Students investigate the psychology of relationships

Undergrads in ASU's Navigating Romantic Relationships course write op-eds on the psychology of relationships


ASU Assistant Professor Thao Ha stands at the front of a classroom.

Thao Ha, an assistant professor and expert on relationships and transitions within the adolescent and young adult life cycle, teaches the PSY 498 Navigating Romantic Relationships course at ASU. Ha is also the director of the Heart Lab at ASU, where she conducts research on the development of adolescent romantic relationships.

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Each February, Valentine’s Day shines the spotlight back on relationships and the search for love.

Chocolates, roses and stuffed animals are displayed at grocery stores and couples begin planning expensive romantic dinners. Google searches for date ideas increase by 400%, and according to a National Retail Foundation survey, the average American couple plans to spend almost $200 on each other.

Additionally, for the second straight year, undergraduate psychology students in the PSY 498 Navigating Romantic Relationships course presented op-eds about the psychology of relationships.

The course is taught by Thao Ha, an assistant professor and expert on relationships and transitions within the adolescent and young adult life cycle. Ha is also the director of the Heart (Healthy Experiences Across Relationships and Transitions) Lab at Arizona State University, where she conducts research on the development of adolescent romantic relationships. She investigates how partner choices, relationship dynamics and break-ups among heterosexual and sexual minority youth affect their emotional and behavioral adjustment over time.

Recently, Ha’s research was published in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, where she used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity in both members of a romantic couple when they assessed their own romantic compatibility.

Students in her class worked in groups to conduct research on topics related to the course material and presented on topics such as the benefits and risks of intimate friendships, reducing the fear of long-distance relationships, how predictive zodiac signs are of compatibility, and how to have an effective Valentine’s date based on evolutionary psychology research.

Following the presentations, students voted on the presentations and selected their favorites.

Students Shardul Shetye, Daniel Grumbine and Anya Pressendo received the most votes, and their op-ed, “Keeping the Benefits and the Friendship Separate,” was published on the Department of Psychology website. Their presentation focused on the struggle many college students face between pursuing casual intimate relationships or simply maintaining platonic friendships.

Shetye, Grumbine and Pressendo focused on Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, which suggests that a relationship is composed of passion, intimacy and commitment. They theorized that casual intimate relationships feature a lack of commitment, and friendships feature a lack of intimacy, so when they are combined, it inevitably leads to a relationship failure.

“I thought this topic was particularly interesting given how often this seems to occur in emerging adulthood. It seems one of the big fears surrounding it is that adding sex will ruin a friendship. I wanted to see what the field of relationship psychology had to say about these relationships, as well as if there was any advice I could give people our age that are either in one of these types of relationships or considering involving themselves in one,” Grumbine said.

Grumbine is currently an undergraduate research assistant in the Culture, Adaptation, Religion, Morality, and Anthropomorphism lab with psychology Professor Adam Cohen. His research interest focuses on evolutionary, cultural and moral psychology.

“One of the interesting findings were the results that approximately 30% of all 'friends with benefits' (FWB) relationships end in a complete separation. They don't continue being intimate, nor being friends, which is a staggeringly high risk just for momentary action,” Grumbine said. “Additionally, only approximately 10% of FWB relationships ended in an actual intimate partner relationship, which I thought was much lower than I expected.”

The second-place article, "Our Fates Are in the Stars," was written by student Leena Darwish and explored the role that zodiac signs play in predicting relationship success. Darwish was interested in the concept of internal versus external locus of control. Her op-ed further explores destiny beliefs, or the concept that potential partners are “meant for each other” or not.

Darwish selected her topic because, while she and her friends often joke about zodiac sign stereotypes, other people take zodiac signs seriously, and she was curious about how that impacted their relationships.

“People who have beliefs in an external locus of control may not believe their own behaviors and efforts impact the outcome of the relationship, and alternatively, spouses with a higher internal locus of control believed that their willpower to create change would result in actual change,” Darwish said.

The final article that was voted on, “Heart to Heart: Synching Up with Your Partner," was written by students Jacob Moyer and Cami Swaine. The pair explored the physiological phenomenon of coregulation, or the synchronization of physiological behaviors, such as heart beats and breathing.

When couples experienced arousal or stress, their heart rates and respiration synchronized unconsciously, and similarly were correlated when discussing positive and negative aspects of their relationships.

“Valentine’s Day comes with a lot of pressure to express love. For those of us with partners, it might make us overthink the ways we show our partners love. However, research on physiological coregulation shows us that when we’re with our special person, we have no choice but to literally follow our heart,” said Moyer, who is currently planning on applying to a clinical PhD program.  

Swaine is currently a research assistant in pyschology Professor M. Foster Olive’s Neuroscience of Addiction Lab, and is interested in working with addictive disorders from either a clinical or research perspective in the future.

“We also thought it would be cool to tie our topic into Valentine’s Day, because the concept itself is very sweet and romantic,” Swaine said.

“Just like last year, the students were so creative and supportive of each other while exploring the research and receiving constructive feedback,” Ha said. “Learning to communicate complicated research broadly in the form of an op-ed is just one of many creative and exciting ways we can use to help our students understand the material better.”

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