Q. When I first saw this course title, I was intrigued but a little confused. How do you explain something like attraction? What exactly is this class about?
A. I like to say what it isn’t: a self-help class. I’m not going to solve anyone’s personal relationship problems. The class is about the empirical work that determines what attracts people to one another and what the nature of that attraction is. We focus on both intrapersonal and interpersonal processes. Intrapersonal processes are the ways people think and their abilities to perceive emotions in other people that can either contribute to or detract from success in relationships. Interpersonal processes can also affect relationships. They include things like being mutually supportive of another, which serves as a good base for individual growth, striving for goals, happiness, and other stuff like that.
Q. So when you say relationships, do you only mean romantic ones? And “attraction” — what can the term apply to?
A. The work focuses on personality attributes that influence how you relate to other people. It definitely isn’t limited to romantic interaction. We discuss friendships, familial relationships, parent-child and teacher-student interactions. Ideally, we’d cover any relationship where people are particularly focused on providing each other with support.
Q. That seems like a lot of topics — do you have a favorite?
A. I actually like the variety. I’m interested in all kinds of things — what kinds of similarities lead people to be attracted to each other, as well as what kinds of differences. It’s interesting how some people worry about how others will reflect on them, while other people don’t worry about that at all. What causes some to worry and not others? When do you spend a lot of time comparing your own accomplishments to someone else, and does that necessarily hurt the relationship? What is physical attractiveness — why is it so important to people’s judgments about other people? Do people set up self-fulfilling prophesies in relationships? What is the function of emotion in relationships? What is the link between a good relationship and mental and physical help? All of these questions can be investigated through empirical research, and we try to do our own research in the class.
Q. Do students come out of the class feeling differently about these issues after analyzing them in an objective way?
A. My main goal is for students to realize that these questions can be answered through research. Does the class affect their own relationships? I don’t really know. But I think it probably makes them more aware of many issues, even if it’s hard to change the way you look at things yourself.
Q. OK, I understand — you don’t like giving out fruity love advice. But if you had to give students one tip, knowing what you know, what would it be?
A. Well, I have to repeat again that I don’t like giving tips. But I would say that everyone needs to consider the other person’s perspective — a lot of success in relationships comes from providing support for the other person. The other big part of it all is allowing yourself to be dependent on another person and to reveal vulnerabilities. A lot of people don’t want to reveal anything about themselves.
Q. Have you found that to be particularly true for Yale students? We do tend to be perfectionists.
A. Yes, they are a very talented group. But it doesn’t matter. Everyone needs some support.