The Friday Five: 02/13/04
Seattle Times: Risk assessments can be tricky when danger is so relative

Seattle Times: Will couples divide? Math may tell

Romantic love is often described with metaphors borrowed from science. We talk of sexual chemistry and Mars and Venus. Unlikely lovers are explained by the rules of physics—opposites attract.

Now a leading marriage expert and group of mathematicians say it all comes down to math, calculus to be precise.

The team, led by Seattle psychologist John Gottman, presented its mathematical formula for marital bliss yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Seattle.

By hammering out equations based on how a couple interacts when arguing, Gottman said, he can predict with 94 percent accuracy which marriages will last and which will end in divorce.

This isn't just some parlor trick, Gottman said. "The math model gave us a scientific theory for understanding relationships."


At his "love lab" at the Relationship Research Institute, Gottman demonstrated his methods on volunteers Andrea Rodgers and Michael Harris, who are set to wed this Fourth of July. The couple's shared euphoria at finding each other provokes the twin reactions "What a cute couple!" and "Can I puke now?"

At the demonstration, the poster couple for Valentine's Day is shut in a room and told to discuss an area of disagreement for 15 minutes while they're videotaped. It takes them awhile to figure out an area in which they aren't in perfect harmony, but they eventually decide on money and time management. They hardly come to blows over the issues—they laugh a lot and are sure to reconfirm that the other is just about perfect.

Technicians code their videotaped interaction, assigning points to the pair's emotional signals. A subtle but scornful roll of the eyes earns a negative four, a nod of interest receives a positive two, and a good-natured joke gets another positive two.

The math itself is a pair of differential equations, alphabet soup to the untrained eye.


The formula reveals no surprises about Harris and Rodgers. Gottman scanned their computer printout, then offered the suddenly anxious couple his prognosis: "Happily ever after."

They showed four times more positive signs than negative.

"We've got scientific proof of what we've felt all along," Rodgers beamed.

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