How will I know?

Pop singers have asked how you can tell if someone loves you or if his or her love is lasting and true. Countless books and a long-running magazine column have helped dubious lovers explore the long-term potential of their marriages and other relationships. Now a psychological tool, the Implicit Association Test (IAT), has been put to use to answer this type of question.

The IAT is believed to reveal unconscious preferences or feelings by measuring how quickly you associate ideas. For example, do you categorize words or faces more quickly when young faces are paired with positive words and old faces with negative words, or vice versa? It can be used to look for unconscious bias or racism; I think there was a version early in 2008 that evaluated which of the candidates in the US presidential primaries was truly your favorite.

Anthony Greenwald, the developer of the IAT, has written an article for Scientific American about a new use for the IAT. Three psychologists have looked at whether the IAT can be used to predict whether romantic relationships will continue; basically they were looking for how quickly people associated their partners with either positive or negative words (both generic and relationship-specific words). It turns out that it does have some predictive power, more than questionnaires that were also used to evaluate the relationships. It’s an intriguing result, but it’s nowhere near ready for people to be able to sit down at a computer and take an IAT that will tell them whether to buy a house with their sweetie or pack their bags. However, if you want to learn more about how the IAT works and take some tests yourself, check out the Project Implicit web site. I’ve taken several IATs myself (on topics like fat/thin bias or old/young bias), and sometimes I feel a little dubious about whether the test is measuring my own unconscious attitudes or the beliefs I’m surrounded by, but of course it’s possible that I unconsciously subscribe to those beliefs myself without realizing it.

The article about the research is:

Assessing the Seeds of Relationship Decay Using Implicit Evaluations to Detect the Early Stages of Disillusionment, Soonhee Lee, Ronald D. Rogge, and Harry T. Reis, Psychological Science, published online before print May 11, 2010, doi: 10.1177/0956797610371342.