Dating Decisions

Exploring turning points in romantic relationships

Love Is Abstract, but Sex Is Concrete

How your mindset affects your romantic expectations

What are you doing right now? Are you relaxing? Procrastinating? Gaining knowledge about psychology? Reading words on your computer screen?

You can construe any situation in a number of ways. In particular, you can frame most situations in either an abstract, long-term sort of way (e.g., I am gaining knowledge), or in a more concrete, immediate way (e.g., I am reading words). This difference in the way you choose to construe something—at an abstract versus concrete level—an actually predict a lot about your future behavior.1 For example, when people think about things abstractly, they tend to be more concerned with rewards and make choices that are in line with their values and ideals (e.g., “I should read Sam Joel's blog so that I can enjoy better relationship success”). In contrast, when people think about things concretely, they tend to be more concerned with risks and make choices based on pragmatic concerns (e.g., “I don’t want to be reading a blog post when my boss walks by my desk”).

Until recently, little research had examined how different construals might affect romantic judgments. Epstude and Fӧrster2 hypothesized that love—which, as we all know, is supposed to lift you higher, take you further, and last forever—would be associated with an abstract construal level. In contrast, they predicted that sex—which is often about the here and now, living in the moment, and enjoying the experience—would be associated with a more concrete construal level.

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Epstude and Fӧrster tested their hypothesis with an experiment. To put participants into either an abstract or concrete frame of mind, the researchers gave participants some task scenarios (e.g., “Hank plans to take driving lessons”), and asked them to think about the scenarios either concretely (How does Hank plan to take driving lessons?), or abstractly (Why does Hank plan to take driving lessons?). Next, the participants read a scenario about a romantic date that ended with the man walking the woman to her apartment. Participants were asked to predict what would happen next.

The seemingly unrelated construal manipulation (abstract vs. concrete) actually made a huge difference in the way participants interpreted the romantic date story. When participants read the scenario in an abstract frame of mind, they were more likely to think that the couple was in love and would wind up in a long-term relationship. When participants read the scenario in a concrete frame of mind, they were more likely to predict that the couple would have a one-night stand. The researchers ran two more similar studies and obtained similar results: abstract construal led to expectations of love and long-term relationship success; concrete construal led to expectations of sex.

Together, these studies suggest that a person’s frame of mind can have quite an influence on their romantic expectations. So, the next time you want to seduce someone into a single night of passion, go ahead and remind them about how great it is to live in the moment—it might actually work. Conversely, if you want to get someone thinking about you in a long-term sense, maybe try to spark up some broader-level conversations with them, about their life goals or their philosophical views. And if that doesn’t help…how about taking them to a modern art museum?


This post was originally written for the website Science of Relationships.

 

1. Trope, Y., Liberman, N., & Wakslak, C. (2007). Construal levels and psychological distance: Effects on representation, prediction, evaluation, and behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 17, 83-95.

2. Epstude, K., & Fӧrster, J. (2011). Seeing love, or seeing lust: How people interpret ambiguous romantic situations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1017-1020.

Samantha Joel, M.A. is a Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of Toronto.

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