Regina Nuzzo in Nature:
The gut may know better than the head whether a marriage will be smooth sailing or will hit the rocks after the honeymoon fades, according to research published today in Science1. Researchers have long known that new love can be blind, and that those in the midst of it can harbour positive illusions about their sweetheart and their future. Studies show that new couples rate their partner particularly generously, forgetting his or her bad qualities, and generally view their relationship as more likely to succeed than average2. But newlyweds are also under a lot of conscious pressure to be happy — or, at least, to think they are. Now a four-year study of 135 young couples has found that split-second, 'visceral' reactions about their partner are important, too. The results show that these automatic attitudes, which aren’t nearly as rosy as the more deliberate ones, can predict eventual changes in people’s marital happiness, perhaps even more so than the details that people consciously admit.
The researchers, led by psychologist James McNulty of Florida State University in Tallahassee, tapped into these implicit attitudes by seeing how fast newlyweds could correctly classify positively and negatively themed words after being primed by a photo of their spouse for a fraction of a second. If seeing a blink-of-the-eye flash of a partner’s face conjures up immediate, positive gut-level associations, for example, the participant will be quicker to report that 'awesome' is a positive word and slower to report that 'awful' is a negative one. Researchers used the difference between these two reaction times as a measurement of a participant’s automatic reaction.