Gut Feelings Can Predict the Odds of Marital Bliss

Without conscious awareness, newlyweds intuitively forecast their future.

Posted Dec 01, 2013

On average, about 40-50 percent of marriages in the past twenty years have ended in divorce. First marriages that end in divorce usually last about eight years. While a number of factors determine marital success, the gut feelings a newlywed has towards his or her spouse at the beginning of a marriage are the best predictor of future marital bliss, or divorce. This is common sense, but a new four-year study from Florida State University (FSU) has confirmed these findings scientifically.

The new study titled, "Though They May Be Unaware, Newlyweds Implicitly Know Whether Their Marriages Will Be Satisfying,” was published on November 29, 2013 in the journal Science.

FSU associate professor of psychology and lead author James K. McNulty said, “Everyone wants to be in a good marriage. And in the beginning, many people are able to convince themselves of that at a conscious level. But these automatic, gut-level responses are less influenced by what people want to think. You can't make yourself have a positive response through a lot of wishful thinking."

McNulty and his colleagues have been doing research on newlywed couples to determine the impact of various cognitive, behavioral, and personality variables on changes in marital satisfaction over the long-haul. This study looked at 135 heterosexual couples who had been married for less than six months and then followed up with them every six months over a four-year period.

Dr. McNulty’s study shows that even when a newlywed couple says they are happy, they may not be. He and his colleagues found that a person’s unconscious gut feelings going into a marriage determine whether he or she will be satisfied much more than words of devotion. McNulty says,“newlyweds may not be completely aware of it, but they may know whether their march down the aisle will result in wedded bliss or an unhappy marriage.”

Would You Describe Your Partner As: “Awesome and Terrific” or “Awful and Terrible”?

The researchers wanted to design a test to accurately measure these automatic attitudes and gut-level responses. The experiment they devised  involved flashing a photo of the study participant's spouse on a computer screen for one-third of a second followed by a positive word like "awesome" or "terrific," or a negative word like "awful" or "terrible." Each spouse independently had to press a key on a keyboard to indicate whether the word was positive or negative. The researchers used special software to measure reaction time within a millisecond. 

"It's generally an easy task, but flashing a picture of their spouse makes people faster or slower depending on their automatic attitude toward the spouse," McNulty said. "People who have really positive feelings about their partners are very quick to indicate that words like 'awesome' are positive words and very slow to indicate that words like 'awful' are negative words."

This is because positive gut-level attitudes facilitate congruent cognitive processes and block incongruent cognitive processes. McNulty explained, “people with positive gut-level attitudes were really good at processing positive words but bad at processing negative words when those automatic attitudes were activated.” He points out that the opposite was also true. “When a spouse had negative feelings about their partner that were activated by the brief exposure to the photo, they had a harder time switching gears to process the positive words.”

The researchers then asked the individuals to report their relationship satisfaction and the severity of their specific relationship problems. The participants were also asked to provide their conscious evaluations by describing their marriage according to 15 pairs of opposing adjectives, such as "good" or "bad," "satisfied" or "unsatisfied."

Both the explicit and implicit experiments were performed only once, at the baseline, but the researchers checked in with the couples every six months and asked them to report relationship satisfaction. The researchers found that the respondents who unwittingly revealed negative or lukewarm attitudes during the implicit measurements reported the most marital dissatisfaction four years later. The positive attitudes that were consciously declared did not reflect long-term marital satisfaction.

Implicit Knowledge and the Vagus Nerve

We all know the wide range of gut feelings evoked by seeing a person's name pop up on the caller ID or in a text message. If you have a specific ringtone attached to a name, the sound of an incoming call can trigger a conditioned Pavlovian response.

Some Caller ID names may give you a gut reaction of dread and avoidance ... other names instantly fill you with a rush of anticipation and eagerness to engage ... and some can literally make you sick to your stomach. This is a universal phenomenon. These visceral responses are part of the implicit system of our subconscious minds that the FSU researchers studied with newlyweds.

With any relationship, gut feelings trigger a physiological response via the vagus nerve and your central nervous system. The ‘tend-and-befriend’ reflex is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, while the ‘fight-or-flight’ response is activated by the sympathetic nervous system. Gut feelings are literally picked up by the vagus nerve and sent to your conscious and subconscous minds as part of a feedback loop that connects the cerebrum, cerebellum, and other brain regions.

The gut level responses that different people elicit come from the implicit learning and memory system. Your implicit or subconscious memory system often operates under the radar of your conscious mind and processes emotions more quickly—and often more accurately—than your explicit or declarative memory system.

Neuroscientists have been doing fascinating research on these two different learning and memory systems. If you’d like to read more on this topic please check out my Psychology Today blog posts titled, “Can Mindfulness Backfire?” and “The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure.”

Conclusion: Trusting Your Gut Goes Beyond Marriage

The researchers at FSU conclude that the explicit or declarative statements about the quality of a marriage were not an accurate predictor of long-term marital bliss. Instead, it was the gut-level implicit and subconscious evaluations of a partner that more accurately predicted future marital happiness.

This study reveals two important findings on the difference between implicit and explicit knowledge. First, people's conscious attitudes, or how they said they felt, did not always reflect their gut-level or automatic feelings about their marriage. Second, it was the gut-level feelings, not their conscious ones, that actually predicted how happily married people remained over time.

"Although they may be largely unwilling or unable to verbalize them, people's automatic evaluations of their partners predict one of the most important outcomes of their lives—the trajectory of their marital satisfaction," according to the researchers.

McNulty adds, "I think the findings suggest that people may want to attend a little bit to their gut. If they can sense that their gut is telling them that there is a problem, then they might benefit from exploring that, maybe even with a professional marriage counselor. And the implications extend beyond the realm of marriage. Gut feelings toward another person (or race, religion, or ethnicity) could serve as the basis for discrimination.”

McNulty concludes, "Any strong automatic thought or feeling that we might have could predict our behaviors. If people have strong negative automatic attitudes towards other groups for example, there is research suggesting they might be more likely to discriminate against those groups, even if they're unwilling to report those attitudes at a conscious level."

If you’d like to read more on this topic please check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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