American Psychological Association

119th Annual Convention
Washington D.C., August 4-7 2011

Relationships in the Age of Web 3.0

Relationships 3.0

Invited Address #3340 : Gian C. Gonzaga, Ph.D

Dr. Gonzaga was introduced by Heather Patrick, Ph.D. (NIH). Dr. Gonzaga is the director of Research & Development for the online dating service, eHarmony, but will be addressing the nature of compatibility and sustained relationships in general. Considered an expert in the area of "relationship science", Dr. Gongaza will share with us some observations about "the changing face of relationships" and some of the findings which have emerged from his research into the dynamics and predictors of healthy, enduring relationships.

Dr. Gonzaga began with a disclaimer, namely his being "unconditionally biased" when it comes to eHarmony. He heads the laboratory research projects and believes in the findings of his and other studies. However, other than to describe his line of research into relationships, and provide some context, he assured us that this was not going to be a commercial pitch, and his talk today would be on "theoretical and scientific evidence" in support of his relationship research, as well as eHarmony's real-world (and laboratory) efficacy studies.

In the world of dating, especially...

"Technology is changing the way relationships are formed,"

Relationships don't just happen, nor do they last without some necessary ingredients. (As he avoids being a commercial, I'll now avoid referring to 'chemistry'.)

Dr. Gonzaga's research has led him to look not only at the matching process in terms of leading to an initial date, but at the elements of enduring and rewarding relationships: "the way they're maintained and the way they're improved."

To begin with, Gonzaga noted that 'Technology changes relationships' - it impacts on how relationships are (1) formed (2) maintained; and (3) researched.

In terms of where married couples first meet, a graph onscreen reveals an increasing trend upward, since 2008, towards meeting online (in general, along with another line showing the eHarmony numbers). Work and friends are big sources too, but like school, have trended down as online meetings trend up. Today there are all varieties of destinations and "platforms in technology" which allow applications to run. There is constant evolution.

A little web history

Web 1.0 - it was "driven around content that came from the top down"

Imagine: a guy goes into a music store and asks what they have. "Anything ever released." Once but a fantasy, along came iTunes. It happened.

Web 2.0 - Around 2003. "A big change. It was no longer top down. It's the era of Facebook. The era of YouTube." It leveled the field. It's 'open'. It's 'bottom up'. It's focused on relationships between individuals rather than delivering information.

Web 3.0 - Actually it is still forming, but has been evolving since 2000. "It's about open source and pliable interface. " It is both top down and bottom up. And it is a "web that learns". One of the best examples is "It gives you recommendations based on your input." That, he said, is where eHarmony began, along with other user-tailored services, such as NetFlix.

From a relationship point of view, as a slide summarizes, Web 1.0 was all about information (e.g., Psych Info) while Web 2.0 allowed such things such as dating services offering "personalized introductions". And then there was Facebook, making it easy to make contacts and find friends. Web 3.0 offered eHarmony a way to collaborate and to contribute to what he referred to as The Changing Landscape - in terms of the way one can form relationships, maintain a relationship, and also research relationships.

A little eHarmony History

Onscreen is the declaration: An Insight Started eHarmony: Many marriages face a significant handicap from the start.

Dr. Gonzaga explains: "A lot of marriages are to the wrong person!"

As it happens, his company founder was a clinical psychologist with 35 years experience of responding to patients' marital struggles. He saw the situation as one where he only came into the picture "after the relationship was ruined".

[There must be something real here! One of the world's most renowned social psychologists,
Martin Seligman also has spoken - here, 4 hours ago! - about marriage therapy being thankless and ineffective: too little too late. Of course, in contrast there are 'positive' and active relationship styles and Seligman encourages using strengths and channeling the positive; Dr. Gonzaga's goal is to try to proactively 'match' compatible couples based on strong evidence.]

There are many reasons, Dr. Gonzaga continued, that people end up with the wrong partner. There are fewer opportunities to find a partner, and to get to know a partner. And people get married too quickly, and for the wrong reasons. For example: "People sacrifice long-term compatibility for short-term attraction"

From this formed the original idea for trying to improve the odds of compatibility. And although this may sound like an advertisement - Gonzaga joked that he's aware we've all been bombarded with ads featuring idyllic and ecstatic couples who met through eHarmony - the research which supports the concepts about compatibility is applicable to all relationships, particularly meeting and dating of course.

The original idea was that there are predictable things that couples share - that when they have things in common there's a better chance of compatibility. Shared values, shared ideals.

Also, "we like to be right... If others share our views, we like them. The more similar, the easier to understand each other: One of the basic components of building intimacy." You're similar.

What is Compatibilty?

( We are now seeing the slide you can see above. )

The eHarmony model of compatibility assumes:

"There are shared characteristics that can make a relationship strong" - notably personality, values and interests.

Conducting research on initial compatibly and long-term relationship [marriage] success can get "a little tricky".
To begin with, "you need to let people get married to see how it works. And, at the beginning of marriage everyone is happy." Only with time do we see underlying stressors and compatibility issues placing a relationship at greater risk. Of course, even in a great long-term relationship, conflict is inevitable - but it gets worked out, even if it can take an hour before figuring what the conflict is about. Sometimes, over the years, misunderstanding can grow...

Dr. Gonzaga presented several on screen references to frame the history of compatibility research. First came the empirical evidence that "similarity between relationship partners predicts relationship quality" (Gaunt, 2006, Russel & Wells, 1991). Next we can see how similarity "provides consensual validation of attitudes and beliefs which promote attraction." (Byrne, 1971; LaFrance & Ickes, 1981). Finally, "Similarity promotes better understanding and effective communication between partners "(Burleson & Denton, 1992; Keltner & Kring, 1998). And it "coordinates a couple's responses responses to the environment". (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994; Kemper, 1991).

The list of references continues, underscoring how enduring couples are "more similar than average" and how they may set about to elect similar partners ("assortative mating") . And how "couples may converge, or become more alike over time." (e.g., Anderson, Keltner, & John, 2003).

An important note, big and bold onscreen: No study has prospectively investigated assortative mating in psychological characteristics
Gonzago noted that he takes comfort in eHarmony's low [known] divorce rate (even if nobody can 'prove' the key to long-lasting love).

With that Dr. Gonzago presented three recent studies, on (1) Personality matching (2) Proximal Processes; and (3) the Potentiation Effect

Study #1

Prior to eHarmony, said Gonzago, nobody else had focused on personality characteristics.

Four hundred seventeen married couples who met via and later married participated in this study. At the time of assessment, they'd been married an average of 32 months (range 26-56 months). Apologizing again and understanding we are seeing an awful lot of their 'deliriously happy couples' in advertisements these days, he noted that they now have helped bring together 40,000 couples.

To assess 'relationship satisfaction' eHarmony used what they found to be best, the Dyadic Assessment Scale (Spanier, 1976). Each couple completed the eHarmony relationship questionnare 3 times, assessing such things as Personality (e.g., warm, clever), Emotional tendencies (e.g., happy, anxious), and Interests (e.g., movies, shopping).

The results suggest that similarity can predict how satisfied one will be 3-4 years down the road.

[I do believe author Malcolm Gladwell has some thoughts on this as well, worth reading : Blink. It changed the conceptions of many psychologists! He cited research demonstrating that we can predict within only minutes whether couples are likely to be together years in the future.]

eHarmony has extensive data on match choices and their research affirms that "people tend to pick partners more similar to themselves." Do couples 'assort'? "We all tend to be alike" and may share a 'stereotyped personality". But again, what might predict long-term compatibility?

Gonzago has become convinced that "similarity is the lynch pin". Citing a study by Anderson, Keltner et al, 2003, he noted the adaptive function served by social interactions, and how for example "validation is best communicated directly... and how understanding is most relevant during discussions We know how our intensity during arguments is greater than in neutral discussions. What fuels this social interaction effect? Two possible reasons for this effect were identified:

* The Proximal Process: "Similarity in broad traits promotes similarity in interactive experience"

* Potentiation: "Similarity in broad traits enhances the positive effects of good relationship skills"

Study #2:
Similarity in Personality and Emotions in Married Couples (Gonzaga, Campos, & Bradbury, 2007)

Now we look at one of the venerable topics within personality theory: traits. We know from mountains of research that traits influence emotion and that variations can be seen between different groups, for example extroverts being more prone to exhibit positive affect.

This second study involved 172 married couples. The question was: Are couples similar in personality? In emotional experience? What they found is that "personalities were more alike than was their emotional similarity. Yet there were some qualitative aspects too, and the question was raised as to whether emotional similarity may be a 'mediating factor' in a triangle, between personality similarity and relationship satisfaction. Overall it was found that "relationship satisfaction is positively related to similarity".

The Proximal Process Model

Similarity in broad traits predicts similarity in emotional quality in the moment

Study #3:
Social Interactions and Relationship Functioning in Married Couples (Setrakian & Gonzaga, in prep)

According to the Potentiation Model, relationships move from early connection through shared personality and interest factors - similarity - to an emotional connection which is mutually pleasurable, and then... how do shared social interactions grow into building blocks for lasting relationships?

Potentiation Model:

Similarity in broad traits predicts similarity in emotions

Increased understanding should enhance the effect of good social skills

Here we approach the foundation-building for healthy and happy long-term relationships. How to harness the shared personality/temperament factors and use our emotional and social skills to maintain the relationship:

Two hundred married couples, first marriage no children, wife under age 35, minimum 10th grade education, greater L.A. area.

Time's almost up, and these methods are hard to explain quickly (and now!) but...

Couples have a discussion under one of two conditions, social support vs. capitalization - experienced respectively as either supportive (Partner provided comfort) or using "Capitalization" (partner responded enthusiasticallly towards my good event - again exactly as Seligman just described - as the 'active/supportive' communication.)

This was a controlled laboratory study, though it was pointed out that "Lab ideas don't always work in the field".
Their results were analyzed through the filter of whether similarity, which we know to be a big factor, can moderate the perceived 'responsiveness effect' - that is the impact of capitalization, conflict resolution, and support elicitation. Their findings were described as 'robust though with mixed results in mediating the main factor, similarity.


"Similarity", Gonzaga said, "doesn't make you a better partner. On the other hand, does it moderate attitudes? Yes. In males."

We know that Responsiveness matters in social interactions, that Similarity does not predict improved responsiveness, and that Similarity moderates the effect of responsiveness in males (but not females)."

In sum:

*Similarity is a powerful predictor of relationship success

* There are two potential routes: proximal process and potentiation

* Social interactions are critical in how similarity effects relationships

* Relationships deepen through increased understanding

* Partner selection is important because convergence is minimal.

And one more thing - oops, time is up! - Quickly then: Use the web as a tool!

-- Technology provided a platform for the application of basic research, BUT
-- The ideas that work in the laboratory don't always work in the field
-- The type of system he promotes is 1) Robust 2) Scalable 3) Palatable

Finally: "Technology can help facilitate a new era of research"

No doubt!

For me, anyway the 'takeaway' is: Similarity is a key factor in easy 'understanding' and resonating/reflecting similar feeling [tone], and revving up pleasure with shared activities and interests. Basic personality compatibility is the starting point, a foundation. Proximal process is about our personality 'similarity' basically, how alike we are and how we can use our collective attitudes and attributes to enjoy situations when together. Once a relationship is growing more intimate, the Potentiation Process begins.

It's no longer just about personalities matching on 'broad traits' at first, but also how they potentiate - bring out - the mutual joy. (or not) With broad similarity and shared world views, it is easier to 'be yourself' because you're feeling understood and veering towards that state of thinking in terms of 'we' very easily, as there is ongoing connection at several levels, emotionally. That's the perfect scenario. A well-functioning, happy couple is similar in personality and mutually reinforce the good feelings of emotional and personal connectedness, across situations. And that is my synopsis and take-away. YMMV. ['your mileage may vary']

I'll bet you weren't expecting to hear terms like proximal and potentiation in a talk about relationships and Love! But this may be the real thing. The new language of love. The pherenome of explanations as to why we initially attract, connect, and maintain healthy relationships.

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2008 Convention Highlights:

Grand Theft Childhood | Opening | Malcolm Gladwell | College Success, Love, Hate, More | My Life With Asperger's
My Space, You Tube, Psychotherapy, Relationships... | Aaron T. Beck - 2008 | The Mind and Brain of Voters

2009 Convention Highlights:
Internet: Pathway for Networking, Connecting, and Addiction | Opening | Virtual Psychology & Therapy | Q&A with Zimbardo
Seligman: Positive Education | Future of Internet Media | Sex, Love, & Psychology | How Dogs Think

2010 Convention Highlights:
Online Support Groups & Applications | Evidence & Ethical Practice | Opening Ceremony | Sir Michael Rutter: Resilience
Group Memory | Psychology in the Digital Age | Steven Hayes: What Psychotherapists Have that the World Needs Now

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