“Our relationships are a source of joy and comfort, but they also bring a lot of pain,” says Vivian Zayas, Psychology. “Whether it’s intentional or not, relationships can cause us disappointment. We can be upset and hurt. I’m interested in how these experiences get stored in memory and how we handle this emotional complexity.”
Zayas’s primary focus is on the relational mind, the aspect of our psyche that flows from and depends on human interaction. In a series of studies, she has used indirect methods such as computer-based reaction-time measures to try to tap into the associations that inform these interactions.
Analyzing Positive Associations
In one study, Zayas joined with Yuichi Shoda from the University of Washington to look at the impact of close relationships on our perceptions. The researchers asked individual study participants for the name of someone with whom they had a particularly close, positive relationship. That name was then used as a priming word for a classification task. The name flashed on a computer screen for a brief moment quickly followed by a series of words—such as sunshine or garbage—which the participant had to classify as positive or negative.
Earlier studies by researchers using priming words other than the names of people found that positive words such as chocolate, for instance, trigger positive associations and valuations connected to the item in the minds of the study participants. As a result, study participants will then categorize positive target words more quickly and negative ones more slowly, compared to a baseline where the priming word is simply a neutral letter string with no meaning.
In a surprise result, however, Zayas and her colleague found when the priming word was the name of a person positively significant to the participant, such as their partners, the participant was not only faster at classifying positive words but also faster at classifying negative ones. “The name of the partner triggered positivity more strongly than negativity,” Zayas says, “but the negativity was still there. And when we primed people with the name of someone significant whom they said they felt negative toward, that facilitated the categorizing of negative words but also of positive ones.”
These results reflect the complexity of human relationships, Zayas explains. “We’ve all had positive and negative experiences with our partners,” she says. “Sometimes you fall out of sync, and that’s going to be encoded as negative experiences. The same is true of someone you feel negative toward, like an ex-partner. The relationship may have ended badly, but there was a reason you entered into it in the first place, a positive aspect that’s part of the experience.”
The degree of positive or negative associations in a relationship may be indicative of future behavior, Zayas says. “Can we eventually predict who ends up staying in a relationship and who breaks up by looking at the relative strengths of the positive and negative?” she asks. “For most people who are in a satisfying relationship, we expect the positivity to outweigh the negativity, but there will still be negativity there. It’s probably adaptive to be able to detect negative aspects of your relationship. If you detect them, you can address them. There may be an optimal balance, but if negativity increases, perhaps that might predict whether you’re going to leave that relationship.”
Zayas has also focused a large part of her research on first impressions. Together with graduate students Gul Gunaydin, PhD’13, Psychology, and Emre Selcuk, PhD’13, Human Development, she investigated how our personal history shapes the way we view others, specifically whether we are influenced to like strangers, based on whether they resemble someone we know and like. In one study, the researchers asked couples to come to the lab to have their individual portraits taken. Returning at a later date, the participants were asked to make judgments about people whose portraits were flashed onto the computer screen for half a second, rating them for traits, such as trustworthiness, attractiveness, and aggressiveness. Participants were not aware that some of the pictures were composites of their partner’s portrait combined with another person’s portrait, creating a new portrait of someone who resembled their partner.
“We found that women considered unknown others who resembled their partners more attractive, more competent, more intelligent, more trustworthy, and less aggressive.”
“We found that women considered unknown others who resembled their partners more attractive, more competent, more intelligent, more trustworthy, and less aggressive,” Zayas says. Men tended not to show these preferences, although they did judge women who resembled their partners to be more attractive. These results were indicative of facially triggered transference, where a stranger’s resemblance to a known person triggers the same feelings that the known person does, Zayas explains.
“People aren’t necessarily aware this is happening,” she says. “When we asked participants if these individuals in the morphed portraits looked familiar, many of them said no, yet we still showed this effect of transference even when they weren’t consciously aware of the resemblance.”
How First Impressions Influence Who We Like and Dislike
Following this study, Zayas and her lab continued to investigate the power of first impressions to influence liking and disliking. One notable finding was that a judgment about a stranger’s likeability, based on a photograph of that person, was a strong indicator of whether the respondent would actually like that stranger one to six months later—when meeting for 20 minutes in real life. Another was that judgments about a stranger’s personality traits, such as conscientiousness or agreeableness, based on that same exposure to his or her photograph, also held true even after face-to-face interaction.
“When you like someone, you think they are really likable,” Zayas explains. “That triggers the halo effect. You make inferences about the types of friends they have, how competent they are, the quality of their relationships, and so on. If we don’t like someone, we don’t make these positive attributions. When we looked at video recordings of the face-to-face interactions, we could see that when people think they like someone, they smile more, they are more engaged and relaxed, and they nod more. The other person picks up on this, and they also are warmer and more engaged. It’s really easy to discount one’s own behavior in creating a certain dynamic, to not realize what we’re bringing to the situation. A part of who we are and what we experience is affected by the people around us, and we affect them by the choices we make and how we approach situations. If you’re interested in social behavior, you have to understand the connections between people and their social context. It’s almost impossible to separate them out.”