The neuroscience of marriage: What's the point of a honeymoon, and when should you take it?
Nicholas Wright & Tali Sharot
Have you ever considered the real purpose of going away on a honeymoon? Where did the tradition come from? And is it in fact good for your marriage? Well, we are about to disclose that a classic theory in neuroscience suggests that a honeymoon is likely to enhance your chances of marriage bliss.
The term honeymoon goes as far back as 1546. At the time it merely defined the period proceeding the wedding when the relationship was at its sweetest (as sweet as honey.). During this private time, usually the first month of marriage, the bride and groom will have the opportunity to get to know each other, intimately.
Today, the term implies going away on holiday together post-wedding. This new custom originated in England in the early 19th century, and soon the rest of the world followed suit. Common destinations back then included Rome and Venice. Today the most popular honeymoon destinations are a bit more exotic; Mexico, Jamaica and the Dominical Republic are the top three with Europe coming in only at number ten.
Nowadays, by the time they get married most couples know each other quite well, many are cohabitating and some even have children together. Most couples have already shared many joint vacations. So what is the point of a honeymoon? Is it simply to celebrate the reunion? Or maybe to relax after the stress of the wedding? Yes, all of these are important, but there is another reason to go on honeymoon.
You have just started married life, even if you have been together for a while, you don't know what married life is like. You have to learn about it, it is not quite like anything else you have experienced. How do you learn?
Reverend Bayes provides an answer. Not his religious ideas, but his mathematical ones. It is called Bayesian theory and it is a good description of how our brain works. This is the essence of it: you first need to set up a belief (a "prior") about what it's like to be married. Then, any subsequent new information about married life is compared to your prior belief, and is used to update that belief. This new belief now becomes the prior belief for a new round of learning, and the cycle continues throughout married life. Here is the important bit - the starting point (your first set of beliefs) are crucial: if you have a rosy first view of matrimony you tend to ignore bad information that comes later, because it just does not fit well with how you see the world. But you still learn readily from good experiences.
The point here is that honeymoons are great (often long and luxurious holidays!) - and this helps set up a really positive belief with which to start married life. Your subsequent learning about “forever and ever” is through rose tinted spectacles, you'll tend to ignore new negative information but still find your positive belief confirmed by positive new information. And if you think great expectations just lead to disappointment read Sharot’s previous blog entry here (a more full account on the advantage and dangers of positive expectation can be found in Sharot’s book – The Optimism Bias).
OK, so that might be the point of a honeymoon from a Bayesian perspective, but does this have any implications in the real world? It does! If you're planning a honeymoon, make sure you go immediately after getting married to set up the best possible prior for married life. Don't start married life back at work (or else you will set up a more mediocre prior, unless you love work) and wait for a honeymoon.
Given what we know about the neuroscience of learning, how plausible is this? Well, Bayesian ideas have been hugely influential in explaining the brain, economics and human behaviour in general. To find out more about the Bayesian Brain, have a look at this great (and short) talk here. And for a picture from Nick’s recent honeymoon, have a look above.
Dr. Nicholas Wright is a neuroscientist, an associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment and a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow.
Dr Tali Sharot is a Wellcome Trust Fellow at the Department of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences at University College London and author of The Optimism Bias. She is the director of the Affective Brain Lab