Marriage and Health Part 2: Does Poor Sleep Lead to More Conflict?

You get home from a long day of work, eager to lay down for a quick nap; a nap that will help you recover from a bad night of sleep.  As you get home, you start making your way to the couch to enter dream world, but your partner stops you and tells you to walk the dog because it’s your turn.  You contend that you want to sleep first, you’ll do it later, the dog can wait 30 minutes, and that they can do it.  You’re tired and irritable so you angrily proclaim that you’ll do it later, and before you know it…you’re fighting.

This simple example shows how poor sleep can lead to more relationship conflict.  You may be thinking that this seems obvious, and that psychologists have already established this.  Surprisingly, there have only been a handful of studies looking at how sleep influences relationship functioning.  As my primary research interest here at NDSU is sleep in the marital context, I find this a very exciting and important area.  So why does it happen?  What does the science behind this say?  This post will answer these questions.

In many of my previous posts, I’ve explained how sleep is important for physical and emotional health.  Well, it’s also very important for a number of cognitive processes. For example, poor sleep has been associated with decreases in emotional regulation, problem solving, empathy, and emotional recognition.  On top of this, it also increases negative affect and anger.  All of these are BAD for relationship communication and functioning.  If you’re in a relationship, you know how important communication is.  When a problem arises, you need to effectively express your own concerns, recognize what/how your partner is thinking, and strategize an agreeable resolution.  If your cognitive functioning is limited, it increases risk for conflict.

Let’s go back to the example from the first paragraph.  What if you weren’t sleep deprived? You likely would have approached this situation differently.  Maybe you would have noticed that your partner was also fatigued (your own restless sleep can negatively impact their sleep) and perhaps in a bad mood.  Instead of bluntly saying you’ll walk the dog later, you could effectively communicate how you feel and settle on a neutral agreement.  There are a number of different ways this scenario can play out depending on your cognitive resources.

Psychologists have recently begun empirically testing these ideas.  However, much of the current literature has focused on sleep disorders and how they affect relationship functioning.  For example, how snoring, sleep apnea, and insomnia affect your relationship (hint: it’s not good).  What is missing is how day to day sleep in non-disordered couples affect their functioning.  Fortunately, these ideas are finding their way into the field.

Gordon and Chen (2014) carried out two studies testing these concepts.  In study one, participants recorded their sleep quality and relationship conflict over a two-week period.  Using advanced statistics, they found that poor sleep independently led to more conflict the following day.  This type of statistical test is important because it shows the direction of the relationship.

Study 2 found similar results.  Participants came into the lab and, separate from one another, recorded their sleep quality and top sources of conflict.  They were then placed into the same room and were asked to discuss these sources of conflict. Researchers measured their affect, empathy, and conflict resolution.  Couples who had poorer sleep the previous night had lower levels of positive affect, less empathy towards their partner, and had lower conflict resolution.

These findings are a good first step in this new direction.  It tells us that sleep may in fact impact certain aspects of relationships.  This matters because we cannot just say that poor sleep impairs functioning; we need to know why this happens.  But why is it important to learn more about what generates conflict? Conflict is not only bad for relationship outcomes (i.e. divorce) but it is also detrimental to physical health.  In the next post for this series, I will go into more detail as to how conflict influences health.



Gordon, A. M., & Chen, S. (2014). The Role of Sleep in Interpersonal Conflict Do Sleepless Nights Mean Worse Fights?. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(2), 168-175.


Why is my Candy Bowl Empty?

When you think about trick-or-treating, you might remember types of houses you visited either as a child or with your children. There was always the spooky house with the realistic decorations, the house that gave out really awful candy, and the most perplexing house of all: the house with the unattended candy bowl. Every Halloween there seems to be at least one house with an unattended candy bowl and a sign that says “take one”. This candy bowl presents quite a dilemma for trick-or-treaters. Do you obey the sign and only take one piece of candy? Or should you take an extra piece? Or should you just dump the whole bowl of fun-sized snickers into your bag and go? No one is going to find out what you did, so what do you decide to do?

This dilemma was turned into an interesting study of anonymity and loss of personal accountability in groups. In 1976, Edward Diener and colleagues conducted a study observing 1,352 trick-or-treaters to see under what circumstances children would take extra candy from an unattended bowl. They believed that children would be more likely to take extra candy when they were anonymous, when they were in a group rather than alone, and when one member was held responsible for the entire group’s behavior.

To study this, the researchers had female experimenters hand out candy at homes throughout the city. Trick-or-treaters would naturally come to the houses either alone, in groups or with parents. For the children who came without parents, the experimenter would identify some children by asking for their name and would leave others anonymous. Children who came with parents became their own special category. The experimenter would then tell the children that they could take one piece of candy, but then say that she had to go back into the house.

For some of the children who came in groups, the experimenter would designate the smallest person in the group (who was least likely to have a strong influence on the group) as being responsible for any extra candies that were missing. In the first condition, none of the group member were anonymous, in the second, only the responsible child was non-anonymous, and in the third, all group members were anonymous. The experimenter then went inside the house and a hidden observer recorded how many children took more than one piece of candy.

The researchers found was when a parent was present, only 8% of children disobeyed the experimenter’s instructions to take one piece of candy. When the children were non-anonymous without parents, 7.5% of children who were alone and 21% of children in groups took extra candy. When the children were anonymous, that number rose to 21% of children who were alone and 58% of children who were in groups. There was a similar pattern when the experimenter designated one person as being responsible for making sure everyone only took one piece. When none of the group members were anonymous, only 10.5% took extra candy. That number rose to 27% when only the responsible child was non-anonymous, and jumped to 80% when all of the group members were anonymous!

So, children who were anonymous were more likely to take extra candy, particularly if they were in a group and someone else was being held responsible for the group’s behavior. Anonymity has been found to increase antisocial, impulsive, and unethical behaviors because the rule-breakers believe they can’t be caught. Being in a group only worsens this because it diffuses responsibility across the group and lessens personal accountability. When one anonymous group member is held responsible for the group’s actions, this further absolves the other group members of responsibility. So if you’re thinking of setting out an unattended candy bowl this Halloween, be aware that trick-or-treaters, particularly those in groups, are probably going to take more than one piece.

Diener, E., Fraser, S.C., Beaman, A.L., & Kelem, R.T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33(2), 178-183.

Marriage and Health Part 1: Gender Differences in Social Control

It’s well known that marriage has many positive effects on health. Further, social isolation is a huge risk factor for mortality, comparable to the risks given by smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity. There is also a considerable gender difference in the benefits of marriage. For example, non married women have a 50% greater mortality risk compared to married women, while non married men have a 250% greater mortality risk than married men. All these findings are fascinating, but why do we consistently find these? In this new series of posts, we will be guiding you through the different pathways that will demonstrate how this relationship occurs.

This week, we will start by looking at a possible answer as to why men benefit far more from marriage than women. This is through the idea of “health related social control.” This is a little different than social support, which is characterized by positive encouragement. Social control is when a partner tries to persuade or intimidate their partner into changing certain health behaviors.

Social control attempts can be aimed at either health enhancing or health compromising behavior. Health enhancing behaviors are ways to improve health, such as exercising or attaining good sleep each night. Health compromising behaviors are anything that can worsen health, such as smoking or binge drinking. So, a control attempt at a health compromising behavior may sound like this; “Bob, if you don’t quit smoking, you won’t be around to see your grand children.”

So how does this benefit men more than women? Previous research has shown us that women generally have more health related knowledge. Due to this, women are more mindful of their health, and are also less likely to participate in health compromising behaviors. In fact, this finding is so strong that the greatest predictor in preventative health care is gender! Gender roles add to this. Women are not only more likely to monitor their own health, but also the health of others. So, if these roles are taken on during marriage, this can lead to more control attempts.

This sounds great for men, but do women receive control attempts as well? This is where it gets interesting. Contrary to women, men are less likely to monitor their own health and also the health of others. So, they are less likely to engage in social control attempts. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing for women, because they get their support from other sources. When naming their top sources of social control and support, women list family and friends over their spouse. To add credence to this line of research, men name their spouse as their top source.

While these findings are great and interesting, why are they important to know? While attempts to control another’s health behavior may sound like a bad thing, it actually does confer health benefits. It has been shown to lead to greater amounts of exercise, improved diet, and adherence to numerous medical regimes. However, social control attempts have a potential negative side to them as well, which can then lead to marital conflict; marital conflict can then engender a host of negative health outcomes (which we will talk about in later posts). So, it is important for each partner in a relationship to know their roles in the context of each other’s health.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Newton, T. L. (2001). Marriage and health: his and hers. Psychological bulletin, 127(4), 472.

Umberson, D. (1992). Gender, marital status and the social control of health behavior. Social science & medicine, 34(8), 907-917.

If I’m Not Wrong, I’m Right

We like to think of ourselves as highly rational people which means that we should value information that can be proven right or wrong. Whenever we talk about our attitudes and beliefs, we have the option to either prove our beliefs objectively right by focusing on testable facts, but in doing so, we leave ourselves open to the possibility that our beliefs could be wrong. Take for instance a fan of rap music and a fan of country music debating over which is the better genre. They could chose to focus on objective facts that could be easily googled like record sales, number of fans, or Billboard top 100 hits. In this case, one fan might have to admit that that the other genre is better, which would be a blow to the person’s identity of being a rap or country fan. Alternatively, they could focus on untestable beliefs like, “the lyrics really speak to me” or “my music sounds better”. It is much harder to prove those types of arguments wrong, so no one wins or loses the argument and both fans are free to continue thinking their favorite genre of music is the best.

A very neat study found that it is the untestable aspects of our beliefs we tend to focus on, particularly when these beliefs help us meet psychological motives (e.g. the need to belong, the need to see life as meaningful, the need to be a valued member of a group, etc.). This unfalsifiability does two things: allows us to more strongly hold our beliefs and protects our beliefs from being disproven.

This study chose to focus on two belief systems: religious and political beliefs.  This study found that emphasizing untestable information allowed people to be more polarized in their beliefs. People who were religious reported stronger religious conviction after reading an article that said the existence of God could never be proven or disproven and people who opposed Obama rated him less favorably when issues that could not be tested (e.g. the happiness of Americans) were emphasized. The study also found that when a belief is threatened, people tend to turn to untestable reasons. People who had their religious beliefs threaten placed higher importance on unfalsifiable reasons for their belief (e.g. to get to go to heaven). Furthermore, when people read an article that agreed with their beliefs about same-sex marriage they were more likely to rate the article as factual. However, when people read an article that disagreed with their beliefs, they tended to rate the article as opinion.

Emphasizing the unfalsifiable aspects of a belief is not rational and can have negative side effects like allowing us to ignore valid facts in favor of how we feel.  This can be dangerous because emphasizing how we feel over factual truths can hinder us from having rational discussions, seeing other’s point of views, and adopting the best solution for the problem. But in other cases, this irrationality can actually be good. Beliefs about ourselves and the world make up a key component of our identities, and challenges to these beliefs can be incredibly damaging to our well-being and self-worth. By emphasizing aspect of our belief systems that are unfalsifiable, we are able to protect our identities and keep feeling good about ourselves.

Friesen, J.P., Campbell, T.H., & Kay, A.C. (2015). The psychological advantage of unfalsifiability: The appeal of untestable religious and political ideologies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 515-529.

Why Celebrities Can Do No Wrong

Take a moment to think about your favorite celebrity. Perhaps it’s an actor or actress whose movies you love or an inspiring figure you look up to. Now, imagine you just found out that your favorite celebrity did something terrible – maybe he or she said something racist, was found to abuse drugs, or was incredibly rude and insensitive to fans. Would this change your opinion of the celebrity?

A recent study suggests learning negative information about our favorite celebrities actually might not change our opinions.  This tendency people have to not change their beliefs when presented with evidence that suggest they are wrong is known as belief perseveration. This can happen because people can outright ignore negative information, or reinterpret the negative information in a way that more closely aligns with their current beliefs. Another component to this is emotional belief perseveration which includes not only how a person perceives a celebrity, but also how they feel. Attitudes with this emotional component can be very hard to change.

There are two ways researchers have found to decrease belief perseveration. The first is taking time to consider all the information, particularly thinking about reasons your opinion might not be correct. The second is to consider the credibility of the information source. Actually watching a video of a celebrity saying something racist may do more to change your opinion than reading about the incident on the cover of a tabloid.

In this study, participants were asked to think of their favorite celebrity.  The researchers then manipulated the source credibility by asking if hearing negative information from family, friends, or the media, the celebrity being caught doing something bad by the media, or the celebrity behaving badly on TV or social media would change the likelihood the person would believe the information and how much it would influence the person’s feelings towards the celebrity. Participants were also asked how many reasons they could think of that another person might not like their favorite celebrity.

Overall, the researchers found that the source of the information did have an effect – the celebrity need to be either caught by the media or have actually said or done something inappropriate on TV or social media for people to believe the negative information was true. However, they also found that learning negative information did not do much to change people’s emotional feeling about their favorite celebrity. Even if the celebrity actually demonstrated the bad behavior in a public forum, only 22% said that this would change their feelings. When the negative information was reported by family or friends, 99% said this would have no effect on their feelings. Finally, for participants who were asked to consider reasons others might not like their favorite celebrity, when the negative information was reported by family and friends, belief perseveration was actually higher! The researchers theorize that considering why others might not like a favorite celebrity might lead people to label these others as merely “haters” whose opinions do not matter.

To some extent, this make sense. For instance, Jennifer Aniston has been rumored to pregnant or in a blood feud with Angelina Jolie many more times than she actually has. So, fans might actually benefit from discounting certain information because it may in fact not be true. However, this study does tell us something negative about how we view celebrities if even direct evidence of bad behavior is not enough to change how we feel. So, next time your favorite celebrity is involved in a scandal, think about your reasons for ignoring or discounting the negative information before you do.

Bui, N.H. (2014). I don’t believe it! Belief perseveration in attitudes toward celebrities. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(1), 38-48.