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Valentine’s Suggestion for Crabby Couples: Forget Counseling, Watch a Movie

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In a previous post, I suggested that brain implants might help couples resolve their differences. That’s an admittedly drastic solution, not to mention that implants for direct, brain-to-brain, wifi communication don’t exist yet. So here, just in time for Valentine’s Day, is a less invasive option for couples: watching romantic movies together. I got this idea from New York Times health columnist Tara Parker-Pope, who recently reported on a study at the University of Rochester showing that “sappy relationship movies made in Hollywood can actually help strengthen relationships in the real world.”

The researchers divided 174 engaged or newlywed couples into four groups. One received counseling focusing on conflict resolution; a second received counseling in empathy-building; a third group watched romantic movies (examples: Love Story, Terms of Endearment, The Notebook, Date Night, She’s Having a Baby) and discussed them according to guidelines proposed by the researchers; the fourth group wasn’t required to do anything.

After three years, the researchers reported in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 24 percent of the couples who fended for themselves had separated or divorced. The couples in the other three groups fared much better; only 11 percent of the couples in each group had split up.

The study was really intended to compare the two counseling methods. The movie option was included as a kind of control; the researchers expected it to result in, at best, only “mild improvements to relationship quality,” as Parker-Pope put it. “To their surprise,” she added, “the movie intervention worked just as well as both of the established therapy methods in reducing divorce and separation.”

I’m surprised that the researchers were surprised. They have just reaffirmed the notorious “Dodo bird verdict,” first proposed by psychologist Saul Rosenzweig in 1936. After examining studies of Freudian psychoanalysis and rival therapies, Rosenzweig concluded that all are roughly as effective as each other. “Dodo bird verdict” refers to an episode in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland when a Dodo, after watching Alice and other characters race around an island, exclaims, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!”

Although some studies contradict the Dodo verdict, many others affirm it, as I have pointed out in previous posts. The implication of the Dodo verdict is that psychological treatments work—when they work–by exploiting the placebo effect, the tendency of our hopes for improvement to become self-fulfilling.

One positive implication of the Dodo verdict–and of the University of Rochester study–is that if you are seeking psychological relief, you don’t need to rely on expensive counseling from a professional therapist. If you think that doing something will make you feel better—or improve your relationships with others–there is a good chance that it will, whether that means going for a long run in the woods, praying to the Virgin Mary, practicing Transcendental Meditation or watching the 1970 tearjerker Love Story with a loved one and discussing whether love really means never having to say you’re sorry.*

*Postscript: I re-wrote this final paragraph, trying to make it more upbeat, in response to criticism from a loved one that I shouldn’t be so negative on Valentine’s Day.

Illustration courtesy Wikimedia Commons,

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rshoff2 11:44 am 02/14/2014

    Now you have us all curious. What was the original version of the last paragraph!? Was Ryan O’Neal ever really that young!?

    Link to this
  2. 2. tuned 1:25 pm 02/14/2014

    How ’bout “Kill Bill”?
    “Psycho” pie for dessert?

    Link to this
  3. 3. rshoff2 6:19 pm 02/14/2014

    There’s the Placebo Effect again. In therapy, perhaps it’s more of a result of human influence than placebo. As for RX placebos, those are flat out manipulations.

    Where do you draw the line between influence and manipulation?

    Link to this

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