Rationalizing or rebelling (by insisting your unrequited love object truly adores you?)
Yikes. Who would have imagined that social science researchers sometimes could occasionally disturb us. And other times make us laugh. And other times amuse us. But this time the reaction is hard to categorize as the researchers say their results may help explain everything from unrequited love to the uprisings of the Arab Spring! Ah, the researchers may need to have their grandiosity evaluated. Or–maybe not. Social science ‘string theory’, anyone?
It started when they wondered what would happen if there was a rule for which people perceived there was some ‘wiggle room’. So they examined reactions to a speed limit change.
“Participants read that lowering speed limits in cities would make people safer. Some read that government leaders had decided to reduce speed limits. Of those people, some were told that this legislation would definitely come into effect, and others read that it would probably happen, but that there was still a small chance government officials could vote it down.
People who thought the speed limit was definitely being lowered supported the change more than control subjects, but people who thought there was still a chance it wouldn’t happen supported it less than these control subjects. Laurin [the first author] says this confirms what she suspected about absoluteness; if a restriction is definite, people find a way to live with it.”
It’s an interesting hypothesis. [Thanks to second author Aaron Kay, you can find the full pdf of this article here.]
Consider the impact of rules on sworn jurors. We have been watching and weighing in on issues on jurors and the internet for a number of years now. Suggestions are often made for how to curtail the issues of the Google mistrial. But they are just that, suggestions. This research advises that we need to be more extreme and absolute and unequivocal in demanding that jurors do no research on the internet about the cases they for which they sit in judgment. “It’s not a good idea– It’s the law”. And, of course, as always, it’s critically important to explain the ‘why’.
And one more thing! This isn’t just about explaining Arab Spring or the Google mistrial. It’s also about unrequited love. Back to the press alert:
And how does this relate to unrequited love? It confirms people’s intuitive sense that leading someone [on] can just make them fall for you more deeply, Laurin says. “If this person is telling me no, but I perceive that as not totally absolute, if I still think I have a shot, that’s just going to strengthen my desire and my feeling, that’s going to make me think I need to fight to win the person over,” she says. “If instead I believe no, I definitely don’t have a shot with this person, then I might rationalize it and decide that I don’t like them that much anyway.”
As people who have also provided a lot of counseling to the heartbroken (in an earlier phase of professional life) we would suggest that it may be up to the person feeling unrequited to walk away even if the door in your face seemed equivocal. Aren’t we talking about love? Ah, but I digress… and yet the lesson is apparent. If you are not interested, be perfectly clear. Crystal clear.
Ultimately, the research appears to affirm a maxim of life that bears reminding; we tend to hear and see what we want, unless it is inescapably clear that only one thing is being said. Whether we like it or not. Or as Paul Simon put it “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
Laurin, K., Kay, A., & Fitzsimons, G. (2011). Reactance versus Rationalization: Divergent Responses to Policies that Constrain Freedom. Psychological Science.
Paul Simon lyrics from “The Boxer”