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.”

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. 

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.

Less heartache! More accuracy! Happily ever after! Sounds great. How does it work? Tashiro begins with the cautionary tale of his high school friend Anna, who once told him she wanted to find a man who was “hot, athletic and Catholic.” As David Kestenbaum once explained on an episode of This American Life, the universe of possible mates is limited to begin with, so narrowing the choices to three absolutes is a mistake. And Anna’s particular list is not all that helpful. When given a list, physical attractiveness almost always ends up in the top requirements for a mate, particularly for men. But that desire—the “beauty trap,” Tashiro calls it—is just proof that we are still in the grips of our “caveman instincts,” when physical attractiveness was a proxy for reproductive fitness. (For women the equivalent is choosing a wealthy man—a leftover from the days when resources were scarce.) What people should be doing, argues Tashiro, is looking for some combination of personality traits—intelligence, creativity, extroversion, agreeableness, emotional stability—that turn them on and that would actually form the foundation of a long-lasting relationship.

Then, once a relationship does start, people should be on the lookout for red flags because, Tashiro argues, they are always there from the start: “What you see in a partner is what you get. Forever.” Tashiro repeats this dictum many times. He belongs to the personality-test school of psychology, which is wary of the notion that people can change all that much. If some snafu happens at the airport and your boyfriend starts freaking out, there is a good chance he will score high on the neurotic scale, which, it turns out, is the single biggest predictor of relationship instability. If your boyfriend is fun and spontaneous and exciting and really, really into you really, really quickly, there is a high chance he is a “novelty seeker,” which in the idiom of relationships translates into “cheater.”

All of this is something your mother or Dr. Phil would tell you. And in fact, that’s another one of the consistent findings of relationship science: that family and friends are much better predictors of the stability of a relationship than the two people in it. But that should tell you something as well. The unfailing truth about love is that we consistently ignore things we know to be true, that we give advice to our friends and siblings that we routinely ignore. If Anna Karenina had taken a relationship survey about Vronsky, she would have rated him as high neurotic and high novelty seeking. She probably would have advised her sister not to go near him. And yet, and yet.

The model couple in Tashiro’s book are Ethan and Catherine, his godparents. They brew homemade cider and tell him riveting stories “about a past that seemed more certain, gentler and happier.” They fit the prototype to a T, he writes: “low neuroticism, moderate novelty seeking and high agreeableness.” And what do you know? They are living happily ever after, he writes. Yet the story Tashiro tells us a few pages earlier of how they met would not have predicted that. Ethan was a starting quarterback for the high school team, and Catherine was the head cheerleader. One day Ethan flew out of bounds and smashed into Catherine, knocking her down. They looked into each other’s eyes and sighed. After the game, Ethan wanted to see her but found out she had a boyfriend named Lars. So he sent two younger players to jimmy open the hood of Lars’ car and remove a few engine parts. Ethan then pulled alongside Lars’ nonfunctioning car, motioned to Catherine to roll down her window, and asked, “You want to go for a soda?” And without a moment’s hesitation, “Catherine jumped out of Lars’s car and into Ethan’s life.”

Tashiro calls this “one of the best love stories I have ever heard,” but he does not seem to recognize that it goes against all of the theories he is spouting in his book. The rest of us will notice that there isn’t much difference between Catherine and Ethan’s meet-cute and the story about the produce princess. Two years earlier and maybe Huggins and the produce princess would have fallen madly in love. A few more neurotic points and maybe jumping into Ethan’s car would have been the worst decision of Catherine’s life. (After all, the guy wrecked another guy’s engine and then stole his girl.)

And what would Tashiro make of Anna Karenina? After all, Vronsky fell for Anna instead of her sister Kitty. Anna has the great passion of the novel but winds up dead on the train tracks. Meanwhile, Anna’s “bad decision” paves the way for Kitty to marry Levin and make the novel’s only happy marriage. In love, we generally refuse to believe known truths until bitter experience has seared them into our addled brains. And even then the ultimate outcomes are unknowable. Heartache and mad, blind love have always plagued the human condition, and likely they always will. Data, our latest crush, is no match for them.