Relationship expert Holly Dixon explains why the entire Married at First Sight franchise is based on bunk science.
As the third MAFS NZ season has come to an end, I thought it relevant to answer the question upon which the entire MAFS enterprise is built: Is it possible to predict attraction and how successful a relationship will be before two people meet?
The MAFS franchise will have you believe it is. We’re repeatedly told that participants are expertly matched with the “right” person using “scientific techniques”. Yet the likelihood of couples staying together has been abysmally low. This begs the question: what science are these experts using? Indeed, are they actually using any?
Anyone watching MAFS is (perhaps purposefully) left quite in the dark about what ‘science’ the experts are employing to make their matches. One thing I did deduce about the matching of two couples in the NZ season just gone, however, is that Jordan and Anna, and Carmen and James, were at least partially matched due to some similarities. Theoretically speaking, it seems likely that two people may find each other more attractive and/or have a successful relationship, if they share things in common.
However, unfortunately for those who’ve put their love life in the hands of these experts (or, probably more precisely, in the hands of Mediaworks), the most up to date relationship science shows that having things in common with someone has very limited bearing on whether or not they fancy each other in face-to-face contexts.
What other variables might the experts have used to pair two people together for a happy relationship? I’m going out on a limb here, but I am going to assume that the experts took some consideration of the contestants’ ideal partner characteristics (OK, maybe not Christopher’s). Again, theoretically we’d think that the more someone matches our ideal standards the more we’ll fancy them and experience high relationship satisfaction. Wrong again.
Mounting evidence shows that what people say that want in a partner (i.e. that tick chart in your head) is only weakly related to the qualities they find desirable in someone when they meet face-to-face. For instance, someone’s self-reported preference for an extroverted and outgoing guy doesn’t make them any more or less likely to fancy Christopher – an extroverted and outgoing guy – when they meet face-to-face.
There is one reason why ideal preferences are still useful to take into account when choosing a partner however. Specifically, the greater the mismatch between your partner’s characteristics and your ideal standards, the more likely you are to try to change your partner. Persistent attempts to do this, especially on key relationship-relevant dimensions (e.g., trustworthiness, attractiveness, and status) can lead to lower relationship quality in the moment and over time. So, maybe matching two people based on their ideal preferences is a reasonable matching strategy, even if it doesn’t have much bearing on whether they’ll be attracted to each other initially.
Alright, what other ‘scientific techniques’ did the MAFS experts actually use to match people? We’re told that Jonathon “needs someone to not dominate him, and someone to nurture him”. Hmm, but don’t we all need that? In my opinion, this isn’t a very good strategy for predicting whether two people will be uniquely attracted to each other.
I’ve heard that the experts require contestants to complete a battery of questionnaires probing their things like personality, attractiveness, self-awareness, and emotional management. Again, it sounds plausible that such variables might influence attraction and how successful a relationship will be. Conveniently for us, a study from 2017 examined whether more than 100 self-reported traits and preferences shaped individuals’ desire for specific people in a subsequent speed-dating task.
While self-reported traits and preferences could predict (1) how much people fancied others in general (e.g., friendly people who exude a lot of warmth tend to like others more in general) and (2) who was more likely to be desired by others in general, they could NOT predict whether someone would be uniquely attracted to someone else using any combination of the traits and preferences reported before the speed dates. A bit of a shock, huh? If this doesn’t tell you that the MAFS franchise is ridiculous and misleads contestants, I don’t know what will.
Finally, experts on MAFS Australia ostensibly use samples of contestants’ pheromones (chemicals secreted from the body that trigger social responses in members of the same species). I don’t think MAFS NZ contestants went through this procedure, but if they did, would they have been better off? Predicting attraction, partner choice, and relationship satisfaction using pheromones isn’t my area of research, but I took a look at whether the literature supports this MAFS matching strategy.
It turns out that human behaviour is affected when we get a whiff of someone’s pheromones. This is because pheromones provide information about how similar another person’s genes are, and the greater the dissimilarity, the more likely humans are to want to get down with that person – because, evolutionarily speaking, it would increase the likelihood that their babies are resistant to disease.
While some studies show that gene-dissimilarity, as detected via pheromones, increases the likelihood that two people will be attracted to each other, we don’t yet know whether this attraction is limited to wanting to make babies with someone, or whether pheromones actually shape long-term relationship satisfaction over time too (which I assume is what the MAFS contestants are interested in as well). In other words, getting people to sniff a bunch of potential partner’s bodily fluids as a strategy to wed two people before they’ve met seems to be yet another unfounded MAFS matching strategy.
If you’ve got this far, you now have an answer to the question people have been asking since MAFS’ inception: Is there any robust science behind the MAFS matching strategy, or does their approach more closely resemble a stab in the dark? My reading of the literature demonstrates that it is more likely the latter. The most up to date relationship science indicates that is not possible to predict whether two people will be attracted to each other (above and beyond general tendencies to be desired or to desire others), or how successful a relationship will be, before two people meet. The experts might be good relationship therapists, however the show’s declaration that contestants are expertly matched with the “right” person using “scientific techniques” is – in my view – deplorable and unjust.
Research shows that the strongest predictors of relationship outcomes are features of the relationship itself (e.g., love and commitment) and the interaction of the characteristics that both people bring to the relationship – all of which cannot be meaningfully assessed prior to two people meeting. In my view, MAFS’s raison d’etre is completely bogus. Their claims of using scientific techniques to match contestants are seemingly completely erroneous. Not only that, the show perpetuates the idea that there is only one “right” person out there for us. In doing so, they set contestants and viewers up to experience disillusionment, disappointment, and distress when things get hard in their relationships (and unlike MAFS, I can show you scientific evidence to prove that this is the case).
What we should aim for is a growth orientation in relationships – we should be open to learning and working at things together, figuring out how to attune to each other’s needs, supporting each other through tough times, not flying off the handle every time there’s an issue because “omg, maybe they’re not ‘the one’”.
Holly Dixon is a PhD Candidate studying relationships and health at the University of Auckland.
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