‘Gut instinct’ makes for happy relationship, researchers say

Study published in journal ‘Science’ examined 135 newlywed couples over four years

You may think you are head over heels about your partner but if you want a long and happy relationship trust your gut. Having an automatic gut level response to your partner is a more accurate predictor of long term happiness than what your head thinks.

Research collaborators from several US universities decided to track the apparent happiness of 135 newlywed couples by measuring their conscious assessment of the marriage as opposed to the more elemental gut-level feelings they had.

They matched these separate responses against how the relationship was doing after four years, publishing their findings today in the journal Science.

Trusting your brain seemed to be a poor guide as to where the relationship would go after time.


Participants were given a questionnaire that asked six questions about how happy they were with the marriage. They had a scale of one to 10 for these questions ranging from very unhappy to perfectly happy.

They were also encouraged to evaluate how things were using words like good or satisfying, so everything was kept at a conscious level under this assessment.

For the subconscious tests they measured the couples’ gut feelings, something that psychologists describe as a person’s automatic attitude.

These automatic responses can be positive or negative but the person being assessed does not make a choice, their conscious brain does not participate in this part of the test.

The method uses a trick of the eye, being able to see but not see. An images of a person’s face was flashed up on a screen for less than a third of a second, either a random face or a picture of the person’s spouse.

The face would flash for an instant and then the person would be asked to decide if a word such as awesome or horrible was positive or negative.

The researchers found that the time it took to respond provided a way to measure a person’s subconscious or automatic response to a partner.

Subjects that responded more quickly to positive words after seeing an image of their partner were a more accurate predictor of long term - admittedly only four years - marriage happiness.

Those tested who took longer to respond to positive words after seeing the picture of their partner did not have as happy a relationship.

It turned out that the written responses ended up being a poor predictor of future happiness, the researchers found.

The researchers did admit they could not know for sure whether the subjects didn’t have a sense of their gut-level attitude, or whether they were just not admitting to how they really felt about their partners.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.