Outreach Event: Explore Your Universe 2015!

Imagine your watching your favorite sport, and a gorilla walks right through the game. Think you would notice it? Think again. This exemplar of our selective attention was just one of the many beliefs flipped on its head by members of the Psychology in Action (PIA) outreach team at last Sunday’s 7th annual UCLA Explore Your Universe (EYU) event. As one of the largest science outreach events in all of southern California, the event sought…

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Blind Dates and Soulmates: The Psychology of Reality TV Matchmaking

Warning: This post discusses the reality television show “Married at First Sight” and contains multiple spoilers. 


My favorite month of the year may have just gotten a little bit better. Despite previous rumors of its cancellation, news recently broke that the the reality show “Married at First Sight” will return for a third season in December. “Married at First Sight” premiered in the summer of 2014 and has cycled through two seasons over the past year. Marketed as a radical social experiment, the show features daring singles who sign up to marry a complete stranger (see trailer below). Contestants place their fate in the hands of a matchmaking team: a clinical psychologist, a sexologist, a sociologist, and a spiritual advisor. Based on extensive psychological assessments and personality tests, the matchmakers sift through thousands of applicants to choose three highly compatible couples. And here’s the catch–the couples have their first date at the altar, where they (literally) get married at first sight. The bulk of the season then tracks the three couples adjusting to married life, with each episode highlighting a different relationship milestone (e.g., moving in together, meeting the family etc.). In the climactic finale, the couples make a decision: do they want to stay married or get a divorce?

On Married at First Sight, contestants complete hours of personality and psychological assessments that guide the matchmaking process. They provide in depth reports of their own personality and the qualities that they look for in a potential partner, information that the matchmakers then use to choose matches. The show raises a number of interesting questions about the psychological processes that underly attraction and relationship formation. What factors matter most when it comes to determining a good match? Do our relationship ideals accurately capture our real preferences? Can we ever truly predict romantic compatibility, much less marital longevity?  According to the show’s experts, the careful assessment and evaluation process offers an effective method for finding a match. According to skeptics, it’s beyond the ability of any matchmaker or psychological test to truly gauge romantic compatibility. Let me make a disclaimer upfront: I am not an intimate relationships researcher nor expert. But, as a heavy consumer of reality television dating shows and student of psychology, I hope to provide some commentary on how the two intersect. Therefore, in this post I’ll first review some studies highlighting what we do know about factors contributing to attraction and compatibility and then discuss the conditions under which matchmaking may get a bit murky.

One potential criticism of the show’s matchmaking process (or any ‘blind’ matchmaking, for that matter) is the difficulty in predicting physical attraction. As a funciton of this difficulty, the season 1 wedding of Doug Hehner and Jamie Otis (yes, former Bachelor and Bachelor Pad contestant Jamie Otis) was one of the more cringe-worthy television events of the year:

Based on their initial interaction, it’s hard to believe that Jamie and Doug are one of two happily married*** couples still going strong from the two seasons of the show. However, there is evidence from existing research that initial physical attraction is not a precondition for relationship success, insofar as this can develop over time. Although perceptions of physical appearance significantly contribute to interpersonal attraction (e.g., Hendrick, 2004), there is also evidence that physical attraction is malleable. Personality factors, for example, influence our subsequent judgments of physical attractiveness. In one relevant study, college students rated opposite-sex photos on desirability with and without supplemental personality information (Lewandowski, Aron, & Gee, 2007). When personality descriptions accompanied the photos, participants showed shifts in their ratings of physical attractiveness, such that more desirable personality traits augmented physical attractiveness. On “Married at First Sight”, despite her initial lack of attraction to Doug, Jamie slowly develops strong feelings for him on both a physical and emotional level, recognizing their shared values and general compatibility:

As such, the difficulty of predicting physical attraction between couples seems to be a surmountable barrier for matchmakers, so long as the pairs are compatible in other respects.

***My judgment of ‘happily married’ is admittedly only based off of Jamie’s Instagram posts, and we know self-presentation on social media is an entirely separate story.

Relatedly, a central question when determining romantic compatibility is the role of similarity. Do opposites attract or do birds of a feather flock together? Dating back to the mid 20th century, the majority of social psychological research on attraction supports the idea that similarity breeds liking in relationships. Similarity can refer to a range of personal characteristics, from physical attractiveness to religious values.  For example, the ‘matching hypothesis’ (Walster, Aronson, Abrahams, & Rottman, 1966) suggests that attraction and relationship success are maximized when two partners are equal in social desirability. Rather than seeking out the most attractive possible partner, we gravitate towards those who we perceive to ‘match’ us. Beyond physical compatibility, people also seek out belief validation, preferring partners who show similarities in important attitudes (e.g., towards family) and personality traits (Byrne, 1971). In addition to similarity predicting initial attraction, similar others also show more positive outcomes in the long-run; many studies document that romantic partners who match more on attractiveness, educational background, intelligence, attitudes, and values report greater marital satisfaction and lower likelihood of relationship dissolution (Berscheid, Dion, Hatfield, & Walster, 1971; Buss, 1985).

How do these processes play out on “Married at First Sight”? In Season 1, two out of the three couples chose to stay married at the end of the season and one couple chose to divorce. Based on the research I’ve described, you can probably guess where these two ended up:

Monet & Vaughn

Of course, this is not to say that similarity among couples universally predicts negative outcomes. Although the ‘complementarity hypothesis’ of relationships has received significantly less support in the literature, some research provides evidence that opposites do indeed attract. For example, in one study, couples who shared certain personality traits (e.g., extraversion; Shiota & Levenson, 2007) experienced more negative marital outcomes. Other research has suggested that partners show greater relationship satisfaction when they complement one another in terms of level of dominance vs. submission (Dryer & Horowitz, 1997).

When asked at the Season 1 reunion if matching Monet and Vaughn together was a mistake, Dr. Joseph Cilona (clinical psychologist and one of the four matchmakers) stated,

“Given the outcome, I would have to say yes, it was not the right choice. However, as was pointed out in the show, the irony is that Vaughn and Monet appeared to have the highest level of potential compatibility across all the assessments that were performed.”

Where did things go wrong? In the clip above, Vaughn notes that he initially asked for a partner who complemented his personality. However, spending more time with Monet he begins to question if those initial preferences were accurate. This is where matchmaking gets tricky. A critical assumption underlying the matchmaking process is that contestants can accurately convey what they want in a partner. That is, the matchmakers consider each person’s desired partner characteristics when determining the couples. Are we good at knowing and expressing what we want in a significant other? To examine this question, researchers have compared individuals’ relationship ideals (what they say they want) with their actual relationships. In one social psychological study (Eastwick & Finkel, 2008) participants reported on their ideal mate preferences and how these factors would impact their decision to date someone. Some prioritized physical attraction, others placed greater emphasis on personality or financial status. Participants then attended a speed dating event and reported their interest in going on a future date with each potential match. If relationship ideals accurately reflect ‘real-life’ relationship behaviors, then our a priori preferences should predict subsequent date evaluations and behaviors. However, in the study there were almost no associations between the two. For example, just days before the speed dating event, some participants indicated a preference for dating someone very ‘personable’. But, in the context of the actual event, they were not any more likely to request a follow-up date with the matches they rated as highly personable on the speed date.

A recent study of men’s attraction to intelligent women has received significant buzz after documenting similar patterns of discrepancies (Park, Young, Eastwick, 2015). Whereas male undergraduates reported a general preference for dating smart women, their preference did not translate into actual behavior. When presented with the opportunity to interact with a woman who performed better or worse than them on a test, the participants showed significantly less interest in the woman who outperformed them.

How do we make sense of the inconsistency between what we think we want in a partner and what we show we want? Some researchers have referred to a  ‘cold-to-hot prospective empathy gap’ when explaining why and how people mispredict their own preferences (Loewenstein, 2005). The opinions we express under ‘cool’ conditions, characterized by deeper thinking and reflection, may not match up with our preferences under ‘hot’ conditions, where we are more driven by strong affective reactions (e.g., in the ‘heat of the moment’). In the absence of experiential cues and information, people are not always great at anticipating their future emotional reactions (Eastwick, Luchies, Finkel, & Hunt, 2014). As such, it could be argued that there is substantial unpredictability when it comes to the matchmaking process.

Although findings from psychological studies can help us understand some of the factors contributing to initial romantic attraction and satisfaction over time, research is also not a crystal ball. Oftentimes we ourselves have trouble accurately expressing desired partner characteristics, and despite the tendency for similarity to breed liking, there will always be exceptions to the trend. As such, although the experts on shows like “Married At First Sight” can be guided by research as they gauge romantic compatibility, it remains questionable whether we can truly ever get matchmaking ‘down to a science’. What’s next for “Married at First Sight”? After significant controversy surrounding the volatile breakup of a Season 2 couple, there’s more than just the questionable accuracy of the matchmaking process to feel apprehensive about. Also, although the show’s Australian version cast same sex couples in Season 2, the U.S. version has yet to take this step (relatedly, the majority of aforementioned research on relationship processes has focused exclusively on heterosexual couples). And, let us of course remember that despite being marketed as a social experiment, “Married At First Sight” is first and foremost a reality television show. The show’s experts have denied any producer involvement in the matchmaking, but it seems likely that entertainment value plays some role in the casting process.

Can the show increase its 33% success rate from the first two seasons? Will Jamie and Doug’s Instagram-verified bliss continue in 2016? Will anyone ever say ‘no’ at the altar? Stay tuned.


Berscheid, E., Dion, K. K., Walster, E., & Walster, G. W. (1971). Physical attractiveness and dating choice: A test of the matching hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 173–189.

Buss, D. M. (1985). Human mate selection: Opposites are sometimes said to attract, but in fact we are likely to marry someone who is similar to us in almost every variable. American Scientist, 47-51.

Byrne, D. (1971). The attraction paradigm. New York: Academic Press.

Dryer, D. C., & Horowitz, L. M. (1997). When do opposites attract? Interpersonal complementarity versus similarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(3), 592.

Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2008). Sex differences in mate preferences revisited: do people know what they initially desire in a romantic partner? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(2), 245.

Eastwick, P. W., Luchies, L. B., Finkel, E. J., & Hunt, L. L. (2014). The predictive validity of ideal partner preferences: A review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140(3), 623.

Hendrick, S. (2004). Understanding close relationships. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Lewandowski, G. W., Aron, A., & Gee, J. (2007). Personality goes a long way: The malleability of opposite‐sex physical attractiveness. Personal Relationships, 14(4), 571-585.

Loewenstein, G. (2005). Hot-cold empathy gaps and medical decision making. Health Psychology, 24(4S), S49.

Park, L. E., Young, A. F., & Eastwick, P. W. (2015). (Psychological) Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder Effects of Psychological Distance and Relative Intelligence on Men’s Attraction to Women. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Shiota, M. N., & Levenson, R. W. (2007). Birds of a feather don’t always fly farthest: similarity in Big Five personality predicts more negative marital satisfaction trajectories in long-term marriages. Psychology and Aging, 22(4), 666.

Walster, E., Aronson, V., Abrahams, D., & Rottman, L. (1966). Importance of physical attractiveness in dating behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(5), 508.

On Essena O’Neill, #fitspo, and the “real-ness” of social media.

If you’ve been on social media in the past 48 hours, you may have seen one of several articles making the rounds about Essena O’Neill, the former teen Instagram model (yes, that’s a thing!) who gained popularity for her bikini-clad selfies and fitness tips. Essena made the decision to quit Instagram after growing disillusioned and unhappy with the staged nature of her social media presence. Before deleting her Instagram account, Essena recaptioned all of her…

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5 Reasons You Should Make Time to Read Fiction (Especially Harry Potter)


In true Hermione Granger bookworm fashion, I grew up reading as many books as I could get my hands on. I didn’t consider a summer complete unless I had checked off a long list of “to read” books. But, as schedules got busier and lazy summer days became nonexistent, I watched reading for pleasure take a backseat in my life. If you’ve also found this to be the case, here are some reasons to reconsider…

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Parenting in the Digital Age: Q&A with Yalda Uhls

Source: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/1143995/images/o-CHILD-WITH-IPAD-facebook.jpg

About this Q&A Interview We are proud to secure an exclusive interview with Yalda T. Uhls, MBA, PhD — a child psychologist researcher and leading expert in how media affects children. She is a former Psychology in Action president and our most prolific blogger. Yalda continues to research with UCLA while serving as as director of Creative Community Partnerships at Common Sense Media, a national non-profit. Most importantly, Yalda is a mom of two digital teens (a boy and a girl), which is also the topic of…

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Presenting Psychology: 10 Ways to Polish Up Your Research Presentation


Gone are the days in which promising scholars could conduct brilliant scientific work, write compelling and cogent articles and books, and be forgiven by all for having no clarity or articulation when attempting to talk about it in person! …If those days existed at all. Scientific communication takes many forms, but virtually all graduate students, faculty, and other related roles must present about their research at some time. Psychological research (or any research for that matter!)…

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The Power of Social Belonging


In his final novel, Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about…You are not alone.’” Vonnegut’s thoughts nicely tap into a psychological theory called “the need to belong,” which proposes that people’s sense of social belonging, or their sense that they have good relationships with others, is a fundamental human need. That is, having solid…

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Me, Myselfie, and I: The Psychological Impact of Social Media Activity


Not too long ago, I relentlessly teased my 21-year-old sister when she revealed her strategies for achieving maximal positive feedback on Facebook photos. There were timing basics—don’t post on Friday or Saturday nights because no one is checking. She also recommended sensitivity to time zones so as to avoid an entire coast being asleep when your picture is posted. There was even attention to Facebook’s sharing algorithms. Rather than posting and tagging other people in…

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Bewonderment: Awe and other stupefying things

I distrust wonder implicitly. It is not meant to survive or have permanence. It is held up as a virtue in modern society. It shouldn’t be. Wonder has a purpose in your brain but it isn’t to be sought for its own sake. To do so speaks to intellectually low-level behavior. Like the mind of a drug addict who has been commandeered by an overriding quest. It isn’t necessarily an ethical statement (although I could…

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Inflammation: What Is This Health Buzzword and Why Should You Care About It?


On a classic episode of The Office, Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott burns his foot on a George Foreman grill. Later in the episode, a doctor says to him: “For a burn, you really just need to look at the outside of the foot…does the skin look red and swollen?” Although one of the other characters responds to this question with a common punch line on the show, what the doctor was really probing for…

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Highlights of “Building Minds”


  For those who missed “Building Minds: Microchips & Molecules”, here is a taste

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Benefitting Ourselves While Benefitting Others: The Importance of Generativity


  “How to Talk About Dying” was the name of one of the “Most Emailed” articles on The New York Times website in early July. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, written by bestselling author and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Dr. Atul Gawande, has an average of 5 out of 5 stars with nearly 3,000 reviews on Amazon.com. What used to be a very unsexy topic in our culture – having a…

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My Graduate School Survival Guide


Disclaimer: Technically, I have not yet ‘survived’ grad school. But, with three out of five years under my belt, I like to think I’ve acquired some useful wisdom. Although there is no one-size-fits-all model for successfully navigating grad school, here I’ll outline some strategies that I find particularly effective for maximizing efficiency and maintaining solid work-life balance. Stay organized (and give your brain a break) Although I pride myself on having strong memory skills, grad…

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The Neuroscience of Altruism


At times, it is tempting to take a rather cynical view of human nature. After the latest revelation of political corruption, exposure of fraud, or swiping of the last space in the crowded supermarket parking lot that you had been waiting 10 minutes for, we may want to conclude that people are fundamentally selfish. A great deal of research has investigated the neural mechanisms that may support anti-social behaviors, such as aggression or the absence…

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Outreach Event: Thought Suppression vs. Mindfulness!

Infinity, pizza, spiders, shoes, pizza, iPhones, sleep, pizza, code names, iPads, games, pizza… When we asked elementary students to think about anything these were the responses. However, when we asked elementary students to think about anything but a yellow jeep, the kids told us they thought of the yellow jeep about 100 times in a minute. One child even thought of yellow pizza. Why? Well, as we explained this past Friday at the PIA Outreach Event…

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“Building Minds: Microchips & Molecules” Symposium – May 18, 2015

Building Minds Poster

Psychology in Action is proud to announce the fourth annual Psychology Interdisciplinary Events symposium, Monday, May 18th, 2015, from 4 to 6pm in UCLA’s CNSI Auditorium. The discussion will focus on various attempts to create artificial minds and what they tell us about our own minds. The event is completely FREE and open to the general public! We hope to see you there! Featuring – James K. Gimzewski, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, UCLA – Timothy…

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