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Introducing The Relationship Scientist

Both mental and physical health are closely linked to your relationships.

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Finally, I am a health psychologist. Say what? Health psychology is a branch of psychological science dedicated to applying psychological principles and research findings to the enhancement of health. In this column, I’ll discuss the health psychology of relationships and how human wellness is embedded in a social context.

I’m going to consider myself a translator of sorts. My goal is to tell you (in the most straightforward way possible) about the fascinating body of research on close relationships. Any research on improving relationships (and the link between relationships and health) will be fair game. Scientific studies are full of technical mumbo-jumbo. My goal is to translate research about relationships into concrete, real-world examples that have direct relevance in your day-to-day lives. Some of the findings will be surprising; some will challenge long-held beliefs; and some, I hope, will change the way you think and act in your relationships.

Let’s end with a recent research study that I think you’ll find interesting. Since this is our first discussion of research—our initial acquaintance, if you will, I thought it would be fitting to share findings from a “speed dating research paradigm.” That’s right: Researchers study speed dating to understand the initial forms of interpersonal attraction.

Scientists have long known that we are attracted to people are who similar to us. We also feel more connected to people when they act like us; if someone mimics our behavior during the course of a discussion, we rate them as more likeable. This makes sense, of course, but now we’ve learned that we’re attracted to people who quickly synchronize their patterns of speech to our own. In a study published by Molly Ireland and colleagues in the journal Psychological Science, the authors analyzed the words people used in their very first meetings at a speed dating event.

Similarity in the use of function words— pronouns and articles that are used to create meaning in the context of a given sentence— revealed itself to predict liking for a potential partner. The more two people matched their function words, the more they said they’d like to go on a future date with that person. What does this “language style matching” reflect? It’s connection, it’s listening, it’s reflection, it’s pacing. It’s about being on the same page with a potential partner.

The authors replicated their findings in a second study and showed that word matching can even be observed in established couples’ text messages; language matching, in turn, predicted how likely the couples were to breakup 3 months later. The findings are far reaching: One way to connect (and stay connected) with another person is to actually mirror that person’s pattern of speech in a genuine and natural way. To do so requires attention and presence (even in a text message, I suspect).

Try this out at home (or at work, or at your next speed dating event) and let me know how it goes.

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