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Recent research: six studies on couples - attraction, touch, viewpoint, comparison, empathy & sex

Here are half a dozen recent studies on men & women.  Elliot & Niesta found that red, relative to other colours, lead men to view women as "more attractive and sexually desirable".  Holt-Lundstad & colleagues randomized couples to a "support enhancement intervention" involving shared gentle massage for 30 minutes three times weekly or a control group.  There were encouraging effects of the "warm touch" on multiple stress-sensitive systems including husbands' blood pressure.  Koo et al found that writing about how something good might not have happened (e.g. how one might never have met one's romantic partner) produced more satisfaction (with the relationship) than writing about how the positive event actually had happened (e.g. how one did meet one's partner) - a sort of "absence makes the heart grow fonder" finding.  Pinkus & colleagues explored the effects of comparing oneself with one's partner.  Usually a self-comparison where one feels less than the other leaves one feeling worse about oneself.  Interestingly the reverse seemed true in close couples.  The authors concluded "owing to higher levels of empathy and shared fate with partners, comparisons function differently in romantic than in other relationships".  Vazire & Mehl found that "close others are as accurate as the self in predicting (our) daily behavior ... These findings suggest that there is no single perspective from which a person is known best and that both the self and others possess unique insight into how a person typically behaves".  Finally Witting et al showed, unsurprisingly, that female sexual dysfunction is often associated with partner compatibility problems and that (still after years of this being well known) "lack of foreplay" was regularly mentioned as a difficulty.  Wham, bam!? 

Elliot, A. J. and D. Niesta (2008). "Romantic red: red enhances men's attraction to women." J Pers Soc Psychol 95(5): 1150-64.  [PubMed]
In many nonhuman primates, the color red enhances males' attraction to females. In 5 experiments, the authors demonstrate a parallel effect in humans: Red, relative to other achromatic and chromatic colors, leads men to view women as more attractive and more sexually desirable. Men seem unaware of this red effect, and red does not influence women's perceptions of the attractiveness of other women, nor men's perceptions of women's overall likeability, kindness, or intelligence. The findings have clear practical implications for men and women in the mating game and, perhaps, for fashion consultants, product designers, and marketers. Furthermore, the findings document the value of extending research on signal coloration to humans and of considering color as something of a common language, both within and across species.

Holt-Lunstad, J., W. A. Birmingham, et al. (2008). "Influence of a "Warm Touch" Support Enhancement Intervention Among Married Couples on Ambulatory Blood Pressure, Oxytocin, Alpha Amylase, and Cortisol." Psychosom Med 70(9): 976-985.  [Abstract/Full Text]
Objective: To investigate whether a support intervention (warm touch enhancement) influences physiological stress systems that are linked to important health outcomes. Growing evidence points to a protective effect of social and emotional support on both morbidity and mortality. Methods: In this study, 34 healthy married couples (n = 68), aged 20 to 39 years (mean = 25.2 years), were randomly assigned to a "behavior monitoring" control group or participated in a 4-week intervention study in which clinic levels of plasma oxytocin, 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure, and salivary cortisol and alpha amylase were obtained pre and post intervention, at the same time salivary oxytocin was taken at home during weeks 1 and 4. Results: Salivary oxytocin was enhanced both early and late in the intervention group and alpha amylase was reduced at post treatment in intervention group husbands and wives relative to controls. Husbands in the intervention group had significantly lower post treatment 24-hour systolic blood pressure than the control group. Conclusion: Increasing warm touch among couples has a beneficial influence on multiple stress-sensitive systems.

Koo, M., S. B. Algoe, et al. (2008). "It's a wonderful life: mentally subtracting positive events improves people's affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts." J Pers Soc Psychol 95(5): 1217-24.  [PubMed]
The authors hypothesized that thinking about the absence of a positive event from one's life would improve affective states more than thinking about the presence of a positive event but that people would not predict this when making affective forecasts. In Studies 1 and 2, college students wrote about the ways in which a positive event might never have happened and was surprising or how it became part of their life and was unsurprising. As predicted, people in the former condition reported more positive affective states. In Study 3, college student forecasters failed to anticipate this effect. In Study 4, Internet respondents and university staff members who wrote about how they might never have met their romantic partner were more satisfied with their relationship than were those who wrote about how they did meet their partner. The authors discuss the implications of these findings for the literatures on gratitude induction and counterfactual reasoning.

Pinkus, R. T., P. Lockwood, et al. (2008). "For better and for worse: everyday social comparisons between romantic partners." J Pers Soc Psychol 95(5): 1180-201.  [PubMed]
The authors examined the frequency, direction, and impact of social comparisons between romantic partners. Comparisons were expected to occur on a daily basis, owing to regular interactions between partners. To the extent that one empathizes and shares outcomes with one's partner, one might respond more positively to upward than to downward comparisons. Study 1a was an experience-sampling study in which participants reported comparisons made to their spouse over 2 weeks. Study 1b examined reactions to the most significant comparisons made during the experience-sampling study. Participants reported making comparisons to their romantic partner more than once a day on average and experienced more positive responses to upward than to downward comparisons. Study 2 demonstrated that participants empathized and shared outcomes with their partner to a greater extent than with a friend. Study 3 confirmed that participants responded more positively to upward than to downward comparisons even for domains high in self-relevance and even when the comparison had negative self-evaluative implications. These results suggest that, owing to higher levels of empathy and shared fate with partners, comparisons function differently in romantic than in other relationships.

Vazire, S. and M. R. Mehl (2008). "Knowing me, knowing you: the accuracy and unique predictive validity of self-ratings and other-ratings of daily behavior." J Pers Soc Psychol 95(5): 1202-16.  [PubMed
Many people assume that they know themselves better than anyone else knows them. Recent research on inaccuracies in self-perception, however, suggests that self-knowledge may be more limited than people typically assume. In this article, the authors examine the possibility that people may know a person as well as (or better than) that person knows himself or herself. In Study 1, the authors document the strength of laypeople's beliefs that the self is the best expert. In Study 2, the authors provide a direct test of self- and other-accuracy using an objective and representative behavioral criterion. To do this, the authors compared self- and other-ratings of daily behavior to real-life measures of act frequencies assessed unobtrusively over 4 days. Our results show that close others are as accurate as the self in predicting daily behavior. Furthermore, accuracy varies across behaviors for both the self and for others, and the two perspectives often independently predict behavior. These findings suggest that there is no single perspective from which a person is known best and that both the self and others possess unique insight into how a person typically behaves.

Witting, K., P. Santtila, et al. (2008). "Female Sexual Dysfunction, Sexual Distress, and Compatibility with Partner." Journal of Sexual Medicine 5(11): 2587-2599.  [Abstract/Full Text]
Introduction. Few studies have looked at prevalence estimates for female sexual dysfunctions in combination with personal distress, although existing diagnostic criteria for sexual disorders include both aspects. Further, the variation in female sexual function has been shown to be largely explained by unique nongenetic factors. Such factors may include partner sexual function and perception of sexual compatibility with a partner, factors which may also be associated with sexual distress.  Aim.  We investigated the association between female sexual dysfunction and distress as well as their association with partner compatibility.  Methods.  In order to assess sexual function and distress, the Female Sexual Function Index and seven items from the Female Sexual Distress Scale were used in a population-based sample of 5,463 women, aged 18 to 49 years. The women were, based on cutoff points, classified as either having neither dysfunction nor distress, one of them, or both, separately for each dysfunction. Further, the associations between partner compatibility, distress, and sexual dysfunctions were analyzed. Sexual compatibility with partner was investigated by using several items exploring, for example, amount of foreplay, interest in sex, and communication about sexual matters.  Main Outcome Measures.  Associations between partner compatibility and female sexual function and sexual distress.  Results.  The proportion of women reporting both sexual dysfunction and distress ranged from 7% to 23%, depending on the dysfunction. Desire disorders followed by orgasmic disorders were most common. All compatibility variables were significantly associated with distress and with most of the sexual dysfunctions. The main complaints of the women were "too little foreplay" (42%) and "partner is more interested" (35%). The women feeling distress or having a sexual dysfunction reported more incompatibility with partner compared with functional women.  Conclusions.  The findings highlight the importance of addressing partner compatibility for successful treatment and counseling of female sexual dysfunctions.


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