Married couples are happier when they commute in the same direction

What we do with our bodies can trigger metaphorical associations in our minds, having knock-on effects for perceptions and attitudes. For example, holding a warm drink can lead us to judge a person's character more favourably, presumably through activation of warmth-related personality metaphors. Washing our hands can make us feel less guilty, via activation of thoughts to do with purity. Most demonstrations of this kind have looked at immediate effects. A new study claims that physical actions that activate metaphors can also have long-lasting psychological implications. Specifically, Xun Huang and her colleagues found that couples are happier with their marriage if they commute in the same direction to work, as though it activates the metaphorical sense that they are heading in the same direction.

Huang's team surveyed 280 married adults in the USA (average age 33), via an online questionnaire, and they surveyed 139 commuting adults in Hong Kong (average age 42), face-to-face via interviews in the street. Other participants who'd didn't commute, or had a partner who didn't commute, were excluded. The participants thought they were taking part in a survey about the living conditions of married couples. They answered questions about their own and their partner's journey to work and about their martial satisfaction and their happiness with their spouse.

For both the USA and Hong Kong sample, there was a significant correlation (.20 and .35 respectively, where 1 would be a perfect match) between travelling in the same direction as one's spouse and marital satisfaction. This was true even after controlling for a range of other factors including years married, gender, income and between-partner differences in commuting time. Importantly, the association held regardless of how frequently partners left for work at the same time, so it doesn't seem to be related to spending time together.

Huang and her colleagues recognised that many potential confounds were still unaccounted for. Perhaps couples who travel to work in a similar direction are more likely to meet up for a drink in the evening, for instance. To rule out such effects, a lab experiment was conducted in Hong Kong with 80 undergrads who were strangers to each other and thought the study was about the effects of exercise on product evaluations. The students were arranged into pairs and after a brief meeting they were sent off to exercise in different rooms. Crucially, some of them headed off in the same direction, although sometimes via different routes, whilst other pairs headed in different directions. Supporting the survey of married couples, the researchers found that student partners who headed off in the same direction, even by different routes, subsequently rated each other more positively.

The researchers said their results show that "similarity in the direction of goal directed behaviour [commuting to work or walking to an experiment] can activate a mental representation that includes more general concepts of goal-directed activity (i.e. the pursuit of goals more generally)."

Past research on the effects of grounded cognition, they noted, "has normally been restricted to consideration of immediate reactions to bodily sensations such as carrying a heavy weight ... our work shows that the influence of embodiment can be much more enduring."

Xun (Irene) Huang, Ping Dong, Xianchi Dai, & Robert S. Wyer Jr. (2012). Going my way? The benefits of travelling in the same direction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.021

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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