A New Breed of Research Is Trying to Moneyball the Least Logical of All Human Endeavors: Love

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 12 2014 3:45 PM

Less Romance, More Data

A new breed of research is trying to Moneyball the least logical of all human endeavors: love.

couple in love.
Channeling their higher intellectual functioning.

Photo by Karel Noppe/Thinkstock

Did you know that if you’re planning to break up with your partner, you should do it before Valentine’s Day? Did you know that if you are taking your date out to dinner that night, spicy Thai is a much better bet than cold sushi? And did you know that the links in the previous two sentences will not lead you back to some bogus survey in Cosmo or Glamour but to a version of Cosmo and Glamour edited by people with lab coats and Ph.D.s, because, as the motto for the website Science of Relationships makes clear, “The important things in life deserve data.”

Hanna Rosin Hanna Rosin

Hanna Rosin is the founder of DoubleX and a writer for the Atlantic. She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow her on Twitter.

Relationships have been studied as an academic subject at least since the 1960s, but the greatest interest has always been the points of failure. Most famously, John Gottman’s “love lab” filmed newlyweds discussing a contentious topic for 15 minutes and claimed to be able to predict with 83 percent accuracy whether a couple would divorce. But now “relationship science” is taking a cue from all those happiness studies. That unlikely academic discipline has its origins in psychologist Martin Seligman’s insight that although human misery had been amply scrutinized and catalogued, happiness remained a subject largely unexplored. Similarly, a group of young psychology professors has shifted the focus of relationship studies to figuring out how and why they succeed. Some of the research to date is collected in a new book, The Science of Happily Ever After, by psychology professor Ty Tashiro.

As with happiness studies, some of the findings of the new relationship science seem blindingly obvious, and others just confirm what we all wish to be true. Still, it’s hard not to get drawn in, because who doesn’t want to believe there is scientific truth about “what really matters in the quest for enduring love,” as the book’s subtitle promises? And what matters, according to Tashiro, is the opposite of what rom-coms tell you: Forget love at first sight, magic moments, animal attraction. When you are in the grip of those, instead think slowly, access reason, and channel your higher intellectual functioning. 

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Tashiro, who is full of charming stories, tells one about his friend Huggins who fell in love with the “produce princess” in the supermarket and vowed to win her affection by standing behind her in line and then leaping ahead to swipe his credit card and pay for her groceries. Only as soon as he got there he noticed the “large sparkling diamond on her ring finger” and tremendous awkwardness ensued. This all could have been avoided, according to the science of relationships, if Huggins had resisted his first instinct and stopped to use his brain.

Lately our culture has subjected all sorts of formerly hunch-driven endeavors— making great TV shows, spotting baseball talent, discerning voter behavior, recruiting good employees—to very specific algorithms. Perhaps it’s inevitable that love, among the least logical of all human activities, should be the next target for reform. In Moneyball, Michael Lewis described how Big Data transformed the scouting process. Scouts used to choose a recruit because he looked and felt to them like a promising baseball player. Now they choose based on sabermetrics. Tashiro advocates subjecting the process of recruiting a mate to the same kind of cold calculation. In Data, A Love Story, Amy Webb describes gaming online dating sites to find her perfect match. Tashiro explains why you should game the entire dating pool to avoid the usual pitfalls and increase your chances of success:

Imagine how much heartache could be averted if you could look into a crystal ball after every first date. Instead of having to go through months of trial and error in the middle of the process, while trying to find out whether a partner would provide misery or happiness, with a crystal ball you would know from the beginning whether a partner was good for you or not.
Fortunately, advances in relationship science can make this wish for a crystal ball come true. Researchers are discovering what a relationship will be like years into the future by assessing the traits of the partners, such as personality, values and interests. Furthermore, these traits can be decoded in early stages of dating, which can permit singles to predict with more accuracy which relationships will end up happily ever after.

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