Research looking for love in all the right data

Paul Mayne // Western News

Psychology professor Lorne Campbell’s work about human connections comes at a time when loneliness and alone-ness, a lack of meaningful relationship with others, is on the rise in Canada.

Love lies broken in Lorne Campbell’s office.

It has been deconstructed into thousands of data points on Excel sheets and transformed into code that coldly blinks from a computer screen.

Campbell, a Psychology professor, is giving one of our oldest, most primal urges a 21st-Century twist – combining big data and computers to understand love.

Despite the thousands of studies on interpersonal interactions, little of the research has been truly interpersonal. Instead, they ask individuals to list preferred qualities in their partners.

“None actually track participants as they transition into new relationships and then assess how those relationships develop,” explained Campbell, who hopes to understand better how humans build and maintain relationships.

His research will start off in a similar way as it records each participant’s list of preferred qualities in a partner.

But this is where similarities to other studies end.

Once participants form relationships, he will ask their romantic partners to evaluate themselves. By doing this, Campbell will be able to compare if the participant’s idea of an ideal partner matches how the partner views himself or herself.

He will also track couples for the first six months of their relationships to see how they are faring.

“We plan to ask both partners questions about relationship activities, perceived satisfaction with the relationship, and optimism regarding the future of the relationship,” Campbell said.

He plans to have at least 1,000 participants in the study, which will mean a lot of data for each couple over six months and tons of computational resources. In the process, his work will help understand how a relationship develops, and more importantly, will predict its chances of success.

The field of relationship psychology is currently split into two camps. In one, love is seen as truly blind, where we cannot predict with whom we fall in love. In the second, it’s believed we deliberately choose partners according to our preferences.

It is impossible to predict how relationships, marriages or even friendships will last, based on the field’s vague conclusions to date.

“A better understanding of how relationships form will help us better understand people’s well-being,” Campbell said. “Relationships extend beyond love to friends, family and social networks.”

His work about human connections comes at a time when loneliness and alone-ness, a lack of meaningful relationship with others, is on the rise in Canada.

According to 2016 figures from Statistics Canada, 28 per cent of households have only one person living in them, a record high. About 40 per cent of marriages now end in divorce, and couples are having fewer children. The highest at-risk groups are the elderly, due to their lack of mobility and dwindling social networks.

Across the Atlantic, too, British Prime Minister Theresa May recently appointed a Minister for Loneliness to tackle the growing issue of social isolation across all age groups in England.

Campbell’s work will provide mental health practitioners, couples counsellors and psychologists with a more detailed and nuanced understanding of relationships than ever before, and help them provide better-quality interventions.