Talking Relationships with an "Attractionologist"
Turns out your gossipy girlfriend isn't the final authority on relationships—there’s actually a professional in that area. Meet Eli Finkel, associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University. In the Northwestern Self-Control and Relationships Lab, Finkel and his colleagues study everything from why we choose certain partners to how newer trends like speed dating influence our romantic choices. Here, Finkel answers a few questions about his career studying the science of attraction.
Your job as a social psychologist is pretty unique. How would you explain it to someone you've just met a cocktail party?
I get to study romantic relationships for a living and teach about it. Pretty sweet deal.
What initially attracted you to this field of study?
I've always been interested in romantic relationships, and I've always known, since high school, anyway, that I wanted to be a professor. When I learned that it's possible to do this professionally, it didn't take me long to commit.
You have been described by Psychology Today as an "attractionologist." How would you respond to critics who say this is a "soft" science? Why is this is a relevant field?
I'm not sure what the term "soft" science means. In my view, any definition of science should involve the use of empirical research methods—that is, data collection—to test hypotheses. Social psychologists do that just as much as, say, chemists, do.
With regard to the relevance question: it's hard to imagine many topics that are more important in people's lives than their closest interpersonal relationships. Imagine how much better life would be if we could improve people's social relationships by, say, ten percent. Besides, the topic is inherently fascinating.
You've conducted extensive research in the field of relationships. What finding has been most surprising to you?
The most surprising finding is the one Paul Eastwick [of Northwestern University] and I published in 2009 showing that we become more attracted to potential romantic partners simply as a result of having walked up to them. In this study, we randomly determined whether men walked up to women or women walked up to men, and found that people who physically approached a potential romantic partner were more attracted to him or her than people who were approached by a potential romantic partner. We've long known that we tend to approach potential partners if we like them, but this was the first study to show that we like potential partners because we've approached them.
Do you think your research and knowledge in the field of relationships has made you approach your own relationships differently? If so, how?
Yes, it probably has. I'm aware of the sorts of issues that tend to cause conflict in relationships, and those issues are frequently silly. I think I've become pretty good at avoiding silly conflicts. Of course, it helps that my wife is so wonderful.
What mistakes do you see women making most frequently in relationships? What about men?
Men and women approach relationships much more similarly than people generally believe. The idea that men are from Mars and women are from Venus is ludicrous. One of the trickiest things about relationships is balancing intimacy and independence. It's hard for each person to find the optimal balance between these two things, and it's even harder for both members of a given couple to find balances that work well with the partner's balance.
Your most recent study found that people actually disregard the 'list' of traits they think they want in a partner once they meet someone in person. With this in mind, how do you think people should go about looking for a mate?
I think people should meet potential partners in the flesh and blood rather than through online dating profiles. You can get a much more accurate sense of whether there's a spark within five minutes of meeting face to face than you can ever get in a profile.
What would science say about the way online dating sites like match.com or eharmony.com work?
Sadly, science hasn't said much about how such dating sites work. I have a paper coming out on that topic next year, so keep your eyes out for a press release.
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