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* This new Greater Good section, Research Digests, offers short summaries of recent studies on happiness, empathy, compassion, and more. Quick to read, easy to digest—we review the research so you don’t have to! Subscribe to the Research Digests RSS feed to receive future digests.


How to Fight with Your Spouse

"Perceived Match or Mismatch on the Gottman Conflict Styles: Associations with Relationship Outcome Variables"

Busby, Dean M; Holman, Thomas B. Family Process, Vol 48(4), Nov 2009, 531-545.

Relationships guru John Gottman has identified three healthy styles of conflict between partners: “avoidant” (partners try to minimize or avoid conflict), “validating” (partners try to make each other feel understood and appreciated), and “volatile” (partners don’t shy away from passionate arguments); he has also singled out an unhealthy style of conflict, which he labels “hostile” (partners have heated fights that reduce positive feelings and marital stability).

This study surveyed nearly 2,000 couples in committed relationships and classified each by these four styles of conflict management, looking to see how different styles mesh with each other. The researchers found that 32 percent of couples perceived a mismatch in their conflict styles. Within this, the volatile-avoidant mismatch was characterized by stonewalling, relationship problems, and lower levels of relationship satisfaction, suggesting that not all of the “healthy” conflict styles are equal. Overall, the hostile style was most problematic: Couples with at least one partner practicing hostile conflict resolution had more problems and lower relationship satisfaction than other couples. The validating style was linked to the fewest relationship problems. —Bernie Wong

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Are Women More Empathic than Men?

"Multidimensional Assessment of Empathic Abilities: Neural Correlates and Gender Differences"

Derntl, Birgit, et. al. Psychoneuroendocrinology, Vol 35 (1), January 2010, 67-82.

Are women better than men at feeling and understanding others’ emotions? This study compared the brains of men and women as they performed three empathy tasks: emotion recognition (recognizing emotions based on facial expressions), perspective taking (understanding how others perceive an issue), and affective responsiveness (the ability to respond to others with appropriate feelings). Though women rated themselves as more empathic than men, men scored roughly the same as women across the three empathy tasks. However, there were gender differences in the brain regions that lit up as the participants performed these tasks: Women showed stronger activity in regions associated with emotions while men engaged a neural network associated with more cognitive skills, as if they were identifying and classifying the emotions but not necessarily feeling them. —Anahid Modrek

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Who Confronts Prejudice?

"Who Confronts Prejudice?: The Role of Implicit Theories in the Motivation to Confront Prejudice"

Rattan, Aneeta; Dweck, Carol S. Psychological Science, Vol 21 (7), July 2010, 952-959.

Even people who oppose racism and prejudice sometimes fail to speak up when they hear a prejudiced remark. Why? This study traced the answer to a subtle but important factor: whether they believe people’s personalities can change. Researchers exposed undergraduate students to someone making a prejudiced remark and observed their reactions. Students who had indicated on a questionnaire that they thought personalities are malleable, rather than fixed, were more likely to confront the offender. If we don’t believe people can change, the researchers surmise, we won’t waste our time trying to show them the error of their ways. But this doesn’t mean that only specific people will speak out against prejudice. In one experiment, the researchers showed participants quotes from scientific experts stating that personality is either fixed or malleable. When participants read the quotes indicating that people can change, they were more willing to confront prejudice, suggesting that it’s possible to motivate more bystanders to speak up. —Jason Marsh

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