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Why Can't You Leave Your Partner for Someone Better?

New research results may surprise you.

How do we decide to remain in relationships when someone better comes along? How do we decide to stay with our current partners when surrounded by appealing alternative choices? In addition to research on infidelity, robust research on the “status quo bias” suggests the possibility that, as with many other choices, we may be inclined to stay with what is familiar when it comes to relationships. This effect may help to keep relationships stable in the shorter term, and consolidate them in the longer term as other factors kick in, and we become more attached over time and want to protect the considerable investments we have made in relationships.

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The status quo bias and investment effects may make it hard to leave relationships, even when they are harmful for us. These issues are even more pressing in modern times, when we are constantly presented with appealing alternatives, especially in large urban centers, given the growing presence of internet dating and pornography. Such influences may expose us to a dizzying array of alternative mate options far beyond what we might experience in a smaller community, and give those in smaller communities many more options.

To investigate the possibility of status quo bias in romantic relationships, which had not been previously studied, Gunaydin, Selcuk, Yilmaz, and Hazan (2017) conducted a seven-part examination of romantic relationships, looking at a sample of more than 1,500 young-adult participants. They focused on different facets of relationship decisions, ranging from personal choices to the effect of specific qualities of available alternative mates to the effect of the approval or disapproval of their current and alternative mates from other people in their social networks.

Studies and Results

In the first study, which had three parts, the researchers presented the participants with vignettes enabling them to imagine leaving their current partners to be with an alternative partner embodying competing characteristics along dimensions of trustworthiness, attractiveness, and wealth.

Here’s an example of a vignette the participants received:

"Imagine that you have been involved in a romantic relationship for three months and recently were introduced to a new person through mutual friends. You realize immediately that this alternative partner is romantically attracted to you. You find your partner (in this scenario) to be more physically attractive, and you feel more physical chemistry. But you feel like your relationship sometimes takes a back seat for your partner, and it is sometimes hard to get their attention or support when needed. In contrast, the alternative seems like a person who would understand and support relationship partners and who would value relationships. But the alternative is less physically attractive than your partner, and there is much less physical chemistry between you."

They found that the status quo bias was strongly influential, as participants tended to stay with their current choice when presented with alternatives. For example, those who imagined they were with a trustworthy partner wanted to stay with that person over a more attractive alternative. Those who imagined they were with a wealthy partner preferred to stay with them over a more trustworthy partner, and those who imagined they were with a wealthy partner tended to choose to stay with them over someone more attractive. Regardless of the condition, those who imagined their current partner possessed a given trait were more likely to express a preference for that trait to remain the status quo.

In the second study, investigators looked at whether disapproval from one’s social network would alter the status quo effect. Using a parallel design with vignettes, as in study 1, they provided additional information about social network approval or disapproval. They found the same status quo bias was present; however, when friends or family were described as disapproving of the current partner, the status quo effect disappeared. For example, in the presence of disapproval by one’s social network, participants no longer felt they would choose to remain with a trustworthy partner over an attractive partner (a similar finding about the influence of social network on decision-making when deciding to break up after infidelity).

In the third study, they surveyed the participants regarding underlying factors which could influence the decision to leave one’s current partner for someone newer and better, including the challenges of starting a new relationship, reluctance to hurt the current partner, and how participants compared the qualities of the current and alternate mate. With more than 300 participants (both men and women), they used the scenarios from the first two studies, and examined the underlying factors going into the decision-making.

They looked at:

  • Experimenter demand — whether participants believed the researchers wanted them to make whatever choice they made.
  • Conformity to social norms — whether participants made their choice based on what they though most people would do.
  • Decision time — the amount of time it took to make the decision.
  • Effort required to switch to the alternative — including both time and energy required.
  • Construal of the partner and alternative — how they saw each on dimensions other than the three used in the vignette, including qualities such as intelligence and confidence.
  • Ambiguity avoidance — looking at how uncertainties about starting a new relationship over the current one would influence the decision.
  • Concerns about hurting the current partner — to see how much influence a desire to avoid hurting the current partner affected the participants' choice.

Again, the researchers found the status quo bias; in particular, people preferred trustworthiness over attractiveness when forced to imagine choosing between partners who had one or the other trait, but not both. They found that the choice to stick with the status quo was most strongly influenced by ambiguity avoidance, concerns about hurting the partner, and a more favorable construal of the current partner with a less favorable construal of the alternative (also paralleling factors influencing infidelity link).

In the final study, the researchers created a live laboratory condition to look at what factors influenced the decision to stay with the current partner versus an appealing alternative. Female participants, having been presented with one partner’s profile in a dating simulation, were offered the option of switching to a different partner. The profiles were designed to get at the underlying factors of trustworthiness, attractiveness, and wealth by presenting different combinations of these traits, and presenting them along with neutral information to create a plausible dating profile. For example, some profiles presented men who were equally attractive, but different in terms of wealth and trustworthiness (“critical profiles”), while other profiles were presented low on trustworthiness, wealth, and attractiveness to help conceal the true purpose of the experiment (“filler profiles”). Female participants were presented with four profiles — one critical profile and three filler profiles — and asked to write down why they chose the one they chose (the critical profile) in order to increase their commitment to that choice. The researcher then left the room with all the paperwork and returned shortly thereafter.

The researcher pretended she had made an error in leaving out a profile she should have given the participant in the first place. The researcher then left the room and returned with two profiles, the status quo profile the participant had chosen, and the other critical profile. In this way, participants were made to choose between one status quo critical profile and the other alternative critical profile, varying trustworthiness and wealth while holding attractiveness constant. Participants where then asked why they had chosen to either stick with their first choice or switch to the new option. Participants were debriefed afterward, including receiving an apology for being deceived. The results of this study further supported the status quo bias, and also showed a preference for trustworthiness over wealth.

Further considerations

The overall effect of status quo bias across all studies with 1,567 participants gave a correlation coefficient of 0.438, a moderately strong, statistically significant effect. Partner choice is “sticky,” even early on in an interaction, though other factors are involved beyond maintaining the status quo, including disapproval by one’s social network, which could wash out the tendency to stick with what is familiar. Given that this effect was observed in simulated dating scenarios, it will be important to study the status quo effect in real relationships, both new relationships and long-standing ones.

As noted, investment in the relationship over time is likely to be an important factor as well, and one with an evolutionarily adaptive component of protecting allocated resources, supporting child-rearing by pair-bonded couples, and helping to maintain the stability of monogamous choices in the face of tempting alternatives. Status quo bias is not necessarily rational, however: While it may confer adaptive advantages in many situations, it may also lead people to remain in romantic pairs which no longer meet their needs or which may actually be harmful, representing an unconscious influence to take into consideration when weighing difficult relationship decisions.

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Gunaydin G, Selcuk E, Yilmaz C & Hazan C. (2017). I have, therefore I love: Status quo preference in mate choice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Dec. 24. doi/full/10.1177/0146167217746339