The Situationist

College Sweethearts and Breaking Up

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 26, 2007

College Breakup

In their Georgetown Law Journal article “The Situational Character: A Critical Realist Perspective on the Human Animal,” (available on SSRN) Situationists Jon Hanson and David Yosifon discuss ineffective forecasting:

The best evidence about our ability to predict (or even remember) our emotional states reveals that we are often poor judges of our own well-being. The problem is not so much that we do not know what will bring us pleasure or pain. People typically are correct to assume that a new car will elicit some happiness and that a bad accident will generate unhappiness. The problem is that, owing to our ineffective forecasting, we vastly overestimate the intensity and duration of our emotional reactions to such happenings.

Winning the lottery, landing a good teaching job, and falling in love all may bring us some joy. Losing a bet, a job, or a lover will certainly bring sadness. But none of these events will affect us as much as we tend to imagine. Because of this impact bias, “common events typically influence people’s subjective well-being for little more than a few months, and even uncommon events — such as losing a child in a car accident, getting cancer, becoming paralyzed, or being sent to a concentration camp — seem to have less impact on long-term happiness than one might naively expect.”

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology explores ineffective forecasting in the context of college couples who break-up. Psychologists Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick of Northwestern University are the study’s authors and below we excerpt an Reuters story by Julie Steenhuysen on their work.

* * *Breaking Up

Despite the laments of pining pop stars and sad sack poets, U.S. researchers now think breaking up may not be so hard to do.“We underestimate our ability to survive heartbreak,” said Eli Finkel, an assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University, whose study appears online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Finkel and colleague Paul Eastwick studied young lovers — especially those who profess ardent affection — to see if their predictions of devastation matched their actual angst when that love was lost.

“On average, people overestimate how distressed they will be following a breakup,” Finkel said in a telephone interview.

The nine-month study involved college students who had been dating at least two months who filled out questionnaires every two weeks. They gathered data from 26 people — 10 women and 16 men — who broke up with their partners during the first six months of the study.

The participants’ forecasts of distress two weeks before the breakup were compared to their actual experience as recorded over four different periods of time.

Not surprisingly, they found the more people were in love, the harder they took the breakup.

“People who are more in love really are a little more upset after a breakup, but their perceptions about how distraught they will be are dramatically overstated when compared to reality,” Finkel said.

“At the end of the day it, it is just less bad than you thought.”

* * *

Every break-up stems from a relationship’s beginning, and for more on the beginning of relationships, check out our post from May entitled “First Dates and Feeling Good.” More recently, our post “The Situation of Happiness” explains, among other points, how happiness positively correlates with marriage (which is probably not something you want to tell a recently-heartbroken college student).

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