Commitment – It’s the new Love
Picture this — you’re at a bar with your significant other and you leave him or her for a few moments to collect your drinks. You’re only gone a few minutes but when you return, you find an attractive stranger in your place, whispering sweet nothings into your partner’s ear. How would you react towards your partner?
This is the situation that Slotter and fellow researchers had ninety-nine undergraduates immerse themselves in. At the time subjects were all in dating relationships and the researchers were aiming to understand the basis of aggression towards one’s partner. Appended to the above situation were three scenarios demonstrating three different responses on the part of the subject’s partner:
In the first case, the partner politely wards off the stranger’s advances, displaying a clear lack of interest. In the second case, they express some doubts about the state of your relationship and shows clear interest in this mysterious stranger. In the third case they openly flirt with the stranger and confess outright that they are unhappy in their relationship with you.
The participants responses were analysed to gauge the degree of aggression in their responses. Unsurprisingly, the third situation incited the most aggressive behaviour in the subject and the first the least. However, the purpose of this study was to examine the correlation between relationship-commitment and aggression with the researchers hypothesising that the degree of aggression would be lower in those couples who judged themselves to be more committed to their partner. Sure enough, on taking measures of relationship commitment, affection towards the partner and aggression towards the partner, the researchers found that the subjects who claimed to be more committed to their relationship displayed less aggression than their not-so committed counterparts. Interestingly, the measures of anger and affection towards the significant other were unhelpful when it came to predicting aggressive behaviour in the given circumstances.
To further validate their findings, the researchers conducted another, similarly entertaining experiment. This time forty-three couples were brought in and measured on their levels of commitment and satisfaction with regards to their relationship separately from their respective partners. Then, they were given a set of color pencils and told that the experimenters wanted to evaluate their creative abilities. On completing this task the finished drawings were gathered up and the subjects were informed that their partners would be assessing their creative abilities. To spice things up further, the subjects were told they’d receive monetary compensation proportional to how highly their partner rated their artwork.
Needless to say, the ‘assessment’ the subjects received was completely random and not from their partners at all. The experimenter supplemented the false ratings with corresponding comments that the partner was supposed to have made. Then, the experimenter gave the subjects a voodoo doll that was meant to represent their partner, and a box of pins. Telling the participants to vent any aggression they might feel towards their partner by sticking pins in the voodoo doll provided experiments with an effective and ethical means of measuring behavioral aggression in the participants.
Again, it came as no surprise that the subjects who received the poor rating, less money and harsher comments from their partner (or so they thought) were the most aggressive towards the voodoo doll while the ones with more flattering feedback were the least.
And again, it seemed that the more committed the individual was to the relationship the more reduced his or her aggression towards the partner. And again, the degree of commitment could be used to predict subsequent levels of aggression while level of satisfaction seemed to have little bearing on the value.
The experimenters went on to examine the relationship between commitment and partner provocation with two further studies and their hypothesis was consistently verified. The less committed the individual was to the relationship, the more likely he or she was to lash out at his or her partner when provoked. While this in itself is not surprising, it is interesting to note that variables such as affection towards one’s partner and satisfaction with the relationship do not exhibit similar propensities. Could “I’m committed to you” mean more to a partner than the classic “I love you”?
Slotter EB, Finkel EJ, Dewall CN, Pond RS, Lambert NM, Bodenhausen GV, & Fincham FD (2012). Putting the brakes on aggression toward a romantic partner: the inhibitory influence of relationship commitment. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102 (2), 291-305 PMID: 21823802