Thursday, April 26, 2018

Marriage Starts Changing you Before Marriage

Having a long-term view supports the ability to delay gratification and invest in the future. Having a short-term view provides no reason for delay and favors immediate gratification. These points are central to understanding marriage and cohabitation, as well as how people manage money.

 A recent study examines the way financial time-horizons are impacted by relationship transitions, specifically, going from being single to cohabiting and from cohabiting to being married. Barbara Fulda and Philipp Lersch conducted their study using a large data set in Australia, motivated by this question: Is there reason to be concerned about the future financial prospects of aging Australians in a world where marriage is declining and cohabitation is increasing? It’s a good question, and their study is excellent.

Their foundational assumptions were these:

·       People with longer time-horizons about finances will save more for the future.
·       Marriage and cohabitation have implications for time-horizons, and likely impact financial behavior.

In their study, financial planning time-horizon was measured with a question that asked, “In planning your saving and spending, which of the following time periods is most important to you?” The question allowed responses ranging from “The next week” to “More than 10 years ahead,” with many options in between. Importantly, the analyses are not about actual long-term savings. Rather, they examined what happens to this planning variable across relationship transitions, with the plausible argument that changes in financial horizons would reflect something about long-term financial outcomes.

Fulda and Lersch used a variant of what economist and sociologists call (in near worshipful tones) “fixed-effects,” which I believe to be a variant of what psychologists call “within-subjects effects.” Such analyses take advantage of data sets with over-time measurements from the same individuals; in this case, to capture changes from before to after specific transitions. While such analyses do not control for all types of selection (such as who is on this path or that path in the first place), they do control for other aspect of selection. For example, individuals vary in conscientiousness, and that could impact everything of interest here. Even without conscientiousness being measured, the fixed-effects models will control for such variance because of how people are being compared to themselves over time. This gives new meaning to the phrase, “control yourself.” (Researcher humor is the best humor.) Another example of this type of thinking can be found in a paper by Galena Rhoades, myself, and Howard Markman on changes in relationships across the transition into cohabitation (see here). I’ll come back to that.

Fulda and Lersch found that cohabiting individuals had longer financial time-horizons than singles, and that financial planning horizons increased over the transition to cohabitation. There was mixed evidence of people’s financial horizons increasing further during cohabitation. In contrast, financial horizons did not increase when transitioning into marriage.

In their words, “Cohabiting individuals’ financial planning horizons thus had already increased prior to their transition into marriage.” Further, “we did not find convincing evidence for a change in the financial planning horizon before and after marriage, . . ..” That is, marriage “seems to contribute little to a longer financial planning horizon relative to cohabitation.” My quibble is on that point.

Fulda and Lersch believe the driver of the observed effects is the development (or establishment) of increased commitment during cohabitation. I think that is likely correct, but I also think the matter and meaning of the timing is more complex.   

Early in the discussion of their findings, Fulda and Lersch make an important comment.

These results can be interpreted as extending previous research on the following two distinct groups of cohabiters: Those who intend to marry and those who do not. Poortman and Mills (2012) showed that the first group resembles married couples in their partnership characteristics. In this study, we expand on this finding and show that financial planning horizons of cohabiting couples’ who eventually get married remain stable as a result of their high commitment to their relationship when they transition from cohabitation into marriage.

There are different types of cohabiting unions. Some are like marriage, many are not; some become more like marriages over time, and then turn into marriages. That’s part of why cohabitation is a more ambiguous (and heterogeneous) relationship status than marriage. This is likely somewhat less true in Australia[i] than in the United States. because of a legal system that makes cohabitation more like marriage there. Here in the United States, anyway, cohabitation contains very little information about commitment. Marriage plans, however, contain a lot of information.

Sociologist Susan Brown and colleagues havedrawn attention to the fact that cohabiting couples with plans to marry tend to be, on average, a lot like married couples (see also, this).  In a related vein, but differing in an important way, my colleague Galena Rhoades and I have found that, among couples who end up marrying, those who started cohabiting only after having clear marriage plans (such as after engagement or who move in together only after marrying) tend to do better in marriage than those who had not decided the big question about the future beforehand (for more on those studies, see here). Deciding you want a V8 ahead of time beats “I coulda had a V8” while already holding something else. (Want to take a trip through memory lane on that? Here, knock yourself out. That’s some ancient wisdom right there.)

Furthermore, we have found cohabiting prior to engagement or marriage is associated with asymmetrically committed relationships, and that such asymmetries do not appear to change after marrying. And, as I’ve written before, asymmetrical commitment is not good.

Fulda and Lersch do not, and likely could not, examine a variable that estimates the timing of when couples who married developed their mutual plans to marry. I expect that a lot of the action behind what they found lies there. In addition, while they believe that the development of commitment between partners is the most important mechanism in play, they also do not have a measure of that to analyze. Thus, the measure of financial horizon is sort of doing double duty in their thinking.

Coming back to the study noted earlier by Galena Rhoades, me, and Howard Markman, we found that commitment itself—as in dedication to one’s partner—tends to stop increasing after the transition into cohabitation. It levels off, and not at the particularly high level. Taking these points all together, Fulda and Lersch do not have a way to look at the actual timing of changes in interpersonal commitment, nor can they look at the exact timing of when mutual plans for marriage develop. It would be interesting to look at their research question with access to such measures.

To be clear, I have little doubt that financial planning can change with cohabitation. However, I suspect that Fulda and Lersch’s cohabitation-transition effects are likely, and largely, a proxy for the effect of developing marriage plans before cohabiting or while cohabiting. Either way, the effects Fulda and Lersch are attributing solely to cohabitation seem mostly to be marriage effects occurring before marriage. There is nothing nearly as re-organizing for a relationship as deciding on, and setting plans for, a life together.

Cohabitation, Marriage, and Time Horizons

I believe marriage effects start long before a couple walks down the aisle. Similar effects can occur without marriage if a mutual and high level of commitment emerges. However, marriage remains the strongest cultural signal encoding such a commitment. [ii] Sure, some institutional effects of marriage will begin with the wedding, but the wedding day typically celebrates changes in commitment that have already occurred.

Fulda and Lersch concluded that concerns about the long-term financial prospects of Australians may be overblown. Bolstering this conclusion is the fact that the laws and mores in Australia make cohabitation a near functional equivalent to marriage. I do believe it is a different deal there compared to the United States. However, there are reasons to think that long-term implications of cohabitation versus marriage may still be substantial for children, even in societies where the two statuses have become close in legal equivalence. This fact was recently documented by Brad Wilcox and Laurie DeRose with a multi-national data set.[iii]

Marriage may eventually lose its status as the strongest signal of commitment to “us with a future,” but I do not think that day has yet arrived. Until marriage disappears, marriage effects will start before marriage.

First published to the blog of the Institute for Family Studies on 4-9-2018. 

[i] As an aside, the first scholar to nail the issue of the fundamental ambiguity of cohabitation was Jo Lindsay—an Australian research doing a qualitative study on cohabitation first published in 2000 based on interviews in the early 90s.
[ii] For more on the matter of signals of commitment, I recommend: Rowthorn, R. (2002).  Marriage as a signal.  In A. W. Dnes and R. Rowthorn (Eds.), The Law and Economics of Marriage and Divorce (pp. 132 - 156).  New York: Cambridge University Press.; Nock, S.L.  (2009). The Growing Importance of Marriage in America.  In H. E. Peters and C. M. Kamp Dush (Eds.), Marriage and Family: Perspectives and Complexities (pp. 302-324). New York: Columbia University Press.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257.
[iii] Wilcox and DeRose found a consistent and seemingly large difference in family stability for children of married versus cohabiting couples in many European countries; countries where cohabitation with children has legal characteristics similar to marriage. The larger story here is constantly unfolding into the future, but such findings suggest that marriage still represents a different commitment to the future than cohabitation.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Citations for Tests of the Inertia Hypothesis about the Timing of Cohabitation and Marital Outcomes

This post is to provide citations relevant for some of the work Galena Rhoades and I (and colleagues) have conducted on the subject of premarital cohabitation, specifically, the prediction of a timing effect related to when couples moved in together and marital outcomes. 

Before any of these studies were conducted, we predicted that couples who cohabited only after engagement (or marriage) would, on average, do better in marriage than those who began to cohabit prior to having such clear, mutual plans to marry. This is the inertia hypothesis. It is explained clearly in the citations under “theory” below.

This prediction has found support in every place where we know it possible to test, including findings in 7 studies using 6 different samples.

For a non-technical summary of this line of reasoning, click here.

For an annotated summary of our research on cohabitation, including abstracts and thinking from study to study, click here.
My goal here is to give easy access to relevant citations. Where possible, I give links that provide access to the entire article.

Theoretical Papers

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.  [You can read the entire manuscript as a PDF, author version here.]

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257.

The first paper below, Kline et al., (2004) also has a lot of theoretical background in it as well as being the first major test of the inertia hypothesis about the timing of cohabitation relative to the timing of becoming engaged to marry. 

Empirical Findings for the Engagement (marriage plans) Effect

Kline, G. H., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Olmos-Gallo, P. A., St. Peters, M., Whitton, S. W., & Prado, L. (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 311-318.

Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 107-111.

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 906-918.

Goodwin, P. Y., Mosher, W. D., & Chandra, A. (2010). Marriage and cohabitation in the United States: A statistical portrait based on Cycle 6(2002) of the National Survey of Family Growth. Vital Health Stat 23 (28). Washington D.C.: National Center for Health Statistics.

Manning, W. D., & Cohen, J. A. (2012). Premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution: An examination of recent marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 377 - 387.

Rhoades, G. K., and Stanley, S. M. (2014). Before “I Do”: What do premarital experiences have to do with marital quality among today’s young adults? Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project.

Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., & Allen, E. S. (2015). Can marriage education mitigate the risks associated with premarital cohabitation? Journal of Family Psychology, 29(3), 500-506. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Journal of Family Psychology Special Issue on Military Familly and Deployment

Here are links to the February 2018 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology. The links I have included are all the ones pertinent to military families. You can access the abstracts here with the links provided. 

Journal of Family Psychology Volume 32, Issue 1, (Feb)

Page 1-2
Sayers, Steven L.; Rhoades, Galena K.

Page 3-11
Sayers, Steven L.; Barg, Frances K.; Mavandadi, Shahrzad; Hess, Tanya H.; Crauciuc, Andreea

Page 12-21
Knobloch, Leanne K.; Knobloch-Fedders, Lynne M.; Yorgason, Jeremy B.

Page 22-30
Carter, Sarah P.; Osborne, Laura J.; Renshaw, Keith D.; Allen, Elizabeth S.; Loew, Benjamin A.; Markman, Howard J.; Stanley, Scott M.

Page 31-41
Balderrama-Durbin, Christina; Erbes, Christopher R.; Polusny, Melissa A.; Vogt, Dawne

Page 42-48
Wilson, Steven R.; Marini, Christina M.; Franks, Melissa M.; Whiteman, Shawn D.; Topp, Dave; Wadsworth, Shelley MacDermid

Page 114-122
Miller, Katherine E.; Koffel, Erin; Kramer, Mark D.; Erbes, Christopher R.; Arbisi, Paul A.; Polusny, Melissa A.

Page 123-133
Chesmore, Ashley A.; Piehler, Timothy F.; Gewirtz, Abigail H.

Page 134-144
Allen, Elizabeth; Knopp, Kayla; Rhoades, Galena; Stanley, Scott; Markman, Howard

Friday, February 9, 2018

“That Decision Wasn’t Made There”: A Super Bowl Insight on Commitment

I’m sure there is some lesson about commitment in most any Super Bowl, but I think sports commenter Colin Cowherd (@ColinCowherd) gets at something special in his observation about Super Bowl LII, which you can find in this video onYouTube.

I’ll describe the key point, but if you have a few minutes and want to take it in, Cowherd makes his point with style. From 0:00 to 2:47 will do the job.

Before going to substance, I want to declare my conflicts of non-interest. I’m neither a fan of the Eagles nor of the Patriots. I’m not much of a football fan, except that I do now hope the Broncos get Foles for next year. Further, I didn’t care about who would win this game until it was going; and once it was, I started rooting for the Eagles. I’ll cop to that.

What Cowherd Observed

Commitment is about making a choice to give up other choices. It’s about deciding. Clear decisions anchor commitments, and the timing of those clear decisions often matters. In contrast, sliding through key moments is letting stuff happen to you, and it can result in losing options before making a choice. I’m usually making these points about marriage and family, but they apply to everything important. Cowherd gets at what is one of the most important insights about commitment that Galena Rhoades and I are often highlighting.

Cowherd focuses on the Eagles decision to go for it on fourth down, trailing by 1 point, with 5:40 left on the clock. Teams usually punt in that circumstance, and I thought the Eagles would do just that in the hopes of stopping New England and getting the ball back. (There’s a growing thought around the NFL that teams should usually be going for it on 4th-and-1, by the way, but that’s not been the convention. It might start to be.) My youngest son thought they would go for it. He was right, and he’s the one who got me to watch Cowherd give his analysis.

Of that moment, on 4th-and-1, Cowherd says, “That decision wasn’t made there.”

I think he’s exactly right. Cowherd observed that the Eagles didn’t even call a time out to think about it, and on a play that he believes is one of the gutsiest calls in Super Bowl history. Instead, the Eagles already knew what they were going to do. In fact, they’d made a similarly bold 4th and 1 conversion in the first half, when the Eagles’ quarterback Nick Foles became the receiver for a touchdown. I’ve watched enough football to know that if you are going for it on 4th-and-1, you are usually trying a brute force attempt, not some utterly surprising trick play.

Here’s the good part. Cowherd attributes the Eagles’ game play to a decision made two weeks before by the Philadelphia coaches in a meeting. A decision that was talked about, thought about, and that guided the Eagles minds and motivation over the past couple weeks. They had pre-decided to go for it, all the time, every time. It’s fair for you to think I have now become totally mired in sport’s cliché drivel. You know, “they left it all on the field.” “They came to play.” “They dug deep.” Could be, but I think Cowherd’s right to imply that this is not that. Or, at the least, I’m going to suggest it’s more than that.  

As Cowherd notes, The Patriots have a history of getting behind and then coming back and destroying the other team, often in a final drive at the end of the game. It’s kind of a brand. They’ve turned the tide more often than you’re ever going to see something like detergent commercials in Super Bowl games.

New England is a widely disliked team for a number of reasons, and I think the biggest reason goes beyond a few notable, naughty behaviors. It’s not just balls that get deflated around New England. It’s teams. It’s cities. I think what people feel about the Patriots is archetypal. New England represents the relentless challenges of life that too often wear us down and wipe us out. They crush our dreams as time is running out. That’s who the Eagles were playing, and that is important here.

Cowherd observes that the Eagles had decided, two weeks before, this:

“We’re not going to be Atlanta. We’re not going to outplay New England and lose.”
“We’re not going to be Jacksonville. We’re not going to outplay New England and lose.”
“We’re not going to be Pittsburgh. We’re not going to outplay New England and lose.”

The Eagles had pre-decided they were going to play this game with a highly disciplined abandon. They ran some risky plays. They kept pushing hard even when ahead. The Eagles weren’t waiting for the Patriots to happen to them in the usual way of life.

Why isn’t this a typical sport’s cliché? Because of the timing of the key decision.

Timing is a Lot of the Things

Timing may not be everything, but timing is a lot of the things that matter most. Before my metaphorical final drive (the next section of this piece), two quick points about timing and commitment from my area of theory and research: One point is about parental commitment and babies and the other is about the timing of commitment relative to living together.

When a couple is having a child, it matters a great deal whether or not they had decided before conception if they were doing life together. A couple can decide after a baby is on the way to build a life together, but that’s a decision being made on 4th down, during a time-out, in the middle of the pressure of the big game. A decision about the future is best made when the future is not already here.

When a couple moves in together, it matters whether or not they’ve already decided they are committed to the future--beforehand. Living together makes it harder to break up, and a lot of people don’t see this until they are deep into the game and behind on the scoreboard. As our research has shown, those who marry, or who have at least gotten engaged, before moving in together tend to do better once married. Does that mean the other couples are doomed? Surely not. It’s an edge, an advantage. Nothing is a slam dunk (oops, wrong sport!). Anyway, the point is the same as the one above about babies. It helps when the big decision about the future was made before the two people were already constrained by their situation.

When it comes to consequential moments that can be life altering, it’s best if you can say, “That decision wasn’t made there.”

This Gets It

There are a lot of times in life where you are going to fail because you’ve not decided ahead of the critical moment what you are about and what you are committed to do. I don’t mean you can anticipate everything that will happen. You can’t. Sometimes, you need to change something in your pre-decided plan. Sometimes, you need to call an audible or else you’ll get mauled.

I also don’t mean to suggest that clear commitments at the right time for the right reason always insulate you from loss. None of us knows how the game is going to play out, including in our relationships. It is a fact recently demonstrated that you can play out your game plan, executed relatively well, produce 505 yards of offense—and still lose.

But in the main, those who have decided beforehand what they are going after, and how deeply they are committed to achieving it, will come out ahead, whether it is in marriage or work or anything else that matters. Why? Because you are not chronically trying to decide—in the moment—what would have been better decided beforehand. 

That “I’m doing this.”

This article was first released on the blog of The Institute for Family Studies on this same date

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Help for Your Marriage

This list of resources has been as a downloadable link on the side (over there > > >) on my blog for years and I decided to make an entry out of it so that it's more accessible for people.

The list is necessarily limited. There are many other resources that many people have found helpful.  I am listing things what I believe may appeal to different segments of people who follow my work. That means listing some resources that are secular and others that are faith-based—and some that are in between.  Also, I only list books and web-based interventions and not countless other resources on the web (e.g., counseling centers, blogs, ministries). Look around to find what best meets your needs.

Disclosure: I am co-author or author of three of the books listed here and I am a partner in the company that publishes the online intervention ePREP listed below.

Books authored or co-authored by me and colleagues

Other great books (Alphabetical order, by author)

Web-based interventions for relationships

There is excellent research on ePREP and Our Relationship.

The Power of Two: An online alternative to marriage counseling

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


Teens and young adults are showing sharp increases in anxiety and depression. Jean Twenge, author of iGen, has drawn a great deal of attention to these trends. Here, I describe her argument and then build on it to suggest that social cuelessness may be contributing to the problems.

The Trends

Anxiety and depression have increased substantially among teens in the U.S. over the past 5 years or so[i], trends also seen in other advanced economies.[ii] Twenge (@jean_twenge) wrote about this phenomenon in an article in The Atlantic as well as in her book. While such problems have been increasing for decades (see another media story on this featuring Twenge in 2009), there does seem to be particularly sharp uptick of late. Twenge suggests that wide adoption of smart phones is the primary culprit. In the Atlantic piece, she writes:

It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.

Twenge believes that the dominant driver of these effects is social comparison. Social comparison speaks to the fact that we are happy or not based both on how our lives are going as well as on how we think the lives of others are going. With humans, it’s never just about me, it’s always about me among them. Smart phones, combined with social media tools such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, provide endless opportunities for social comparison. Again, quoting Twenge from her article in the Atlantic:

For all their power to link kids day and night, social media also exacerbate the age-old teen concern about being left out.

While she may or may not be correct, it’s a good hypothesis.

Consider Melissa, a 16-year-old from New Jersey who is tuned in and locked on. On some days, she’s out with her friends doing what friends do—talking, laughing, sharing videos and pictures from their lives and also the internet. When not out with friends, Melissa is at home, by herself. Sort of. She’s never really by herself because her phone is always with her. Like so many others, and maybe especially other teens and young adults, she spends a lot of time monitoring what’s happening “out there,” with special attention to the lives of those in her social network—as well as the Kardashians.

What does Melissa see as she stares through her phone out into the world? She sees people having fun, doing exciting things, touting accomplishments and, worst of all, she sees evidence of people being together, without her.

Do people normally post their boring moments, failures, and comments on their isolation on social media? Okay, yes, some do that. There are plenty of YouTube sensations featuring people sharing their misery. Schadenfreude is even more common. Of course, there is the mundane stuff that plenty of people share on social media. It’s fascinating to know what someone got to eat for lunch. Actually, not so much—at least not to me.

More often, what we see are indicators of success, connection, and prime-time “in-group” experiences. In addition to feeling left out, anyone with a smart phone or other device now can watch endless documentation of how successful or gorgeous their peers are—and feel worse about themselves by the moment. Instant dis-gratification. (I just made that word up. So, no, you cannot go look it up on your phone right now. Keep reading. Focus.) If you were a little fragile already about your self-esteem and development as a younger human, you’d be primed only to notice the stuff that makes you feel bad about yourself.

Making the situation worse is the fact that app and device designers are perfecting ways to keep you from looking away. The whole system is literally addiction by design (though, I can accept arguments either way about whether this fits a true addiction model). The power of devices to capture our attentions has led to mounting concerns about how seriously distracted we are if our phones are anywhere nearby, with evidence that just having phone nearby while having a meal with friends or family reduces how much we enjoy doing so.[iii] Everything about phones and apps is designed to say, “notice me.” Your mind wants to check that you are not missing something important. (Give me a moment while I check my Twitter account. Wow. Just since I started proofing this draft, I got liked several times. That’s so nice. I matter. Noticefication. Follow me: @DecideOrSlide)

I think Twenge is correct that these dynamics are part of the mix in the rise in teen anxiety and depression. She also notes other factors that doubtless play significant roles, including loss of sleep, lack of interest in going out beyond the home, and reduced face-to-face contact with friends. There may be so many other factors in play. Maybe the trends in anxiety and depression will start to move downward, soon. Who knows, but it’s not difficult to believe that we are living through one of the most extraordinary changes in how humans interact in history.

My Hypothesis

I think increases in anxiety and depression for teens and young adults may be exacerbated by cuelessness. Cue, not clue. I think the rise in cuelessness is consequential.

In the Age of Ambiguity, Cuelessness abounds in Dating and Mating

I (along with colleagues like Galena Rhoades) have argued that one of the most profound changes in dating and mating over the past 40 years is the rise of ambiguity.[iv] There used to be much more structure—more steps and stages and publicly understood markers—to indicate where people were at or headed in their romantic relationships.

I think this trend toward ambiguity is motivated. One aspect of this argument is that ambiguity feels safer than clarity in an age where people are uncertain of relationships lasting. That means romantic (and sexual) relationships form in an environment with a paucity of cues about who is really interested in who, who is committed, and to what degree. Sure, there are still cues (engagement remains a big signal of commitment), but not like there used to be. In plays and movies, scripts specify cues for specific actions, scenes, transitions, and lines. Dating and mating have become relatively scriptless, and scriptlessness feeds cuelessness.

My colleagues and I have written a lot about ambiguity in romantic relationships. If you want to read more: here, here, or here, or way back here.  

In addition to the specific cuelessness of modern dating and mating, it would not surprise me if the increasingly, generally ambiguous pathway into adulthood on many dimensions contributes to the mental health of emerging adults. However, those domains, along with dating and mating, have been going through large changes for some time. Twenge may be onto something to suggest that the recent sharp rise in anxiety and depression could be linked to the appearance of smart phones in our lives. Now, I will double down on that idea.

Devices and Social Media are Optimized for Fostering Experimental Neurosis

There is a classic series of studies in the history of behaviorism (classical conditioning, specifically) that focused on inducement of experimental neurosis in animals. The physiologist Pavlov is believed to be the first to observe and widely discuss this phenomenon. He noticed how discomforted his laboratory dogs were when initially learning to discriminate between stimuli that meant food was coming versus not. Pavlov was famous for getting a neutral stimulus to produce salivation by pairing it with the original stimulus (food). You can make a name for yourself by studying spit if you can generalize your argument.

Pavlov, and many others, started testing what would happen to dogs (or other animals) as they made it increasingly difficult to discriminate between stimuli. In the most famous paradigm, he would have pictures of circles indicating food was coming while pictures of various forms of ellipses would mean no food was coming—and then he made the ellipses increasingly like the circles so that it was hard for the dogs to discern the difference. The dogs would break down. They would get agitated and howl or curl up and get passive, or otherwise freak out.

Think a moment about how stressed you might get if, all of a sudden, you could no longer discern whether a stop light was telling you to stop, or to go, or to floor it. (That’s the true meaning of yellow, right?)

A pretty good definition of experimental neurosis is given in the TheFreeDictionry: “a behavior disorder produced experimentally, as when an organism is required to make a discrimination of extreme difficulty and "breaks down" in the process.”

That’s cuelessness. It’s not simply the complete absence of cues. The dogs received cues but they had trouble getting them. Cuelessness also comes about when there is an inability to reliably discern the meaning of cues you can plainly see. Apply that thought to how intently a teen or young adult might be trying to decode stimuli about their social situation as reflected in the soft glow of their phone.

“Is he really interested in me?”
“Did she mean to cut me out of this invitation?”
“Why won’t he follow me?”
“Why didn’t she ‘like’ my post?”
“How did all my friends end up getting together tonight without me knowing about it?”
“What does that winking smiley face really mean?”

Back in the heyday of research on experimental neurosis, another method for inducing it was by  simply increasing the delay in time between the signal and getting the food. This had a similar negative effect on the dogs. How often have you heard about people becoming fraught over waiting for someone they are interested in to get back to them, especially by text, about what was happening next? “Is he going to get back to me about getting together?” “Why hasn’t she responded to my text message, yet? It’s been hours.” The agony of such delays in the dating world are well described in Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg’s book, Modern Romance. It’s a thing, and it’s all stimulus and delayed response or non-response. Some of this comes from fears that a quick response would be too unambiguous, and could mean one had caught feelings or was desperate or was, you know, actually interested in the other. Clarity is so uncool.

I think something like experimental neurosis could be contributing to the rise in anxiety and depression among teens and young adults. Everyone functions best when there are reliable cues about things that they care about the most. At work. At home. At play. In love.

Can You Hear Me Now? Not Really.

Quiz: What’s the number one thing that teens and young adults do not do on their phones? Calling people. It is no accident that messaging systems on our devices now have a proliferation of emojis and special effects. Why’s that stuff there? First, per my earlier point: emojis are part of the nuclear arms race of features designed to make sure you cannot look away from your phone. Second, typed words can be misunderstood, particularly in cryptic messages. Perhaps you have experienced a time when you realized some friend, loved one, or colleague got the wrong idea from what you wrote in email or text, when that would not have happened had you made a phone call. Emojis are supposed to add some emotional information to the message, but do they? Maybe a little, but hold that thought. I won’t make you wait too long. J

The author of a new series of studies, psychologist Michael Kraus, concludes that there is much more information about emotion in voices than in facial expressions.[v] Kraus is particularly interested in empathic accuracy, which he argues is a foundational element in healthy social connection. In fact, he noted that, “a dearth of empathic accuracy is a common symptom
of many psychological disorders.” Kraus further notes that speech is a “particularly powerful channel for perceiving the emotions of others.” In fact, cues in speech convey a lot of information about emotion even when the receiver cannot understand the words.

Sure, there is plenty of information in someone’s face, but Kraus argues that there is more in the voice. Contrast that with how little emotional information can be in a text message. Sure, texts can convey 100% of the relevant information when the point is merely to say, “I’ll meet you at 3:15 at the coffee shop at 1st and Elm.” But a text is going to be pretty thin on information about the true emotion the other is feeling. Since texting conveys relatively limited information about emotion, it may be pretty limited in fostering empathy and understanding when something more is at stake. (That does not mean that texts are not useful, including for teens at higher risk.[vi])  

Teens and young adults are particularly tuned to their social networks, including whether or not they matter to others. We all are, but it seems reasonable to posit that this is an intense dynamic when younger. The paradox here is that, while masses of information move across electronic devices, there often is not a lot of there, there, when it matters most—such as when trying to decode if someone is interested as a partner or actually cares if you have been left out.

In the specific domain of love and attraction, we live in the age of ambiguity, and devices and social media are not optimally designed to clear things up.  

Back to smiley faces and winking emojis. You might ask, why aren’t emojis as useful for conveying emotions as hearing someone’s voice? Obviously, one point is that it’s a simpler system. If a voice conveys more information about emotion than a real face, how much less information is contained in an emoji?

But I have a better answer than that. It’s easy to send a little smiling face no matter what you are feeling. Complex systems of lie detection may yet be based on voice-tone but they are not ever going be based on emojis. When you send an emoji, you could be happy or placating and send the very same text with a smile. The emoji one sends is the emoji one intends to send. If there is a reason to mask true feelings or to mislead, it’s so easy to do that in text—in voice, not so easy.

If you get on the phone with someone you know who is having a bad day or feeling something else strongly, you are vastly more likely to detect it. It’s hard to hide what’s real in the voice because voice is cueful not cueless. In fact, if you are a teenager and something is wrong, and you want your parent to help (and, if you have a parent you trust), you should call. Your parent will hear something in your voice that you can hardly hide, and I think it will change the nature of what happens next, usually for the better.

While I’d like to suggest that we all people up and talk more, I know that idea is quaint. It seems entirely possible that texting has become preferred, in part, because it allows everyone to be doing two or more things at once, without having to give away the fact that we can be reading something on the web or watching TV all while sending some texts back and forth with another person. Last week, there was a few minutes where I was texting with my wife, one of my sons, and a colleague—all at the same time. A conference call would not have worked.

There is a lot in favor of text, emails, and social media posts because they are asynchronous. Those on the receiving end do not have to respond in the same moment as when the message is sent. But the cost of the convenience is a thinning out of the information available, especially about emotion. And emotion is the good stuff of social connection, as Kraus notes.

I should note that a clear message does not have to be the one you wanted to receive. William and Sonya are college juniors who were “dating” for a couple of months when William broke it off by text. Sonya was not pleased to get the text but at least he didn’t ghost her. Even though breaking up by text may seem immature, not to mention heartless, at least the message Sonya received was clear. Pavlov’s dog would rather know for sure that no food is coming than be in distress trying to get the signal straight.

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My hypothesis is that the current, substantial increases in anxiety and depression among teens and young adults may be exacerbated by decreases in the reliability of information about relationships that can be found in devices, messaging, and social media. I’ve argued before that upcoming generations may have more attachment insecurities than prior ones because family instability has likely continued to increase (even though divorce rates have trended down). If so, that could mix with the growing cuelessness of society to increase the challenges for young people. It might be a blip and the kids will be alright. It might not be.

It’s just a hypothesis. I wanted to write it up because all these themes happened to be colliding in my head within the same week, and they seemed to revolve around something. More broadly, the trends could be nothing and these ideas may be off track. Also, I didn’t set out to pose solutions. I leave you cueless. It’s the age we live in, I guess.

[i] For examples of news reports on this, see here and here and here.
[ii] Here’s a news article from the U.K., as an example.
[iii] Dwyer, R., Kushlev, K., & Dunn, E. (2017). Smartphone use undermines enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Advance online publication.  
[iv] I link to various accessible pieces later in this section. Some of the scholarly references for this point include: Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Fincham, F. D. (2011). Understanding romantic relationships among emerging adults: The significant roles of cohabitation and ambiguity. In F. D. Fincham & M. Cui (Eds.), Romantic relationships in emerging adulthood (pp. 234-251). New York: Cambridge University Press.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Scott, S. B., Kelmer, G., Markman, H. J., & Fincham, F. D. (2016). Asymmetrically committed relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407516672013
[v] The author, Michael Kraus, showed that there is more information that enhances empathy in the voice than in the face. He theorizes that people often intentionally communicate their feelings through voice. I am not as sure about that point as much as the idea that it may be hard to hide one’s feelings from being expressed in tones of the voice. Regardless of that point, Kraus suggests that there is a lot of emotional information in voice and less in the face. And, I’d argue that there is vastly less in text and email. In an age of ambiguity in relationships, that may be exactly what is preferred.  Kraus, M. W. (2017). Voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy. American Psychologist, 72(7), 644-654.
[vi] A study on a convenience sample of high risk teens suggested that they were less anxious and depressed on the days that they texted more, not less. However, the same study found that, on days they texted more, they also had more attention and conduct problems. There is a lot of complexity in all this and much to be sorted out. Citation: George, M. J., Russell, M. A., Piontak, J. R., & Odgers, C. L. (2017). Concurrent and subsequent associations between daily digital technology use and high-risk adolescents’ mental health symptoms. Child Development. Advance online version.