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A PhD in love? Relationship advice from McGill psychologists

Valentine’s Day may be about celebrating love, but it’s also a chance to celebrate the science that helps us understand love and other intimate interpersonal relationships. The McGill Tribune spoke to Catalina Enestrom, a graduate student working at McGill’s Lydon Lab, about the latest research on the psychology of relationships.

Assessing personality is tricky

We all know that first impressions matter, so how do you make a good one? And on the flip side, how do you know if you are judging somebody else accurately? To answer questions like these, researchers at the Lydon Lab conduct speed-dating studies, where participants are asked to rate others on a variety of factors such as attractiveness and personality.

In an article published in the European Journal of Personality, researchers found that participants positively rated the personalities of people they found more attractive. The results also showed that if someone was rated as less attractive on average but as more attractive by an individual, then the individual who found the person attractive was actually worse at accurately assessing their personality. 

The authors hypothesized that perhaps those judged as less attractive by the group were harder to ‘read’ personality-wise. If this were true, it would mean that even though the person who found them more attractive was paying close attention, they still weren’t able to form an accurate opinion.

Are you a good judge of how others see you? 

I don’t know about you, but this speeding-dating study makes me wonder: Am I good at gauging how other people perceive my personality? Thinking about what other people think of you is called meta-perception, and it’s an important aspect of our social behaviour. 

“So for example, I might be thinking right now like, do you see me as someone who is intelligent? Do you see me as warm?” Enestrom said in an interview with the Tribune

Being accurate about these perceptions helps you “course-correct” if necessary. 

“If I see that maybe you’re finding me a bit rude or off-putting, or like maybe I am talking too fast, […] then because of that I can make adjustments to it,” Enestrom said. 

In an article published in The Journal of Psychology, Lydon Lab researchers found that the accuracy of partners’ meta-perceptions do in fact correlate with their relationship’s well-being, especially regarding emotional and personal connections. 

Shared beliefs can act as anchors in stressful situations 

Meta-perceptions hint at another important aspect of interpersonal relationships: The differences and similarities between partners’ beliefs. The overlaps are referred to as shared reality

“It can be something as simple as the sort of small things that make up shared reality, like, ‘I saw this movie, and I saw it in the same way,’” Enestrom explained. “But it can be bigger things like ‘I see my work environment in the same way’.”

Having a sense of shared reality strengthens a relationship for many reasons, including making people confident in their experiences and fostering a sense of belonging. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Enestrom looked specifically at health-care workers who had non-health-care partners, and examined what effects shared reality had on their experiences. She followed couples through both the first and second waves of the pandemic, when they were experiencing unprecedented levels of instability and uncertainty, both in their jobs and their lives. 

“What we explored specifically in that paper [is] how does shared reality actually benefit the relationship despite having all this stress in this big, uncertain, unprecedented context,” Enestrom said. “One of the things that we really found was that perceived support stems from shared reality.” 

In a stressful situation like a pandemic, this shared reality and the resulting sense of support and stability was likely critical for health-care workers. 

Another stressful situation, for some couples at least, is Valentine’s Day itself. Enestrom sees a potential for different views of the holiday to fracture a couple’s sense of shared reality.

“One partner might be like, ‘Oh, this is just like a capitalist [construct], they’re just trying to make us spend all this money, it’s consumerist, et cetera,’” said Enestrom, “whereas another partner might see Valentine’s Day as […] a way to show that you care.”

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