New study pinpoints online behaviors that best signal romantic commitment

A recent study highlights how certain social media behaviors can strengthen relationship stability, especially for individuals with high levels of attachment anxiety. The findings, which have been published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, indicate that the strongest signals of romantic commitment on social media involve actions that actively counter interactions with attractive alternatives.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have transformed the landscape of romantic relationships. They provide unprecedented access to information about past and potential romantic partners, which can be both beneficial and detrimental.

On one hand, these platforms can help maintain close connections; on the other, they can expose individuals to interactions with attractive alternatives, potentially leading to jealousy and insecurity. This dual nature of social media sparked the researcher’s interest in understanding how specific online behaviors might buffer anxious individuals against these threats.

“I have been interested in how people perceive threats to their romantic relationships for quite some time, but I wanted to apply it to today’s current dating world with the use of social media and dating apps,” said study author Alexandra E. Black, a postdoctoral scholar at the Social Connection and Positive Psychology Lab at Arizona State University.

“Questioning a romantic partner’s commitment level when they are interacting with attractive others is not a new concept, but the introduction of social media has complicated these types of interactions. With physically attractive people readily available on social media sites like Instagram and TikTok (a study I’m currently working on), it can be difficult for people to feel satisfied and committed in their relationships.”

“I wanted to answer the question of what a romantic partner can do that signals they are committed to help ease the other person’s anxiety and allow them to feel more secure in their relationship.”

The research consisted of multiple phases, including two pilot studies and two main experiments. The first pilot study involved 240 undergraduates listing online behaviors that signal relationship commitment. This resulted in a list of 81 behaviors, which was later condensed to 24 through a second pilot study involving 149 undergraduates who rated the likelihood and perceived commitment of these behaviors.

In the first experiment, 900 participants were randomly assigned to evaluate vignettes where hypothetical partners either performed or did not perform these commitment-signaling behaviors. Participants then rated the perceived commitment level of the partner. This phase identified the top four behaviors that most effectively communicated commitment: deleting dating apps, ignoring flirtatious messages, indicating relationship status, and unfollowing alternative threats.

“If you are trying to determine if someone you’ve just started dating is committed to you, pay attention to how they interact with attractive people on social media,” Black told PsyPost. “Are they still responding to flirtatious DMs? Have they deleted their dating apps? These behaviors can signal important information about how your partner views your relationship.”

The second experiment tested these behaviors in a more experimental setting. Participants were presented with a hypothetical scenario where they discovered their partner interacting intimately with an attractive alternative on social media. They were then randomly assigned to read either a high-commitment response from their partner (e.g., stating they told the alternative they were in a relationship and unfollowed them) or a neutral response (e.g., discussing a funny video). Participants’ feelings of relationship security and satisfaction were measured before and after these manipulations.

Black found that individuals with high attachment anxiety reported significantly higher levels of discomfort, worry, and jealousy when imagining their partner interacting with an attractive alternative on social media. This confirmed that such scenarios are particularly distressing for anxious individuals.

Interestingly, the partner’s high-commitment behaviors on social media successfully increased perceived partner commitment and the perceived devaluation of alternatives, regardless of the participant’s attachment style. However, these behaviors did not significantly enhance feelings of security or relationship satisfaction for anxious individuals as hypothesized. This suggests that while explicit commitment signals are important, they might not be sufficient to fully alleviate the deep-seated insecurities and fears associated with attachment anxiety.

“I was surprised that it is not when a partner posts about you or likes your content that most impacts feelings of commitment,” Black said. “Instead, it matters more when a partner is actively shutting down threats from attractive people. It appears, at least from my work, that effective commitment expressions on social media rely less on a presence of the positive and instead require an absence of the negative.”

As with all research, there are limitations. It relied heavily on self-reported measures, which can be biased. The study also focused on individuals in newly formed relationships, which might not capture the dynamics in longer-term relationships.

Future research should explore these findings with more diverse and representative samples, including different cultural backgrounds and relationship types. Additionally, incorporating behavioral measures and longitudinal designs could provide a deeper understanding of how online behaviors influence relationship dynamics over time.

“Currently, I am leading a team of researchers to examine how people perceive their partners’ interactions with alternatives on TikTok,” Black said. “I’m particularly interested in how people perceive their partners’ FYP [For You Page] and if those FYPs contain attractive people. What does that say about your partner if the algorithm is constantly feeding them thirst traps?”

The study, “Responding to threatening online alternatives: Perceiving the partner’s commitment through their social media behaviors,” was published online on June 30, 2023.

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