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An Enduring Romantic or Marital Bond

I would my father looked but with my eyes,” laments Hermia in William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as she struggles with whom to marry — her father’s choice or her own?

While Hermia’s decision involves fleeing with her lover into a forest inhabited by mischievous fairies and rude mechanicals, psychology professor Kenneth Locke is conducting a real-life examination of this timeless and cross-cultural dilemma: What characteristics are young adults seeking in a long-term romantic partner versus what characteristics do their parents want them to seek in a partner?

Admitting it is one of his most ambitious research projects to date, Locke is gathering data from approximately 2,500 parent-child pairs in eight different countries. He has assembled a diverse and dedicated international team of collaborators — including faculty members from Australia, Canada, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines, who are overseeing the data collection in those countries. In addition, he has enlisted the help of several University of Idaho undergraduates to collect data in the United States, as well as UI students and faculty to aid in translating materials into a variety of languages.

“The opportunity to work with so many interesting individuals from such diverse backgrounds has been an unexpected benefit of conducting this study,” Locke said.

Locke adds that regardless of culture, class or country, people everywhere can understand and appreciate this study.

“I suspect romantic relationships are intrinsically interesting to most people, and perhaps the question of whether parents and their adult children focus on different qualities in potential partners is especially interesting to me now that my own children are 18 and 21 years old,” he said.

Beyond his own personal interest, Locke says he hopes the unique data he is collecting will provide insights into many intriguing, controversial and unresolved questions.

Among the questions Locke is asking are: To what extent do the partner preferences of young adults reflect universal preferences (as some evolutionary theories predict), the preferences of their parents or peers (as some sociological and cultural theories predict) or their unique personal preferences (as some psychological theories predict)? And are certain sources of influence (e.g., parental influences versus peer influences) stronger in some cultures than others?

Locke says he is eager to see what the results reveal. For example, are preferences for partners who are healthy — or wealthy or wise — features of human nature that have evolved over time, or are they desires that have been shaped by culture?

Employing complex statistical techniques, Locke can determine which preferences are universal across cultures, which vary across cultures but are shared by members of a particular culture, which differ among members of a culture but are shared by parents and their children, and which preferences are not shared by others but are predicted by an individual’s distinctive personality.

Although this is work is more theoretical than some of his previous studies on addictions, autism, binge eating and depression, Locke said this current project still has very practical and life-impacting applications.

“With whom individuals do or do not form an enduring romantic or marital bond has significant consequences for those individuals, their families, and society and a better understanding of the process may help us to make wiser choices,” he said.

Locke will finish collecting the data by the end of 2016, and hopes to be presenting and publishing the results of the research by the fall of 2017.

This article has been altered from the print version to reflect clarity and an updated timeline for the research.

Psychology & Communication

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