Setting a Higher Standard for Relationship Advice

New blog brings you the latest from relationship science!

Posted Jun 09, 2011

Dear Reader,

Welcome to my very first blog entry! Let me introduce myself by explaining why I've chosen to create this blog for Psychology Today.

The bottom line is, I'm passionate about relationships - really, really passionate about them! I'm also passionate about research and the scientific method. Yes, relationships can be and are studied scientifically. I'm here to give you the best of what peer-reviewed relationship research can tell us, to explore what we know and what we don't know about love and relationships, and to debunk the bad information out there while giving you advice that's actually grounded in science.

Probably more than anything, our relationships are central to our well being, to how we define our identities, and to what it means to be a human animal in the 21st century. The principles that guide us to making the most of our relationships are also central to who we are.

A few years ago I wrote an article for the Encyclopedia of Human Relationships focused on the quality of relationship advice in mainstream media. I focused particularly on self-help literature. As a relationship researcher, I was expecting it to not be great; little did I know just how shocked and appalled I would become. Here is some of what I wrote at the time:

"Given the value of relationships for personal happiness, the well-being of families, and the cohesion of groups and societies, it is perhaps not strange that various popular media such as television talk-shows, fashion magazines, and self-help experts have made big business of telling people what is needed to reach 'relationship nirvana'. Likewise, it is understandable that the mass population these media target is hungry for information and opinion - for great power can be gained from information that truly facilitates relationship success. However, this can only be the case if self-help and media advice is based on valid and reliable evidence."

I went on to write how in fact the majority of relationship advice in mainstream media is quite poor in quality, often lacking any basis in science, and in some cases actually contradictory to what research tells us about how relationships function (read the full article here). 

There seem to be three main types of snake-oil salespeople out there:

1) the so-called "Relationships Guru" who's "found the true way."  This is often a self-proclaimed expert with some limited credentials, who has made it his/her mission to create relationship advice, often based purely on personal experience or anecdotal evidence. To their credit, some of the suggestions made by the Gurus may be quite sound, or perhaps even profound in understanding things we scientists don't, but before you change your life based on someone's advice, wouldn't it be a good idea to make sure that advice is actually put to the test?

2) the expert therapist/clinical psychologist whose clients' lives serve as an apparent evidence base for opinion. While I have the uttermost respect for good therapists and clinicians, the truth is, some therapists just work very differently than researchers do. Many therapists work from a specific theoretical/clinical paradigm and understand their clients' relationships through that lens. Many experts in this category will indeed have some useful and profoundly important things to tell us, but their conclusions may suffer if based mostly on their own clinical experiences. Again, wouldn't it be a good idea to make sure that advice is put to the test before following it?

3) the sloppy journalist/op-ed writer, perhaps with an agenda to push. This might be the most harmful of all the purveyors of relationship misinformation. Often they will cite research but go on to make claims that are way beyond the evidence they cite, assume that a correlation between two things means that one causes the other, or fail to recognize that there may be other potential explanations (counter explanations). A really good recent example of this is an op-ed written recently by Dannah Gresh for CNN.com. In it Gresh supposedly uses research evidence to claim that casual sex isn't healthy and inspired over 800 comments from readers. The article however is thoroughly debunked by my friends and colleagues at Science of Relationships.

Don't misunderstand me, there are plenty of excellent journalists out there - the important thing is to not take what's being claimed at face value but rather to dig a bit deeper.

So am I saying that relationship research has all the answers - no, not at all! Science suffers from many of the same problems that other sources of information do. Scientists too are biased in what they choose to study and how they choose to interpret findings. Scientists all to often also get caught up in the temptation of basing their research programs on a particular world view or theoretical paradigm. But the best researchers work very hard to remain sceptical of everything (including their own work and experiences), and they try to disprove competing theories to see which ones can withstand scrutiny the best. You can rest assured that the information presented to you in this blog will be based, not on my own personal opinion or anecdotal experiences, but on what peer-reviewed research has to say.

Peer-review is critical to deciding what research gets published. Peer-review means that a number of highly qualified and independent research peers have very carefully scrutinized the findings (usually without knowing whose they are). Although it's an imperfect process, it means that only papers that can withstand this scrutiny can be published in research journals. To get published, the work has to not only be mostly free of methodological errors and design problems, but it has to also push our knowledge about relationships forward.

I'm an Associate Editor for the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. In that role, I can tell you that I reject around 90% of all papers sent to me for peer-review. Why? It's not usually because these are really bad papers. In fact, the high rejection rate reflects the seriousness we put on having the highest standards.

So, while the information you read on this blog will be far from perfect--I'm only human and will have my own biases and as the peer-review process is not perfect either--my hope and intention is that it will be more reliable and rise to a higher level than most other relationship information in the mainstream media! If I seem to be failing to do that, then please critique me and correct me and hold my feet to the fire.

From time to time I'll be reposting blog pieces I've written for the web page Science of RelationshipsIt's a great page and I trust you'll also consider following their content.

I'll also be posting information on a podcast series I produce called Relationship Matters. In the series I interview select authors of peer-reviewed papers. I ask the authors to explain their work using straightforward language and to give practical advice based on their findings. You can download Mp3 files for these podcasts here.

So, please join me as we embark on this mission of setting a higher standard for relationship advice!

More Posts