The detective work of science can be ridiculously addictive. Connecting with a non-scientist who doesn’t understand this thrill can be tricky, let alone the practical problem of finding time for a loving commitment when you’re married to your work. No wonder that some of psychology’s most successful research teams are made of husband and wife pairings. Here we celebrate these partnerships, providing a digest of 10 great studies by psychology’s power couples:
Helping Married Couples
We begin appropriately enough with the work of Julie Gottman and John Gottman, founders of the Gottman Institute in Seattle. The pair are renowned for their research on the secrets of successful long-term relationships, including the finding that newly wed couples who say more positive things to each other tend to stay together longer (a controversial result). The Gottman’s continue to research together: in 2013 they published a trial of their “Art of Science and Love Workshops” for distressed couples. This was one of the first attempts to disentangle the different components of couples therapy – in this case, deepening friendship and intimacy, and conflict resolution. The Gottmans’ workshop, which combines these components, was found to be more effective than either component in isolation. Also, husbands benefited far more than wives from the friendship component alone; wives benefited more than husbands when conflict resolution was added to the mix.
The Social Cure
Feeling a sense of belonging is incredibly important to our physical and mental health, a principle that the psychologists Catherine Haslam and Alex Haslam – now based at the University of Queensland, Australia – have dubbed “the social cure“. In one of their most recent demonstrations of the effect, the Haslams and their co-authors investigated the consequences of collective decision-making for elderly care home residents. Those residents given the chance to make decisions as a group about lounge refurbishment subsequently showed benefits in terms of cognitive abilities and satisfaction with the home, as compared with residents in a no-intervention control condition, or others who had the decisions made for them. The Haslams believe the benefits of the group work arose from feelings of camaraderie and solidarity.
Self-control as a Limited Resource
For years, the Baumeister and Tice Social Psychology Lab at Florida State University, headed up by the husband and wife team of Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice, has conducted groundbreaking research on the nature of willpower. The couple propose that willpower or self-control is akin to energy: the more you use it up in one situation, the less you have left over for other situations (they call this process ego-depletion). In 1998, for example, the pair published a paper with co-author Mark Muraven, that showed people’s ability to sustain a tight grip was curtailed after they’d suppressed their emotions during an upsetting movie. Aspects of their theory, including the idea that sugar can boost willpower, have recently been challenged.
Money As a Tool
The closest thing we have to royalty in the world of psychology and neuroscience is the partnership of Uta Frith DBE and Chris Frith of UCL, two of the most highly decorated and inspiring researchers you will ever meet. Individually, they have made major findings in the areas of autism and schizophrenia research, respectively. Recently they have begun working together more closely, together with colleagues at Aarhus University in Denmark. A recent study to spring from this more direct spousal collaboration showed how brain regions involved in tool use are activated by the sight of the destruction of money. The Friths and their collaborators said this suggests the idea of money as a tool is more than a metaphor.
Loneliness as a Brain Disease
Before they met, Stephanie Cacioppo and John Cacioppo pursued separate but related lines of research – she studying love and desire, he loneliness. Since marrying, the pair have combined forces at the University of Chicago where they now blend their areas of enquiry and dip into each other’s specialisms. This includes their joint publication of a recent review in which they argued (with co-author John Capitanio) that loneliness is effectively a neurological disease – it directly alters our perception, our thoughts, and the very structure and chemistry of our brains.
Helping People Quit Smoking
With the ear of government, our next pair are two of the most influential health psychologists in the UK. Robert West and Susan Michie of UCL have collaborated in advising the House of Lords on behaviour change, and they both sit on committees on public health for the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. A particular focus of theirs is on helping people give up smoking and recently they’ve turned their attention to the effectiveness of electronic cigarettes. Their co-authored study published last year found that users of e-cigarrettes were more likely to sustain abstinence than people using other nicotine replacement products.
The Pull of Anger
The Oxford University psychologists Kevin Dutton and Elaine Fox will be best known among the wider public for their popular psychology books. Dutton is the author of best-selling The Wisdom of Psychopaths and previously Flipnosis, while Fox is author of Rainy Brain Sunny Brain, which examines the science of optimism and pessimism. Earlier in their careers the pair collaborated on research into the attention-grabbing power of angry faces. For example, in 2000, with colleague Ricardo Russo, the couple showed that we take longer to shift our attention away from an angry face (vs. happy or neutral), and this is especially the case for people who have a more anxious personality.
Reading Children’s Minds
Our next pair are developmental psychologists: Elizabeth Meins at the University of York, whose work has helped inform NSPCC guidelines, and Charles Fernyhough at the University of Durham, who was recently described as “a new kind of academic“, combining as he does university research with the writing of popular science books and fiction, and many other activities. This couple have led the way in researching the concept and consequences of “mind mindedness” – that is, when parents “treat an infant as an individual with a mind, and try to work out what is going on for him or her“. Among their findings, in 2002 Meins and Fernyhough published research that suggested children with mothers who displayed more “mind mindedness” when they were aged just 6 months, tended to show more sophisticated understanding of other people’s mental states when they were tested at around age four years.
Wounds Heal More Slowly When We’re Stressed
Clinical psychologist Janice Kielcolt-Glaser and her husband, immunologist Ronald Glaser, both at Ohio State University, are pioneers in the field of psychoneuroimmunology – how our mental state, especially stress, affects our immune system. Among their many landmark discoveries is the finding, published in 1995, that psychological stress can slow down the healing of wounds, which was demonstrated in the context of people experiencing stress because of caring for relatives with dementia.
How Babies Learn
We end our list with another power couple from the field of developmental psychology: Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, both at the University of Washington, who study the way babies learn. Each of them incredibly prolific, the pair have authored hundreds of studies, books and they make frequent media appearances, including a TED talk by Kuhl. Rewinding to the early 1980s, one of the earliest fruits of their partnership was a study in Science (pdf) that showed infants can lip read, in the sense that they can tell which lip movements are matched to different speech sounds. The finding made an important theoretical contribution to our understanding of language development, showing that infant speech perception is not a purely auditory process.