On the cover of his recent book, Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari is pictured standing against a white background, with hearts over his eyes, looking down solemnly at his cell phone. The image evokes some confusion (he appears to be searching for something and doesn’t appear very happy). It seems Ansari has set out to clarify things; his book aims to tackle many important questions that young adults have in the dating world of 2015. What makes a person attractive? Can people really find love through a website or a phone app? Are people only interested in sex these days? How does dating in America compare to dating in Europe, Asia, or South America? And what’s the secret to a happy relationship? Ansari is attempting to capture the essence of close relationships in our era and to address the existential crises that many millennials feel as they try to navigate their lives and make the right decisions. Ansari is a powerful voice for my generation – one that speaks with confidence, clarity, and creativity. He is a comedian, a writer, and an actor – he’s starred in some very popular TV shows and movies, and is a prolific stand-up comic. But Ansari stands out from his colleagues in that his book strives for scientific accuracy. He’s not just looking to make people laugh, he’s looking to educate them and to shine a light on some mystifying social phenomena. In writing this book, Ansari teamed up with renowned sociologist Eric Klinenberg and consulted with several high-profile psychologists including Barry Schwartz, Helen Fisher, Eli Finkel, Sheena Iyengar, and others.
Scientific Research in Modern Romance
In addition to discussing social norms and trends in modern dating, Ansari discusses some classic studies from the field of attraction and relationship science. He includes the widely-cited “bridge study,” in which researchers manipulated physiological (or body) arousal by having male participants walk across a rickety suspension bridge (which got their blood pumping a bit faster), and after that, meet a female actor who was part of the study. Compared to a control group of men who walked across a standard, sturdy footbridge, these shaky bridge men were significantly more likely to call this woman and ask her out, thus demonstrating that attraction is in part caused by associated bodily arousal.1 Ansari wastes no time in applying this to successful dating – he suggests skipping the traditional, low-key dinner/drinks, and doing something more exhilarating like going to a monster truck rally. There is validity to this advice – research consistently shows that new and exciting activities are linked with increased attraction and romance. Scientists call this process misattribution of arousal and also refer to excitement as part of the self-expansion process.2
Ansari also discusses the paradox of choice, and how new technologies powered by the Internet allow people to connect with hundreds, if not thousands of potential partners. He suggests that having all of these options makes people less satisfied with their dates. There is research evidence to support this as well – in dating and with other commodities, the more options people have seems to correlate with less satisfaction with their choices.3 However, Ansari notes the opposite may be true as well, as he describes some anecdotal evidence from people living in small towns who lament their lack of dating options. It seems that the two extremes (having too few options and having too many) may be causing some distress as people struggle to find relationship happiness.
Elsewhere in the book, Ansari talks about long-term relationships, and tackles the uncertainty many people have when trying to choose a life partner. Should you choose your spouse based on whether you feel a high degree of passionate romantic love, or something more rational? Is it realistic to think that those early feelings of passionate love will last a lifetime? Ansari includes perspective from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who suggests that it’s perhaps unwise to strive for unending passion in your romantic relationships because that would distract you from other noble pursuits (e.g., raising children, having a meaningful career). Maybe the hot steamy passionate love is best experienced in young adulthood, leaving more stability and security for later years, so that people can effectively experience and accomplish other life goals. This requires a bit of faith though, as no scientific study has compared the relative happiness in a life of constantly high romantic passion with a life of less passion but more stability. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that marriages based on passionate love are better than other marriages – for instance, some studies show that people in arranged marriages have just as high (if not higher) satisfaction over time than people with marriages based on dating/courtship. Thus, passionate love need not be a prerequisite for marriage.
Psychology vs. Sociology
Overall, the book is great. It’s very funny and insightful, and touches on a nice diversity of topics in dating and relationships. But there’s one thing that struck me as I read it, and I want to make sure any readers approach this with a careful eye. Throughout the book, Ansari and his sociologist partner conduct focus groups, where they gather a handful of folks together for unstructured interviews (and some surveys) about their dating and relationship experiences. The responses they get in these focus groups make for the real meat of the book, and they seem to be very confident in drawing conclusions about the entire population based on a handful of anecdotes. For a careful reader, this should raise some eyebrows. While Ansari does a great job of incorporating published scientific evidence into his musings about modern romance, the new information that he and Dr. Klinenberg gathered for the book is somewhat limited. Yes, focus groups and unstructured interviews can be very useful. They’re great for case studies that highlight a few life experiences in depth as examples of larger trends. But psychological scientists would be a bit more cautious, and would definitely use other methods to rigorously test theories about human behavior. A good scientist certainly wouldn’t draw sweeping conclusions about millions of people based on the anecdotal testimony from a few that happened to participate in an informal discussion.
Still, one can hardly fault Ansari (who has no formal scientific training as far as I know) with over-generalizing based on limited evidence. These stories he collected do have value in terms of starting discussions and making us all think more deeply about our own behavior. This might also reflect some of the differences between psychology and sociology. Psychologists tend to prefer controlled laboratory studies, with conditions that we can manipulate, to ensure a high degree of internal validity (meaning that we are more confident about the associations between variables). By contrast, sociologists (such as Dr. Klinenberg who helped with the focus groups in Modern Romance) may gravitate toward more qualitative methods (like unstructured interviews), which are less easily controlled and less empirical, but are beneficial in terms of getting more authentic information from people about their experiences. Both fields (psych and soc) produce information that is interesting, informative, and have value in terms of how we look at the modern human experience.
1Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510–517.
2Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Heyman, R. E., Norman, C. C., & McKenna, C. (2000). Couple’s shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273–284.
3Lenton, A. P., Fasolo, B., & Todd, P. M. (2008). “Shopping” for a mate: Expected versus experience preferences in online mate choice. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 51, 169-182.
Dr. Dylan Selterman – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman’s research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy.