‘I knew they wouldn’t last’: Can people really tell when relationships are doomed?

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — It’s tough to assess one’s own relationship objectively, but plenty of people make a habit of discussing the love lives of others. After hearing a friend or acquaintance is going through a breakup, many tend to reply with something along the lines of “I knew they wouldn’t last!” But, is that really true? Are these people really relationship fortune tellers for everyone but themselves? According to researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the Polish Association of Social Psychology, the answer is probably not.

Study authors say their latest work suggests that people might want to think twice before assuming they can seriously predict breakups before they occur. It’s possible hindsight bias might just be playing tricks on their memory.

The research team conducted multiple surveys encompassing over 1,000 college students and adults from the community, ultimately concluding that it is only after someone learns of another couple’s breakup that they perceive the split as having been obvious all along. Moreover, it’s at this point that the observer is more likely to focus specifically on the negative aspects of the recently-ended relationship, as opposed to the positive elements. This leads to an unfavorable evaluation of the relationship in question, thereby justifying their “logical” outcome that the romance was doomed from the start.

Relationship breakup or divorce
(© Pixel-Shot – stock.adobe.com)

To analyze the role of hindsight bias in all of this, study authors put together two experiments. Both projects entailed giving each of the survey participants a story that described a seemingly happy and loving couple who had a number of good things going for them, such as a great emotional connection, but also a number of problems or hurdles, such as differing religious beliefs.

Next, for each experiment, the team split the respondents into three groups, with each of the groups receiving different pieces of information pertaining to the couple’s relationship status six months later. One cohort received no follow-up data at all. Another was told the couple broke up, and a third group was told of a positive outcome; the couple simply “stayed together” (in the first experiment) or “got engaged” (in the second experiment). Researchers wanted to see if participants would evaluate the couple and their relationship differently if they thought the couple broke up.

After all the participants received their respective fictional scenarios, everyone was asked how they thought the relationship would develop when they first read about the couple. Participants also had to rate the quality of the relationship.

Notably, there weren’t many differences in the responses between the cohorts that received either no information or a positive scenario. However, there was a major contrast between those two groups and those who were told the couple were no longer together. This group rated the breakup as far more obvious, and rated the couple’s relationship more negatively.

(Photo by Alena Darmel from Pexels)

Study authors theorize that once a breakup happens, “signs of the impending break-up that were ignored or unnoticed in foresight may become more relevant, as they now supply ideas for how things could have been different.”

“As individuals update their knowledge and use newly acquired outcome information to make sense of experiences, they may forget or reinterpret thoughts and predictions they previously had,” the team adds in a media release.

“Thus, memory might be reconstructed with more weight placed on the negative elements of the relationship. Likewise, aspects of the relationship might be reinterpreted to make sense of the outcome. After a break-up, for instance, what was previously interpreted as constant attention and affection may be reinterpreted as neediness of an overbearing partner. Similarly, differences in beliefs that were previously interpreted as opportunities for perspective-taking and negotiation may be reinterpreted as insurmountable barriers.”

In conclusion, researchers say their data is evidence that post-breakup self-blame and negative reactions from others, which pose a clear risk for depression and anxiety, may be largely unwarranted.

“We hope that future research will explore the psychological consequences of hindsight bias in romantic relationships, as well as the specific mechanisms that may operate to produce the bias,” the research team concludes.

The study is published in the journal Social Psychological Bulletin.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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