Participating in Breakup Studies Helps People Get Over Breakups

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The recently heartbroken who sign up to participate in a study on breakups probably end up getting over their breakups faster than they would’ve otherwise, according to an interesting new paper in Social Psychology and Personality Science that examines the inadvertent meddling researchers do when they’re trying to study relationship dissolution. 

Grace M. Larson, a psychologist at Northwestern University, was curious how participating in a study on breakups influences people’s recovery process, and so she recruited 210 recently separated young adults to try to find out. About half of the participants completed questionnaires and interviews with researchers about their breakups four times over nine weeks; by the time they reached their final session with the researchers, they’d spent three and a half hours in the lab dwelling on their failed relationships. (This, Larson and her co-authors write, is comparable to the time volunteers would spend participating in most studies on romantic breakups.) The other half of the study volunteers only visited the lab twice, completing two questionnaires and one interview, adding up to about 45 minutes.

In their final interviews with researchers, the young adults who’d participated in the more intensive study reported less loneliness, and were less likely to use the word we when talking about their former relationships, than those who had done the brief version of the study, suggesting that all the time spent in the lab dwelling on their failed relationship may have helped these participants recover more quickly. Larson expands on the significance of decreased use of the word we in her paper:

For people who have experienced a recent breakup, one way research participation may improve adjustment is by promoting a reorganization of their sense of self. In romantic relationships, self-identity – one’s understanding of who he or she is as a person – is often dramatically shaped by one’s romantic partner, and partners typically experience intertwinement of their identities. Romantic breakups are associated with immediate and persistent decreases in self-concept clarity, and recovery of an independent sense of self prospectively predicts increased psychological well-being following a breakup.

For researchers who study this stuff, it’s a pretty fascinating example of the way people’s psychological experiences might be shaped simply by participating in a psychology study. And, really, it isn’t that surprising that answering questions designed by psychologists might help people recover more quickly from their breakups. For the rest of us, then, maybe we’d best find ourselves a study to participate in when we’re in the midst of heartbreak.