In order for the scientific discipline of psychology to exist, we need participants who are willing to take our studies, come to our labs, fill out our measures, or answer our questions online. If you took Intro Psychology in college, chances are that you have been in a psychology study. If you’re planning on taking Intro Psych in college, this is one more thing to look forward to.
When people sign up for a study they often have to meet certain criteria. So we can study what makes relationships work better, relationship scientists often look for potential study participants who have recently fallen in love or who have had a long-term relationship. We also look for single people when we want to better understand attraction or how people start relationships. Those studies are often fun for researchers and participants because of the subject matter.
But as someone who has done research on break-up, I can tell you that break-up research can be tough. Often I’m looking for participants who have broken up recently while the experience is still new and somewhat raw. Thankfully, a lot of my research focuses on the benefits of break-up1 and coping with break-up2 so I get to help people focus on the positive aspects of their break-up (yes, there are many). But in some of my other research I’ve looked at how break-up results in a person feeling like they lose a part of who they are as a person.3 For these participants, they willingly volunteered to come to a study to talk about what is likely the last thing in the world they want to talk about: their break-up. The study essentially forces them to relive the experience, reflect on how it made them feel, how it changed them, and potentially how much it still all hurts. There has always been a little bit of guilt on my part as a researcher because of this procedure, but a new study suggests that participating in research can actually help a person with their break-up recovery.
How They Did It
Researchers had over 200 young adults who recently experienced a nonmarital break-up visit the lab to complete assessments over a 9-week period.4 Measures assessed participants’ break-up distress, loneliness, and changes to the self, as well as a stream of consciousness measure where participants spoke in response to several prompts (e.g., “When did you first realize you and your partner were headed towards breaking up?” and “How has the breakup affected your thoughts and feelings regarding romantic relationships?”).
Researchers randomly assigned participants to one of two conditions: measurement-intensive or pre-post conditions. Those in the measurement-intensive condition visited the lab a total of 4 times (at weeks 1, 3, 6, & 9) to complete assessments, whereas those in the pre-post condition only visited the lab twice (at weeks 1 & 9). Over the 9 weeks, the measurement-intensive condition spent much more time on research related measures (3 hours) than the pre-post condition (45 minutes).
What They Found
When the researchers compared the two groups at Time 4 (after accounting for where participants’ started with their scores initially at Time 1), they discovered that participants in the measurement-intensive condition had less self-concept disturbance. In other words, those who went to the lab more and completed the measures more frequently were more likely to feel like they had regained their identity and felt more like their self. Follow-up analyses showed that the measurement-intensive condition’s decreased self-concept disturbance leads to less break-up distress and loneliness compared to the pre-post group. In essence, by completing more measures participants’ sense of who they are was more stable and clear,, which allowed them to have better outcomes at the end of the study.
What These Results Mean for You
As much as it would help researchers studying break-up, these results don’t necessarily mean that you should look to participate in a research study the next time a relationship ends. It just isn’t practical. But, more importantly, it probably isn’t the research study per se that is responsible for the benefits. We can’t know for sure without other research being conducted, but it is likely that the benefits of responding to more measures has to do with the frequency with which participant had to objectively and critically evaluate themselves and their former relationship.
Whereas it may feel better to avoid thinking about how bad the break-up hurts, trying to not think about something often makes you think about more, otherwise known as ironic process theory.5 For example, try to not think about the first person you ever fell in love with. See that? I bet you just thought about that person, even though I said to NOT do that. When it comes to your break-up and your former partner, the same applies. This study also emphasizes the benefits of rebuilding your sense of self and being clearer about who you are when coping with break-up.
If you’d like to learn more about our book, please click here (or download it here). Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.
1Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., & Bizzoco, N. (2007). Addition through subtraction: Growth following the dissolution of a low quality relationship. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(1), 40-54. doi:10.1080/17439760601069234
2Lewandowski, G. W., Jr. (2009). Promoting positive emotions following relationship dissolution through writing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(1), 21-31. doi:10.1080/17439760802068480
3Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., Aron, A., Bassis, S., & Kunak, J. (2006). Losing a self-expanding relationship: Implications for the self-concept. Personal Relationships, 13(3), 317-331. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2006.00120.x
4Larson, G. M., & Sbarra, D. A. (2015). Participating in research on romantic breakups promotes emotional recovery via changes in self-concept clarity. Social Psychological & Personality Science. doi: 10.1177/1948550614563085
5Wegner, D. M. (1994), Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, 34–52. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.101.1.34
Dr. Gary Lewandowski – Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski’s research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.