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Science & Environment

Why You'll Never Buy the Perfect Ring (and Other Valentine's Day Stories)

It's almost Valentine's Day, but this week we're not talking about love. Instead, we explore the other forces that drive our romantic relationships.
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It's almost Valentine's Day, but this week we're not talking about love. Instead, we explore the other forces that drive our romantic relationships.

Anne Bowers wanted her boyfriend to buy her a used ring. Second-hand engagement rings are hundreds or even thousands of dollars less expensive than new ones.

But when it came time for him to propose, her husband went for a new ring. He said he just couldn't buy a second-hand ring . Why?

Second-hand rings have a history. They may have been worn by someone in an unhappy relationship.

Anne Bowers, a sociologist, recently conducted a study showing that many people behave exactly like her husband. She presented people with three scenarios describing identical rings that came from different sources—a store, a happy marriage, and a divorce. She found people were much less willing to pay for engagement rings that were "tainted" by a previous owner in a failed relationship.

This wasn't a hidden bias, either. Like her husband, people knew it was irrational to pay hundreds of dollars more for a ring with identical cut, color, clarity, and carats—but they did it anyway.

This week, Shankar also chats with Morning Editions' David Greene about research showing that matchmakers are happier than the rest of us. And that it's the matchmaking that makes them happier.

Stopwatch Science

Daniel Pink returns for another round of Stopwatch Science with more research on dating and mating.

  • This Sunday, millions of Americans are expected to pop the big question. But which of those marriages will last? Economists Andrew Francis-Tan and Hugo M. Mialon at Emory University surveyed more than 3,000 couples and found that those who spent more on their wedding ceremonies were more likely to later split up. Of course, they could not prove that the expensive wedding caused divorce. Only that there was a correlation.
  • One of psychology's most popular findings is the endowment effect: that we value something more just because we own it. To see if this applied in romance, Colette Nataf and Thomas Wallsten at the University of Maryland ran an experiment with a bunch of college students by having them buy and sell the phone numbers of potential dates. They found the students were less willing to give up a phone number once they had it, and the effect was particularly strong for women.
  • Nothing says Valentine's Day like "assortative mating," that is, the tendency for people to partner with those who are like themselves. A group of economists led by Jeremy Greenwood at the University of Pennsylvania found there's been an upsurge of assortative mating in terms of education in the United States. People with college degrees today are much more likely to marry other people with college degrees than they were 60 years ago. And, as the authors explain, this has big implications for economic inequality.
  • It isn't just what you say, but how you say it that affects the course of your relationship. Researchers led by Molly Ireland at the University of Texas at Austin analyzed the conversations of couples during a speed dating event, by reading the instant messages between couples. They found couples who matched each other's language were more likely to hit it off and more likely to stay together. This could be because attraction makes people speak in similar ways, or because speaking in similar ways sparks attraction.
  • Mad Scientist

    Finally, we're joined by Meshelle, the indie-mom of comedy, for a game we call "Mad Scientist." Shankar tells Meshelle about a study done in France by psychologists eager to find out what makes French women swoon. They had an undercover researcher approach 300 300 women on the street and ask them for their phone number. When he approaches some women, he's carrying a guitar case. When he goes up to others, he's carrying a gym bag. Can you guess when women were more likely to give him their digits? (If you like spoilers, you can read the study here).

    The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak. To subscribe to our newsletter, click here. You can also f ollow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, @karamcguirk, @maggiepenman and @maxnesterak, and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

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