The finding: Partners who travel to work in the same direction feel more positive about each other than partners who don’t.
The study: Two graduate students, working under the guidance of professors Robert Wyer and Xianchi Dai at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, asked more than 400 married people to rate their satisfaction with their spouses and to describe the direction, distance and duration of their respective commutes. The researchers found a significant correlation between commute direction and marital happiness. In a follow-up laboratory experiment, strangers were randomly paired and assigned to complete a task. Those who walked in the same direction to do so were more satisfied with their partners than those who didn’t.
The challenge: Does moving in the same physical direction somehow make us more in sync emotionally? Professor Wyer, defend your research.
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A: I wouldn’t have bet that the surveys, which were conducted in both the United States and Hong Kong, would show a link. But they did: people who commuted in the same direction as their husbands or wives were happier with their relationships than people who didn’t. We think that’s because moving in a similar direction symbolises the pursuit of similar goals.
My collaborators – graduate students Irene Huang and Ping Dong, and Xianchi Dai, another CUHK faculty member – had read that a lack of mutual goals is a big source of marital dissatisfaction. And commuting is a general source of discontent. So we set out to investigate those two ideas together. Of course, there could be alternative explanations for the findings: maybe spouses who work near each other have jobs that are more alike or find it easier to get together after hours. That’s why we did the study with strangers under controlled conditions in a lab. It permitted us to isolate the effects of moving in the same direction from other possible factors. And we found that randomly paired people were more satisfied with their partners when they walked in the same direction to complete their task, even when they didn’t follow the exact same route. The lab studies increased our confidence in our interpretation.
Q: My husband and I used to commute in the same direction, but now we don’t. Are we doomed?
A: Obviously not. Marital satisfaction is determined by many things that are far more important. Smoking can cause lung cancer, but that doesn’t mean that all smokers get this disease. And the variance in this case is even smaller. But it’s still pretty remarkable that a subtle, incidental and apparently irrelevant factor like a similar commuting direction could have a statistically significant influence.
Q: Are there other subtle things that make people subconsciously more attracted to or satisfied with each other?
A: A large body of evidence shows that perceptions of similarity increase interpersonal attraction even when the similarity is objectively unimportant – for example, when two people have the same first name or come from the same city or state. Some recent findings show that the experience of physical warmth can activate concepts of social warmth, which in turn influence judgments and decisions. John Bargh and his colleagues at Yale found that if individuals happen to be holding a hot drink, they are likely to perceive other people to be interpersonally warm. And Irene Huang, Meng Zhang and others at CUHK have found that warm ambient temperatures induce feelings of social closeness and consequently make people more likely to conform to others’ decisions. Thus, bettors at the racetrack are more likely to put their money on the favourite – that is, the horse that most other bettors prefer – on warm days than on cool ones.
Q: So feelings of closeness lead us to conformity?
A: Social closeness, yes. Physical closeness, not necessarily. Think about it. People typically feel uncomfortable when others intrude on their personal space, but they feel less discomfort when they’ve done the intruding. For example, you feel better when you sit next to a stranger on a bus than when a stranger sits next to you. Why? A study by Hao Shen at CUHK and Jing Xu at Peking University suggests that it’s because you infer from your behaviour that you’re attracted to the stranger you’ve sat next to, even if you had no real choice over the seat. Conversely, when the stranger sits next to you, you feel as if he or she has constricted your freedom and consequently want to reassert it.
In their experiment, Shen and Xu asked a group of students to select seats among another group that was already seated. The ones who chose where to sit reported higher levels of attraction to the people around them. And when they were offered several choices of T-shirts or coffee cups, they tended to purchase products that were “conformist” – less distinctive than the other choices. The people who were already sitting – and therefore had the crowded condition imposed upon them – were less likely to relate to the group and more likely to buy unique products.
Q: So the mind perceives an action and assigns a broader meaning to it, and that affects not only feelings but also future action? That’s hard to follow.
A: Behaviours activate concepts associated with those behaviours, which in turn are associated in people’s minds with other concepts that have, through learning, assumed metaphorical relevance and thus influence decision-making. So, for example, the experience of physical warmth activates concepts of warmth, which are related to concepts of social warmth, and the latter concepts might affect your judgments and behaviour. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson provide a detailed explanation of how metaphors influence our actions and perceptions without our even noticing it.
Q: How else might metaphors affect people’s behaviour?
A: A series of studies that Irene and Ping recently submitted for publication concerns coping with embarrassment. Starting with the premise that embarrassed people typically want to “hide their face” (that is, avoid social contact) or “save face” (restore their reputation), they showed that such individuals are also more inclined than others to prefer products like dark glasses and facial lotion that symbolically satisfy those needs. But while wearing dark glasses (symbolically hiding one’s face) had little positive effect on their disposition, applying restorative facial cream (symbolically saving face) decreased their embarrassment and increased their willingness to participate in social interaction.
Q: Are there implications here for managers who want to create cohesive teams? Should we make sure that meeting rooms are warm, everyone walks to them in the same direction, seats are chosen simultaneously and face cream is provided should any tension arise?
A: Well, as I noted earlier, the effects we identified contribute a very small proportion of variance in behaviour. If I were a manager who was interested in increasing cohesiveness, I’d probably focus on factors like explicit goal setting and open communication, which are likely to have a greater effect.
Robert S. Wyer is a visiting professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Harvard Business Review, © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.