Personal Relationships (1)

The text below is my goodreads review of The Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships:

“Most HLM [Hierarchical Linear Modeling] programs also allow for heterogeneous compound symmetry, which results in estimation of separate random effects across a distinguishing variable.”

“A distinctive feature of transactionalism is its emphasis on holism, with an underlying philosophy of science that highlights Aristotle’s “formal cause” over the more traditional focus on “efficient cause” (i.e., cause–effect) relationships. That is, the goal of a transactional approach is to elucidate the patterned and changing nature of holistic events involving people, psychological and temporal processes, physical features, and cultural–historical forces.”

Both quotes above are quotes from this book. Before I started reading it, I’d worried there’d be no content of the former kind, and a lot of content of the second kind. There are 41 chapters in this book, so there’s a huge amount of variation in terms of quality. In the end I ended up at two stars, though I think it’s probably closer to three stars than one. This is, however, an ‘average rating’. Two of the chapters in the book were frankly written in a way that made me want to beat up the authors. A few other chapters were on the other hand really nice. Most chapters were sort of okay, but nothing more than that.

It’s sort of painful to have to give a book like this two stars. It contains some really important and useful observations and insights, and if everybody had read a book like this many personal relationships might be very different. You want to know some of the stuff included in this book’s coverage, you really do. But although there’s some really nice stuff in there, there’s also a lot of stuff that’s really not all that great. The overall level of coverage I did not find to be impressive, but I should emhasize that in some ways this book is much better than the rating I’ve given it might imply.”

As readers who’ve read along for a while would know, the book is not the first book I’ve read on the topic, but it is certainly the longest. The book has roughly 790 pages of content and although some of those pages are references, there’s a lot of stuff in there. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve lost all work I had done on approximately the first 300 pages because of computer trouble. This is annoying because some of those chapters are in my opinion some of the best in the book. I can’t face reading those chapters again now just in order to blog them, so instead of doing that I’ll jump right into the book and in this post cover stuff from the chapters in the middle. This is probably not the optimal approach, but I see no justifiable alternative. This book took a lot of time to read (with ~16 pages/hour and ~800 pages of text, it amounts to ca. 50 hours, with 20 pages/hour it’s ca. 40 hours; I didn’t time it but these estimates are probably not far off), and it does not help that some of the most technical chapters in the book were in the first part of it.

The book deals with both romantic relationships and other personal relationships like friendships – the word ‘relationships’ in the title does not equate ‘romantic relationships’, but most of the research does admittedly deal mostly with this kind of stuff. Almost everybody get married eventually and nearly everybody find romantic partners early on in their lives (there are some numbers on this stuff in the first part, which I know I highlighted when I read the book – but I lost the highlights and so I’m going to skip those numbers for now), so the book has very little stuff about the people who don’t, which I found annoying but also predictable. The book told me a lot of stuff about how people behave/interact in social contexts I’ve never experienced, so I have to assume I now know more about what it’s like being in a (/various types of) relationship(/s) than I used to do. Some people might argue I should be one of the last people in the world to read a book like this because a lot of the knowledge included in the book is frankly completely irrelevant; on the other hand I like to learn more about how people work.

One annoying feature of the book I did not mention in my goodreads review is that it seems many of the authors did not read the other contributions in the volume, so that you’ll sometimes get an explanation of what concept x or theory y is all about, even if you were told basically the same thing by a different author 100 pages ago. I’m not sure it matters that much and in some cases it’s probably perfectly okay to cover a topic again even if other authors have talked about it before, because it might not be obvious how concept x relates to the new concept y they talk about in this chapter; but I did occasionally find this approach slightly irritating because it feels as if some of the authors repeat themselves this way (they’re not repeating themselves; technically they’re repeating what other people have already said, but if you don’t care who wrote a specific chapter in a book, it amounts to the same thing). In the specific context here, where I’m covering ‘stuff in the middle’, this behaviour on part of the authors is probably a good thing as the authors tend to not take it for granted that you read all the chapters that came before (each chapter is reasonably self-contained), but I did find it annoying while reading the book.

In the coverage below I will talk about some of the key points made in a few specific chapters. I’ll skip a lot of stuff and try only to include observations which I found interesting. I ‘covered’ 6 chapters in this post, in the sense that I started on page 293 and then covered the next 6 chapters – however I only included material from four of these chapters. The chapters not covered were about ‘The Intimate Same-Sex Relationships of Sexual Minorities’, a topic I frankly couldn’t care less about, and ‘Physiology and Interpersonal Relationships’. The latter chapter was about stuff like how things like ‘social connectedness’ in middle age relates to blood pressure and heart disease (if you have a social network you do better on some health metrics), and how one can use various physiological variables to gauge e.g. emotional reponses in a research setting. Some of that stuff I’ve talked about before here on the blog (e.g. here), other parts of it I just didn’t find interesting. I covered roughly 120 pages in this post, meaning that if all my posts about the book cover that amount of content I’ll need another 5-6 posts to deal with all the material included in the book. I don’t think it’s likely I’ll write that many posts about the content of this book, but we’ll see…

In the chapter on ‘Family Relationships and Depression’, the authors talk about how relationships and depression relate to each other. It’s observed that marital context and marital events impact/predict (the latter word perhaps justified via the use of longitudinal studies) depressive symptoms to some extent. I should add that a general problem I have with a lot of the coverage in this book is that these authors implicitly focus a great deal on whether or not a link/an effect has been established (was the result ‘significant’?), but much less on how large the effect size actually is and how it might vary across subgroups and similar more relevant considerations (multiple statistics books I’ve read recently and one book I’m currently reading have focused on such behaviours (and criticized such behaviours on the part of researchers) – see e.g. Borenstein & Hedges or Burnham and Anderson, and so I tend to take note of such issues these days); as is often the case in publications like these, authors rarely report sample sizes unless they are large and impressive. Some of the results in the book are presumably well supported, as they come from hundreds of studies and many thousands of individuals, but even in some of those cases I’d not be surprised if external validity might not still sometimes be quite low because most of the studies involved are the results of research on 20-year old American psychology students, who may in some respects be quite different from 50-year olds who’ve been married for two decades. In some contexts such concerns are much more relevant than they are in other contexts; it should be noted that in some specific contexts a lot of work has actually been put into trying to avoid methodological pitfalls which people who have not read the literature may still consider to be adequate reasons for discarding the research. In some research areas in this field people have been doing longitudinal studies for decades, and these studies have involved a lot of people. So no, if you’re looking at divorce risk models you’ll not be limited to cross-sectional research on college students; far from it. On the other hand there’s presumably still lots of stuff these studies have not accounted for or dealt with in an appropriate manner, and there are other areas of research in this field where somewhat ‘basic issues’ are likely to be of much greater concern.

Anyway, back to the depression/family relationship stuff. They note in the chapter that children who perceive the parents as controlling/intrusive/less warm and supportive are at greater risk for depression, and that this excess risk persists into young adulthood (they don’t even attempt to quantify the effects – I’ll stop commenting upon this now, but you should know that this annoys me, because it does). They note that in animal models of rats it has been shown that maltreating pups can lead to enhanced glucocorticoid feedback sensitivity (you can think of this as increased stress sensitivity), which adds a biological basis for interpreting some of the observations. It’s obvious that the link between family distress and depression is bidirectional, and they note this in the chapter as well as talk about some of the reasons why this is the case – a quote seems relevant here:

“in his review of self-propagating processes in depression, Joiner (2000) highlighted the propensity for depressed persons to seek negative feedback, to engage in excessive reassurance seeking, to avoid conflict and so withdraw, and to elicit changes in the partner’s view of them. In each case, the behavior resulting from the individual’s depression carries the potential to generate increased interpersonal stress or to shift the response of others in a negative direction. Joiner suggested that increased interpersonal negativity, in turn, helps maintain depressive symptoms.”

In the next chapter, on ‘Communication: basic properties and their relevance to relationship research’, the authors talk about the so-called ‘demand-withdraw’ pattern, where one partner communicates in ‘demanding’ ways and the other partner tries to avoid the conversation/withdraw. This pattern has received some attention because it seems to predict marital (dis)satisfaction. Some studies have found that females are more likely to demand and males are more likely to withdraw, though this seems to depend upon the topics discussed and how important the topic is to the parties involved. There’s more on this topic later in the book which one might include here as well, but I decided to cover it later (perhaps in another post) as the communication chapter has a lot of other good stuff which it makes sense to cover first and as it’s really bothersome to jump around in a book like this while providing coverage as a lot of topics will be covered/mentioned in more than one chapter. The chapter talks about a dynamic at least conceptually related to the depression-research above, that people like to behave in ways that confirm the perceptions they have about how they relate to others; it’s far from the only chapter to note that how people think about their relationships with others can have substantial effects on how those relationships develop.

The chapter talks about some stuff which was also covered in Hargie – one key point being that communication is really complicated and that communication tends to convey multiple messages simultaneously at different levels. The chapter talks about one conceptualization of extra-linguistic features involved in conversations which is based on functional groupings, where seven different interactive functions are identified; these involve functions like intimacy, impression management, control, and dominance-power. The groupings seemed to me slightly arbitrary (there’s a grouping called ‘positive reinforcement’ – what about ‘negative reinforcement’?), but it’s certainly the case that conversations often involve a lot of stuff we’re not really aware of, and that a lot of that stuff is automatic. Given how much stuff is actually going on beneath the surface when we’re communicating with each other a relevant question seems to be how we manage to attend to all the relevant signals; or how we figure out which signals are relevant – the question is asked in the chapter, though no firm answer is given. They observe that people are often extremely selective about which signals they pay attention to and that they employ a number of mental shortcuts that helps making sense of what’s going on. A related observation from the book:

“Communication is inherently strategic in the sense that people communicate for a purpose (to fulfill needs) and that symbols are selected in a manner that is responsive to constraints (e.g., social appropriateness) and adjusted to purposes (e.g., giving comfort) on an ongoing, moment-to-moment basis. […] much behavior that is goal-dependent, monitored, and adjusted on an ongoing basis occurs outside awareness. Such behavior is not limited to communication behaviors and routines that are initially mindful and then become automated through overlearning […] Rather, most communication “strategies” are tacitly acquired and employed, in the same manner that individuals acquire and appropriately use language rules without ever being directly cognizant of them”

The next chapter also talks about these sorts of things – here’s a relevant quote:

“The extent to which relationship events are subject to in-depth conscious analysis will vary considerably depending on the stage of relationship, individual differences, and the situational context. In long-term stable relationships, a great deal of communication will become routine, resulting in overlearned and stereotypical sequences of behavior. Two kinds of events have been shown to snap people back into conscious, controlled cognition (often accompanied by emotion): negative events and unexpected events (Berscheid, 1983; Fletcher & Thomas, 1996).”

People in relationships are biased in the ways they interpret communication from the people they know. Research has found that people in dissatisfying relationships tend to code communication in dissimilar ways, so that the receiver might attribute negative intent to a message where no negative intent was intended on the part of the sender. People in such relationships may also make self-serving attributions about all kinds of relationship-related features, like which partner is disclosing more, who’s being attentive (and who’s not), who’s collaborating and who’s criticizing, etc. Several studies have found small or no associations between the amount of information disclosed during communication and the level of mutual understanding possessed by the individuals involved, which is thought to be due to ‘motivated misunderstanding’; the idea being that people are motivated for various reasons to hold/maintain inaccurate conceptions about others. An important observation is that such motivated misunderstandings and biases seem to often be adaptive in the relationship context; there are all kinds of ways in which people who think their partners are (way more) awesome (than they really are) do better than people who don’t think that way (more on this below). Perceptions are really important. A few studies have also found that people seem to lack accurate meta-knowledge about their degree of understanding of others, in the sense that the level of confidence in people’s inferences does not predict empathetic accuracy (I did not find this surprising – accurate person perception is hard, and some variables are much more difficult to deal with than are others). A final key point from this chapter is that a study which looked at those things found no differences in marital satisfaction between two groups of ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ communicators; they suggested that unhappy couples with good communication skills may simply use their communication skills to more effectively hurt each other. A not really important point but one I like to include before moving on is that the chapter includes coverage of a paper by Duck and Pond, which I thought was amusing.

In the next chapter, on ‘Social Cognition in Intimate Relationships’, they talk some more about how people in happy and unhappy relationships think about the world in different ways. They note that people in happier and more stable relationships exaggerate the extent to which they are similar to their partners, the extent to which they were happy in the past (during the relationship), the positive qualities of the partner, and how much their current partner resembles their ideal partner (“to name but a few” of the relevant findings in this area of research). In the context of attachment theory, one study found that anxiously attached individuals tend to use negative/pessimistic causal attributions when explaining partner behaviour – attributions which are stable, global, and internal – whereas securely attached individuals low in attachment anxiety and avoidance offered charitable explanations of behaviour which were unstable, specific and external. So the insecurely attached individual will explain your lack of attention (or perceived lack of attention) as a result of you being a jerk who’ll never change, whereas the securely attached individual might explain it by you having had a bad day at work, or a cold. The study is not the only one of its kind: “a large body of research has demonstrated that attachment working models predict behavior, such as communication, conflict-resolution style, and support seeking and giving, which, in turn, influence relationship quality and satisfaction”.

The next chapter, ‘Emotion in theories of close relationships’, included some really neat observations which sort of relate to stuff covered in the last part of Aureli et al. A key argument is that we as humans use emotions to help us keeping track of whether people are behaving nicely towards us or not. Social exchange models of evolutionary biology maintain that we somehow keep track of whether or not we benefit from a specific relationship, or whether we perhaps put in more than we get out of the relationship. I think one of the reasons why people often find such conceptual models problematic to some extent is that it’s hard to figure out just how people ‘keep score’ of social exchanges the way you’d expect them to according to the theory; we don’t start up the computer and run our keeping-track-of-the-relationship-status-algorithm in Excel to figure out if we’re ‘overcontributing’ every time we fetch a cup of coffee for our partner or colleague (and what did people do before computers? Or coffee makers..?). One counterpoint which is not included in the coverage here but which I’ve seen elsewhere multiple times is the observation that even very simple organisms are really quite capable of displaying behaviours which look quite sophisticated to the outside observer, even if the organisms themselves are quite clearly unaware of the fact that they’re doing this, if selection pressures are significant. But considering emotional output as decision variables facilitating decision-making also helps make the ‘computational problems’ associated with such models easier to deal with. A few quotes from the chapter:

“Evolutionary theorists argue that emotions are hardwired “programs” that detect events that have recurred repeatedly over human evolution (e.g., the presence of a potential mate or rival; abandonment). Such events trigger discrete emotion programs and related perceptual, motivational, cognitive, and behavioral subprograms, selected over time as the most adaptive for dealing with such events […] Cosmides and Tooby (2000) argued from an evolutionary perspective that we must keep track of payoffs to make effective decisions about who to trust and how much to trust them. In survival terms, gullible or infinitely forgiving individuals are disadvantaged. […] Evolution has, in effect, provided an affect-based accounting system that interfaces nicely with social exchange theory. From this perspective, rather than computing profits and losses, people in close relationships may accumulate good and bad feelings toward others. […] In social exchange theories, specifically equity theory, emotions play an explicit role as signals or outcomes of unfair exchanges. […] Underbenefited people feel angry, overbenefited people feel guilty, and both are motivated to set things right (although perhaps not so much the guilty as the angry). Emotion theorists have no quarrel with the basic conclusion, but they suggest complications because of the complex appraisal processes underlying emotional states […]. For example, rather than feeling angry, underbenefited people may feel depressed if they believe they are helpless, hurt if they think the neglect is intentional, indifferent if they take it for granted, or guilty if they feel responsible for the inequity (Sprecher, 2001). Rather than guilt, overbenefited people may feel gratitude, hubris, contempt, happiness, or pride […] It depends on how they appraise the situation.”

A postscript completely unrelated to the book coverage above: I now once again has access to a computer on which I can actually blog books (it was not a coincidence that the first few posts this year were not book-related), so I’ll try to blog more ‘book stuff’ in the days to come.

January 8, 2015 - Posted by | books, Psychology

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