As I write, Britain is in the grip of Eddie Redmayne-ia, as the Englishman returned to London clutching his Best Actor Oscar. It’s been quite a dramatic few months for Eddie and his wife Hannah, who got married just before Christmas. Newlyweds’ perceptions of each other during their “honeymoon period” have recently been attracting the attention of psychologists. Can the research tell us anything about how to have a happy marriage?
There is a longstanding debate in the psychological literature about whether it is better to have accurate self-perceptions of oneself (knowing your own limitations and shortcomings), or to maintain a flattering self illusion (“I’m great and everybody loves me”). Psychologists Shanhong Luo and Anthony Snider, from the University of North Carolina, turned this question on its head by asking whether it is better to have an accurate or flattering view of your partner.
Their guinea pigs were 288 newlywed couples who had been married, on average, just a couple on months longer than the Redmaynes. They also completed questionnaires relating to:
(a) personality (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness),
(b) character (e.g., enthusiastic, active, and interested vs. nervous, upset, and irritable),
(c) positive and negative emotions (e.g., joy, love, and excitement vs. anger, fear, and shame), and
(d) anxiety and avoidance.
The twist was that everybody completed the questionnaires twice; once for themselves, and once for their spouses. This allowed the researchers to create three measures:
accuracy — the extent to which people’s self-rated scores matched those allocated by their spouses,
positivity bias — the extent to which people overestimated the positive qualities and underestimated the negative qualities of their spouses, and
similarity bias — the extent to which people judged their spouses to be more similar to themselves than they actually are.
Well, what’s the answer? Is it better to see your spouse as they really are, as better than they really are, or as more similar to you than they really are? The answer, rather confusingly, is all three. While you might think accuracy and biases are mutually exclusive, all three measures were positive predictors of satisfaction. On further refection, this isn’t really so puzzling. If you want to be happy in your marriage, you need to start with a view of your spouse that is basically accurate, but then coat with a layer of positivity bias before sprinkling on a dash of similarity bias. If you want to make your partner happy, the recipe is basically the same, but without the positivity bias. In other words, you feel good when you overestimate your partner’s attractive qualities (perhaps because you like to feel that you’re punching above your weight), but it doesn’t make you feel either good or bad when he or she overestimates yours.
To be fair, when you’re married to an Oscar-winning heartthrob, an accurate perception of your spouse is probably pretty much all you need. But if we did feel the need to offer the Redmaynes some advice, it is advice that we would all do well to heed ourselves: the best way to increase your own marital happiness is to flatter not yourself but your partner.