When doing research for my new book, Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World, I got to revisit many fascinating and infamous studies from the annals of psychology's Hall of Fame—electric shocks, simulated prisons, doomsday cults, how we remember 9/11. Some of these you may recall from a college psychology class; others may be more obscure. What struck me most, however, is just how many of them are relevant to modern relationships. And the more we understand our behavior, the better we can understand ourselves and act in healthy ways.
Here are four classic psychological principles that help explain how you behave with the people around you:
1. The Gain-Loss Theory of Attraction
Eliot Aronson and Darwyn Linder's groundbreaking 1969 social psychology research discovered a curious phenomenon: We like someone more if they didn't seem to like us at first but then came around, as compared to whether they seemed to like us from the beginning. This helps explain why we may want to ditch our tried-and-true friends or lovers after winning over someone we thought we had no chance with (the plot of many a Hollywood movie and teenage melodrama).
The gain-loss theory also applies to the workplace. Let's say you have two bosses: One is kind and generous with praise, whereas the other never seems to approve of anything that you do. One day, you finally give an amazing presentation, and the usually gruff boss compliments you heartily, and is positive and warm with you the entire week. Suddenly, you don't think that formerly gruff boss is so bad after all. You feel validated because you won them over; and you now think of them as discerning and hard-to-please instead of cruel and unfair—and the fact that you passed their test makes you appreciate them even more. Before long, this boss might become your favorite. You then leave the boss who's always been your supporter in the dust, setting yourself up for a drama-ridden roller coaster if (and when) the gruff boss goes back to his or her usual ways.
This classic psychological principle, established by Leon Festinger in 1957, says that when we have two dissonant—or conflicting—pieces of information, our brains are uncomfortable and will try to reconcile the discrepancy. The two pieces of information are often at odds with our opinions and our actions, and this constantly plays out in our relationships. Let's say you are dating someone new whom you are lukewarm about. The person is nice, funny, and moderately attractive, and a date is better than staying at home with Netflix. After your family meets the person, however, they openly disapprove. They say he or she is arrogant and boring, and they can't imagine what you see in them. This starts the dissonance, with two conflicting pieces of information: There is evidence that this person may not be a great choice for you to date, and you are dating this person. Since you'd still rather date this person than be home alone, you seek to reconcile these pieces of information by changing what you can—the validity of the "evidence." So you start to convince yourself that your family must be jealous or biased or simply doesn't know your date well enough. You convince yourself that they are wrong, to help get rid of that evidence—and the dissonance. Before long, your attempts to reject your family's opinion result in your singing your date's praises, convincing yourself he or she is actually great. Your family's disapproval—and your discomfort with cognitive dissonance—has made you go from lukewarm about the person to being all-in—and it may just suck you into a subpar relationship.
3. Approach-Avoidance Conflict
Kurt Lewin's 1947 theory says that we can get paralyzed with indecision by the fight between our desire for a certain something versus our discomfort over the drawbacks of it. This, unfortunately, can keep many of us trapped in unhealthy relationships or workplaces. Let's say you've been in a relationship for two years with someone you love but who treats you poorly at times, and probably holds you back from some of your greater goals in life. When you spend a day or two thinking about it on your own, you always end up concluding that you need to pull the plug on the relationship. That becomes the goal. But when you wake up the next morning and think of approaching that goal, you are flooded with all of the scary elements of it—breaking his or her heart, disentangling your finances and belongings, being lonely, and eventually having to start dating again. These negatives are felt more and more acutely the closer you get to actually breaking up with the person, which makes you want to avoid doing it. And so it pushes you back into inaction, and the cycle repeats. Lewin argued that this type of conflict can paralyze you for indefinite periods of time, because it's inherently stable and balanced, making you not want to rock the boat.
It is sometimes said that couples tend to look more and more similar the longer they are together. Why is this? Do their facial features pick up signals from each other and grow matching cartilage? Does a time machine go back and revise their DNA to make it more similar? Nope. It likely has a lot to do with Albert Bandura's 1963 social learning theory, which emphasizes how we learn through observation. Did you and your partner gradually develop similar laughs, after years of hearing each other's? Have you gradually started to dress in similar styles? Do you now roll your eyes the same way, have the same mannerisms as you quote someone, mispronounce words in the same manner, or bite your nails together when nervous? Social learning can also apply to health behaviors and how we take care of ourselves—our eating habits and activity levels, the care we give to personal hygiene, and whether we smoke, drink, or get a lot of sun.
These all then impact our appearance, and when our health behaviors begin to match our partner's—which happens passively over time, just by the subtle forces of living together—then our physical appearances may start to look similar as well. This, of course, can work for better or for worse, as even when we don't intend to or realize it, we often mimic the behaviors around us that we are consistently exposed to—especially if we admire the person. So beware if your longtime mate develops a habit that's bad for them: It's all too easy for you to pick it up yourself, and it just might show in the mirror someday.
For more on classic psychology theories and how they influence your daily life, order Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World today!
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Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and speaker who serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. She is the author Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World and The Friendship Fix, and her mental health advice column Baggage Check has appeared in the Washington Post Express for more nearly twelve years. She speaks to audiences large and small about relationships, work-life balance, and motivation, and is a television commentator on mental health issues. Write your mental health questions to the column at firstname.lastname@example.org, and don't miss the discussion on facebook and twitter.