It's All Relative

How comparisons create self-knowledge, action, and emotions.

The Lloyd Dobler Effect

How an 80s movie classic might have changed your romantic life

lloyd dobler
I came of age in the 1980s, when movies for teenagers focused on the minutiae of teenage life such as surviving Saturday detention, rather than heroically overthrowing an authoritarian regime. Those movies provided characters that were identifiable in our own lives. We all knew who the popular kids were, the nerds, the jocks, and the outsiders, and these movies demonstrated how these social groups interacted. Some of these movies also provided templates for romantic relationships, as we tried to figure out how to navigate the complicated world of acne, growth spurts, braces, and the potential romantic partners. Among many of my peers, Say Anything, a modest romantic comedy about a boy, a girl, and her father's tax problems, became the embodiment of what a boyfriend should be.

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Lloyd Dobler was the boy in the movie. He was a kickboxer and famously inarticulate in describing his life goals ("I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that"). Diane Court was the girl. She was the shy valedictorian who worked in her father's nursing home and won a scholarship to study in England. The magic of the movie was in Lloyd's pursuit of Diane. He took her to parties, taught her to drive, and when she broke up with him, stood outside her room, in the now legendary stance, with a boombox playing "In Your Eyes."

This movie has been called the Ultimate Chickflick, so it might be easy to see how women were affected by it. One could imagine that we spent the 90s looking for a gentle (yet strong), smart (yet humble), man who would stand outside our windows with Peter Gabriel expressing his thoughts.  Presaging the Lean In debate, we looked for a man who would follow us as we pursued our goals and ambitions, and who would support us in our aspirations. And, Lloyd Dobler from the middle-class Midwest was the ultimate example. Of course, compared to fictional Lloyd, what man could compare? And so women sought the impossible and men were thought to fall short.

Of course, this is an exaggeration—women didn't directly compare their potential beaus to Lloyd, and women didn't spend the entire 90s disappointed. But, psychology suggests that Lloyd, and other movie role models can have influenced our romantic satisfaction and decisions.

How could Lloyd influence you? According to Caryl Rusbault's Interdependence Theory of Romantic Relationships, when people make relationship decisions, they compare their current state to alternatives. It appears to be a relatively simple computation: if the current state is better than the alternatives, then people stay with their current partner or stay partnerless; if the alternative state is better than the current state, then people make a change. Importantly, it is the perception that there are better (or worse) alternatives out in the world that drives these decisions. These perceptions may arise from seeing the relationships of others, such as friends or parents, and from fictional characters, like Lloyd. Indeed, once the behaviors of Lloyd become ingrained in our definitions of what makes a good partner, we may forget the movie and forget the source, and the definition becomes automatic. In this way, John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler, Judd Nelson's John Bender, Matthew Broderick's Ferris Bueller, shape people's views of an ideal (and possible) romantic partner.

So, if we wanted to rid ourselves of the curse of Lloyd Dobler, how could we do it?

ferris bueller
One way would be to broaden the kinds of comparisons we make with Lloyd.  That is, there are many different dimensions on which we could compare potential mates with Lloyd. We could think of Lloyd as the dedicated and sweet partner, and clearly men would have difficulty competing with him on that stage. However, we could also think of Lloyd as a financial partner.  In that case, many men could compete with his lack of ambition and unwillingness to engage in commerce. An 18 year-old boy who doesn't want to buy or sell anything is interesting and rebellious, whereas a 40 year-old man who doesn't want to buy or sell anything could be a deadbeat. By broadening the criteria by which we judge our partners, we may free ourselves from unrealistic expectations and be more satisfied with what we have.

Camille Johnson, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and Associate Professor of Organization and Management at San Jose State University.

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