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Are British men useless at romance?

July 15th, 2009

Dr Petra

A new study out in the media today suggests so. An online survey conducted by Professor Richard Wiseman from the Unversity of Hertfordshire of over 6000 men and women from around the world suggested that British guys don’t do well in the love stakes.

It’s unclear whether the study was funded or not, what evidence it was based on, or exactly why it was conducted. It appears to have been sent to the media for publication rather than a peer reviewed journal, but perhaps the findings will be published in a journal at a later stage.

The survey doesn’t really tell the participant much about what the study is for, but it asks men to say what things they think women might find romantic from a male partner, and women to rate the same issues and how romantic they find them. They are also asked to say if a partner has done romantic things for them. Male and female participants are also asked to describe the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for them.

What’s interesting about the survey is it has been used to create a list of ‘what women want’ romantically (covered extensively in the media today). The top ten list is as follows:
1. Cover her eyes and lead her to a lovely surprise
2. Whisk her away somewhere exciting for the weekend
3. Write a song or poem about her
4. Tell her she is the most wonderful woman that you have ever met
5. Run her a relaxing bath after she has had a bad day at work
6. Send her a romantic text or email, or leave a loving note around the house
7. Wake her up with breakfast in bed
8. Offer her a coat when she is cold
9. Send her a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates at work
10. Make her a compilation of her favourite music

Since women stereotypically complain about men’s lack of romance, do I dare criticise a piece of research that might be giving them a few pointers?

Well, at the risk of not getting a bubble bath and box of chocs, yes.

The first problem is the survey was a self selecting one – people who visited Richard Wiseman’s blog or affiliated websites. So while there were a lot of participants, they were not really representative of people internationally (since this was described as a global study). It would have been fairer to say participants from a number of countries who visited the website had particular responses to questions on romance, rather than implying all men and all women globally hold certain views about romantic behaviour.

The problem with the research as covered in the media is it is very unclear who participants were, what countries they were from and precisely how British men compared. We’re told they were ’10% less romantic’ than men from other countries but there’s no clear details of analysis of the results.

Moreover the focus of the survey asks men to say what they think is romantic and women to report on what they think is romantic/has been done for them. The focus is on women being the target of romantic attention and the study biased as a result. There seems to be an assumption that women are the ones who want/need romance. It’s unclear why men weren’t asked what they might experience as romantic – or what romantic gestures they’d like to get as well as give.

From reading the media coverage it appears the aim of the research was to identify what women found romantic and to identify whether men and women agreed on what women appreciated romantically. The findings do seem to indicate women and men rated different romantic actions differently – with men often underestimating what women might find romantic. This is interesting, but it only tells us where differences were found – not what causes women and men to rate romantic actions so differently.

Although the survey is presented as a global picture, many of the questions are biased to Western audiences and would not be applicable or meaningful globally. Several of the questions are phrased in a way that implies all participants would be heterosexual (what romantic gestures a man can do for a woman).

There is no information about how the questionnaire was constructed. How did the researcher decide on the items to be rated as ‘romantic’? While some seem fairly predictable (flowers, poems, music compilations and the media favourite of the bubble bath), there may be countless other ways people like to get/give romance that aren’t included. It’s based on specific gestures that may be very welcome, but misses out some of the more thoughtful things a partner might do that may not automatically be recognised as romantic.

It also does not deal with intent. You can do anything on the list above to be romantic – but you can equally do those things to get a partner to do something you want. We’re all used to seeing men’s magazines advising a romantic bubble bath as the way to a ladies heart – or into her knickers. Maybe the intention to be romantic might be more meaningful and useful to study than actions. A thoughtful gesture that’s not technically romantic may still be interpreted as loving because you know someone did something kind or loving for you.

To be even more of a spoilsport – and to state the obvious – the romance list only works if you’re already getting on with a partner. If someone is angry at you for something then writing a poem might make them more furious as they actually wanted you to take out the bins or do your share of the housework.

While the study does show some potentially helpful outcomes – specifically that you don’t have to spend a lot to impress a woman – the list created is not definative and may not appeal to everyone. For example, the second choice of writing a song or poem may be lovely in theory, but terrible if your partner composes something that makes you cringe.

There’s nothing in the coverage I’ve seen to suggest rather than just acting on the list that you might ask your partner what they would find romantic. Or tips on how to communicate to a partner you would like more romance – or what to do if you request greater intimacy but do not receive it.

Undoubtedly couples do want ideas for maintaining, increasing and sharing intimacy. Romantic gestures are one way to do this. Unfortunately research on romantic relationships is limited. It’s a pity that on this occasion, the opportunity to do a robust and thoughtful piece of work was not fully explored.

Maybe this was never meant to be a serious study, but creating lists of what women want in some kind of international romance competition does little to enhance the image of relationships research – or really tell us much about how we could enhance our relationships.

Rather than assume the list created from the survey is definitive, I’d use it in other ways. To consider what you would like to get from a partner as a romantic gesture. To think how you could explain to them what you’d like them to do. And as a discussion point for you and a partner where you could possibly pick from the list created – or make a completely new list of your own.

Richard Wiseman is an entertaining psychologist who is popular among the skeptic community. He has published widely on the problems with self help, but interestingly this survey taps into some of the many problems the relationship self help industry creates. Research on self help books tackling relationships and romance indicate they commonly operate on highlighting gender divisions, tell us what to do but not how to implement any activities, and assume women are the only ones who want/need romance. This survey ran perilously close to falling into the same category – particularly once it was picked up by the media.

I have enjoyed some of Richard Wiseman’s previous work, but feel on this occasion the survey could have been a lot better – particularly if it’s being used to tell us something about our relationships. As someone who has tackled shoddy self help I’m sure Wiseman knows the problems caused when inadequate research or advice is promoted as cutting edge relationship research.

Sadly the romance study seems to have been used for one main purpose – to promote Wiseman’s latest book :59 Seconds. The overall survey appears to have been converted into The Casanova Test. This is described as “a quick and fun way for you to discover how romantic you are”, and allows you to score yourself. With a final reminder that you can get some ‘scientifically-supported romance tips’ if you purchase the book.

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