We regularly hear people refer to their romantic partners as their “rock.” (My wife always says that she wishes I was The Rock, but that’s a different story altogether). What is it about large, dirty moss-covered stones that people love so much? Just joking, of course – the metaphor really centers on the idea that people want their partners to be there, through thick and thin, and to provide a sense of stability to their lives.
Generally, embodied cognition (also called embodiment) is the theory that individuals’ physical experiences subtly and unconsciously affect their psychological states. Recently, researchers used an embodied cognition approach to examine whether seemingly unrelated experiences affect individuals’ preferences for stability.1 Specifically, the researchers explored whether having participants experience physical instability affected their perceptions of others’ relationships as well as their desire for stability in their own relationships. To manipulate stability, the researchers randomly assigned some participants to sit in a chair that had a quarter inch (¼”) sawed off two of its legs and at a table that had a pebble glued to the bottom of one leg. (You know, if they wanted wobbly furniture, they could have just asked me to put it together! I can do some damage with an Allen wrench.). The other group of participants sat at an identical looking, but stable, chair and table. Next, participants rated the likelihood that various celebrity couples (e.g., the Obamas) would break up in the next five years, and then indicated their own preferences for romantic partners to possess various stability-related traits, such as trustworthiness (stable) and spontaneous (unstable).
The results were striking. Participants who sat at the wobbly table and chair were more likely to predict that the celebrity couples would break up than did participants who sat at the stable furniture. Essentially, the physical experience of instability led participants to interpret other people’s relationships as less stable. It doesn’t stop there. These same wobbly-furniture participants actually wanted their romantic partners to possess more stability-related traits, such as trustworthiness and reliability. In other words, not only does the experience of instability affect your predictions of breakup in others’ relationships, it also leads you to seek greater stability in your own relationship!
What’s the moral of this story? If you’re a manipulative, yet reliable, romantic partner, you can help make sure your partner doesn’t leave you by sabotaging all of their furniture. You could also take a first date to a place with well-leveled tables and chairs so they already feel stable around you. Then again, do you really want your partner to love you just because of the furniture?
For another example of embodied cognition in relationships, check out our previous post on partners who travel in similar directions to work tending to be more satisfied with their relationships.
1Kille, D. R., Forest, A. L., & Wood, J. V. (in press). Tall, dark, and stable: Embodiment motivates mate selection preferences. Psychological Science.
Dr. Brent Mattingly – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Mattingly’s research, broadly conceptualized, focuses on the intersection of romantic relationships and the self. His specific lines of research all examine how individual-level constructs (e.g., motivation, attachment, self-regulation) are associated with various relational processes.