Scientists have devised a new "love test" that they believe is a better guide to the success of a relationship than the good intentions of newly-weds. The research suggests that a subconscious response to an image of a partner could be a useful predictor of marriage outcomes. Those who had a negative gut reaction were more likely be unhappy several years later.
The study is published in the Journal Science. The lead author, Prof James McNulty from Florida State University, says that the new test gauges the true feelings of newly-weds towards each other, rather than what they say to other people or even admit to themselves.
"These immediate gut level responses seem to be pretty powerful in predicting whether people stay happy," he said.
His team interviewed 135 newly-wed couples just after their nuptials. The researchers asked them to evaluate their marriage related to positive and negative adjectives such as "good", "bad", "satisfying" and "dissatisfying". They then measured their gut reaction to each other using their intriguing "love test".
This involved showing one partner a photograph of the other for a fleeting third of a second. They then had to answer as quickly as possible, whether certain words such as "great", "awesome", "horrible" and "scary" were positive or negative words. The speed with which they answered was an indication of their true feelings, say the researchers.
The test is based on the psychological principle of association. The theory is that after fleetingly seeing a picture of their partner, the newlywed is in a positive or negative state of mind. If they are in a positive state of mind they will identify positive words such as "great" or "awesome" more quickly than negative words such as "scary and horrible" and vice versa.
Prof McNulty and his team found that the conscious answers of the newly-weds were all positive and very happy about their relationships, as you might imagine. But the gut reactions from the love test varied considerably.
The researchers interviewed the couples every six months for the next four years. They found that on average, those who had negative gut reactions were more likely to say that they were unhappy as the marriage wore on. Some even divorced.
"Everyone wants to believe they are in a good relationship and people can convince themselves that they are - but these gut-level reactions are more indicative of how people feel immediately about their relationships," he said. The test, according to the authors, measures the presence or absence of negative emotions.
"People can have love and negative emotions at the same time and this test probably taps into both of those," said Prof McNulty.
However, he was at pains to state that the research was not developed enough to be able to offer a test to people before they tie the knot. But he pointed out that overall the scientists found a trend indicating the experimental tests revealed the newly-weds true feelings.
For those about to take the leap, Prof McNulty said that gut reaction should be something they listen to. "I think the best advice would be to pay attention to your gut level responses as to how you think about seeing your partner. I don't think that should be the only factor people should consider, but it should be one of them"