Friday, December 06, 2013

Unconscious, not conscious, attitudes predict relationship success.

There has been some recent criticism of 'priming" experiments, in which subliminal presentation, particularly of emotional, stimuli is said to influence the outcome of a decision (see my Nov. 12 post). This is not to be confused with unconscious emotional attitudes, which indeed can be a variance with consciously expressed opinions. McNulty et al. do a nice demonstration of this effect, in showing that 'gut feelings' (implicit attitudes) are a better predictor of success in a marriage than explicit attitudes. They measured explicit and implicit attitudes of newlywed couples toward one another twice a year for 4 years. Over time, the implicit or unaware evaluations of the relationship predicted changes of marital satisfaction, whereas the explicit or conscious evaluations did not.

From their introductory explanation:
The explicit measure was an oft-used semantic differential that asked spouses to report the extent to which they would describe their marriage using 15 pairs of opposing adjectives (e.g., “good” versus “bad,” “satisfied” versus “dissatisfied”). The implicit measure was a version of an associative priming task that required spouses to indicate as quickly as possible the valence of positively and negatively valenced words after being exposed to 300-ms primes of photographs of their partner and various control individuals. An index of spouses’ automatic attitudes was formed by subtracting the time it took them to indicate the valence of the positive words from the time it took them to indicate the valence of the negative words. Both attitude indexes were standardized before analyses. Higher scores on both measures indicate more positive attitudes.
Here is the abstract of the article:
For decades, social psychological theories have posited that the automatic processes captured by implicit measures have implications for social outcomes. Yet few studies have demonstrated any long-term implications of automatic processes, and some scholars have begun to question the relevance and even the validity of these theories. At baseline of our longitudinal study, 135 newlywed couples (270 individuals) completed an explicit measure of their conscious attitudes toward their relationship and an implicit measure of their automatic attitudes toward their partner. They then reported their marital satisfaction every 6 months for the next 4 years. We found no correlation between spouses’ automatic and conscious attitudes, which suggests that spouses were unaware of their automatic attitudes. Further, spouses’ automatic attitudes, not their conscious ones, predicted changes in their marital satisfaction, such that spouses with more positive automatic attitudes were less likely to experience declines in marital satisfaction over time.


  1. The McNulty link appears to require a Wisconsin login. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Sorry, I've fixed the link so you can get to the Science article.