — Sexual potential is a necessary, but not sufficient, component.
18:30 — Fidelity: you don’t care as much if your friends have other friends, but intimate partners are treated as special and unique, with a possessive element.
23:00 — Intimate relations are really, really powerful. Constitute our highest highs and lowest lows, to the point of affecting our health and longevity.
27:30 — Lying and deception: white lies are told to strangers, but the big lies are saved for close partners. If a wife is murdered, the first place to look is the husband.
31:00 — Holding a partner’s hand reduced the threat of an electric shock delivered in a brain scanner, and the stronger the relationship, the greater the effect.
33:00 — Couples that are nicer to each other tend to live longer.
35:00 — Why do some relationships last and some don’t?
36:30 — Over 50% of first marriages dissolve through divorce or legal separation.
37:40 — Divorce rate is highest in the second year, and declines steadily from there.
39:00 — Younger age of marriage correlates with higher rates of divorce, as well as remarriages.
41:00 — Rather than ask what prevents divorce, maybe we should care about what makes a relationship satisfying.
43:00 — However, we have a good sense of what makes a marriage satisfying: trust, humor, good sex, chemistry. The huge mystery is why things change.

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Lecture 2: Methods of Studying Families and Couples

To objectively study an abstract topic like love, researchers must identify a concrete representation to measure. Methods of study include self-reports and direct observation, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. Because relationships are so important, research must be conducted carefully to remain ethical, but the potential benefits of understanding are enormous.

09:30 — Relationship science measures constructs, i.e. abstract ideas like love, commitment, or satisfaction. These can’t be studied directly, so a construct is operationalizalized by translating it into concrete terms.
14:30 — Health is a construct, but number of visits to a doctors is an operationalization.
15:00 — Self-reports are one possible measure of love. Only way to discover some things.
17:30 — Zick Rubin constructed one of the first love scales, a list of 13 questions for the respondent to rate agreement on a scale from 1 to 9.
23:00 — Self-reports are easy to conduct, cheap, and quick, but people are apt to lie or simply not be aware of the truth.
26:00 — Couples were asked to check a list of activities they did together over the last 24 hours, and agreement only occurred 50% of the time.
29:00 — Another strategy is systematic observation of verbal communication, emotional expressions, length of eye gaze, or biological responses.
47:00 — Observation can be very relevant (if you choose the metric well), has lots of detail, and requires concrete definitions.
48:45 — On the other hand, it’s very expensive, must be done with the subject aware they are being observed, and we don’t always know what a behavior means to the people involved.
54:30 — Cross-sectional research helps with description of what traits are associated with others. Longitudinal research helps with prediction.
57:00 — Type of research can lead to contradictory results.
59:00 — Cross-sectional data showed marital happiness increased steadily from 20 years on, but longitudinal data showed satisfaction declining through married life.
61:00 — Who are we studying?
65:00 — How ethical is the research?
68:00 — A study involving one group being repeatedly questioned and another only at the beginning and the end, and intense study magnified existing feelings. Good relationships became better and bad ones became worse.

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Lecture 3: Theories of Intimate Relationships, Part I

Theories are like maps: they are better to the extent they correspond with reality, but also leave out details. They provide direction for further research by organizing existing knowledge. Two prominent theories are based on evolutionary history and childhood attachment. Evolutionary psychology looks to selection pressures in our ancestral environment that are carried over into the modern world. Attachment theory says that the mental models we build in childhood of how loved ones treat us are also applied in adulthood to romantic partners.

Note: A UC San Diego class was mentioned where the students did exercises designed to make them fall in love with paired partner. The class was taught by Robert Epstein, who was profiled in this article. Epstein wrote an article in Scientific American Mind on how we fall in love, along with descriptions of the exercises. Some include embracing and synchronizing breathing, gazing into each others’ eyes for two minutes, mimicking each others’ actions, sharing secrets, standing four feet apart and moving slightly closer every ten seconds until almost touching, and placing palms close, but not touching, and trying to sense the other person. Each is inspired by research, and said to increase closeness even with complete strangers.

02:00 — We develop personal theories about love to navigate our own relationships.
03:30 — “Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” — Henri Poincaré
07:00 — What does a good theory do? Organizes existing knowledge, explains in a parsimonious way, makes specific predictions, and guides measurement decisions.
12:30 — A good theory of relationships should encompass the full range of predictors, specify mechanisms of change, and account for variability between between couples and within couples over time.
17:00 — Theories can be organized by how far they look back into human history.
17:30 — Evolutionary psychology looks for motives when seeking and dealing with a partner in ancestral environments. “Human seek specific mates to solve specific adaptive problems that their ancestors confronted during the source of human evolution.” — David Buss.
24:30 — Psychological mechanisms are the tendency to think and respond to a certain situation in a certain way, and are passed down just like physical traits.
30:00 — Our psychological mechanisms is adapted to living on the African savannah, not modern society.
33:00 — Theory of Parental Investment posits that the particular facts of human reproduction — women bearing a small number of children that require a high investment from the mother, but not necessarily the father — exerts the most influence on sexual preferences.
37:00 — Women should prefer men capable of protecting them and men should prefer women who are more fertile because of the differential costs.
40:40 — David Buss showed women find emotional infidelity worse than sexual infidelity, and vice versa for men.
45:00 — This result held internationally, across cultures and levels of development.
49:00 — The evolutionarily instilled psychological mechanisms are not necessarily conscious.
54:40 — Does the theory only pick out obvious predictions? A striking result: Ovulating women should be more sensitive to cues of reproductive fitness. To test this, college men were tested for physical symmetry, a known marker of genetic health. They were given clean t-shirts to wear while sleeping. Women who were ovulating preferred the scent of more symmetric men, even though other women couldn’t discern the difference.
61:00 — However, evolutionary theory doesn’t account well for differences within genders or how relationships change once they are formed.
62:00 — Attachment theory looks into our personal past, to the relationships we formed as children with our parents.
66:00 — From those early relationships, we develop mental models about whether others will be available to care for us, which are also applied to relationships.
67:00 — Mary Ainsworth showed babies tend to have three styles of attachment: secure, avoidant, and anxious/ambivalent. These ways of coping continue into adulthood.
69:00 — Same system might have evolved to deal with parent-child and lover relationships.
72:00 — Attachment theory can explain where our standards and expectations for intimacy come from and why we end up in the same types of relationships.

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Lecture 4: Theories of Intimate Relationships, Part II

Other theories of love include Social Exchange Theory, Social Learning Theory, and Social Ecological Theory. The first says partners evaluate relationships based on their net rewards and costs. The second focuses on how partners respond to each others’ actions, with behavior being conditioned by repeated interaction. The last looks to external influences like culture or major events to explain how relationships differ and why they change.

05:30 — Best prediction of poverty is recent divorce.
09:30 — Social Exchange Theory posits partners evaluate the rewards and costs ssociated with being in the relationship, along with the alternatives. Recognizes that satisfaction with a relationship is not the only net outcome of the relationship.
14:00 — Rewards include material gains, status, comfort …
15:00 — Costs include pain, lost opportunities …
16:30 — Satisfaction is the difference between the outcome and expectations. Dependency is the difference between the outcome and the alternatives. The two are correlated, but could be very different.
23:00 — The theory predicts break-ups and divorce. Between 20-40% of people who file for divorce never follow through, possibly because the costs become more salient.
26:30 — Explains why some distress relationships continue, but still doesn’t address change well.
32:30 — Social Learning Theory says our behavior is molded and shaped within relationships. Rewarding and punishing interactions affect later behavior and judgments.
37:00 — Behaviors accumulate. Negative behaviors might be met with rewards in the short-term, but bring long-term costs. Nagging might bring desired actions right now, but in the future, communication might jump to resistance and yelling.
43:00 — Capability to spontaneously generate positive emotion can sustain a relationship.
45:00 — Reactions to behaviors mediated by cognitive models; same action might be interpreted differently at different times or by different people.
48:00 — Social Learning suggests researchers should observe actual interactions.
51:00 — Good couples have conflict, but can prevent negative feedback loops that make the conflict grow and continue.
53:00 — The theory suggests interventions can successfully improve relationships.
55:30 — Explains how relationships change through accumulated negativity, but leaves out where negative behavior originally comes from and how spontaneous improvement improves.
58:00 — Last theory is Social Ecological Theory, which looks to the stresses, supports, and constraints in the surrounding environment.
66:30 — Suggests culture and SES should be taken seriously.

Written by blakeriley

2010.03.14 at 20:46

Posted in notes, psychology