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Choose Your Own (Romantic) Adventure

There's a new way to learn about how we make relationship decisions.

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Morgan DDL/Shutterstock
Source: Morgan DDL/Shutterstock

Many of us who were kids in the 1980s and 1990s have fond memories of the then-popular interactive, second-person novels of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series. In these books, you, the reader, got to choose the protagonist’s fate by making a series of decisions about what he or she should do next. And now researchers have found a way to use this interactive format to study how people make important decisions about their relationships.1,2

In the "Choose Your Own Adventure" relationships study, participants read a story about a fictional romantic relationship. Every so often, the reader/hero or heroine encountered some sort of dilemma. Perhaps you read that your partner gets a call from an ex and ends up spending a little too long on the phone. At this point, you, the participant, must choose how to handle the situation: Do you stay cool, or do you get upset with your partner? Because the participants believe that their choices will influence what happens next in the story, the decision feels like it has consequences, which makes the situation feel pretty realistic for a lab experiment.

So far, Vicary and colleagues have used this paradigm to discover how different types of people handle specific relationship situations:

  • Vicary and Fraley1 found that people with an anxious attachment style (colloquially described as “needy” or “clingy”) tend to react pretty negatively to jealousy-inducing situations like the one described above.
  • Turan and Vicary2 also found that people with more knowledge about relationships were better at recognizing which choices were beneficial for romantic relationships, and which were potentially damaging. However, only people who were also motivated to maintain and improve their relationships actually chose the more relationship-enhancing behaviors. Thus, knowledge about relationships is useful, but not sufficient: People make the best relationship choices when they also feel secure in their relationships, and when they are motivated to make those relationships work.

Altogether, the "Choose Your Own Adventure" paradigm appears able to help researchers learn more about decision-making in relationships, which has until recently received little empirical attention. Of course, when scientists try to investigate a particular phenomenon, relational or otherwise, it’s important not to rely on just one technique. Researchers who use this “simulated relationship” method should also follow it up with other methods, such as retrospective accounts (asking people to recount their past relationship experiences) or longitudinal studies (surveying real couples as their relationships develop over time).

But hypothetical stories have the advantage of experimental control: Researchers can use them to examine precisely the sort of scenarios they are interested in without having to wait for them to appear in the real world, and without having to worry about confounding factors. That makes these techniques incredibly useful. It will be very interesting to see what sort of findings will be uncovered through this creative research tool.

Icon Books
Source: Icon Books

This article was originally written for Science of Relationships.

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1. Vicary, A. M., & Fraley, R. C. (2007). Choose your own adventure: Attachment dynamics in a simulated relationship. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 1279-1291.

2. Turan, B., & Vicary, A. M. (2010). Who recognizes and chooses behaviors that are best for a relationship? The separate roles of knowledge, attachment, and motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 119-131.