The Odd Link Between Commute Direction and Marital Satisfaction

Couples that travel the same way to work are happier together, a new study in the U.S. and China concludes.

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Public transportation won't soon put Match.com out of business, but it has a decent track record, so to speak, when it comes to bringing couples together. Enough couples meet on Philadelphia's transit system for the city's authority to hold an annual contest to determine which one has the cutest story.

In these cases the train or bus simply acts as the venue where the match is made. But if a new psychological study holds true, merely going the same way as another person might be the source of the attraction. (Lenny Kravitz is all like, I could have told you that.)

A group of Chinese researchers propose what they call the "shared-direction effect" in an upcoming paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Couples who commute in the same direction, even if they don't travel on the same train or even leave at the same time, seem to be happier together than those who don't, all other things considered. "That is, mere similarity in the direction of commuting to work increases marital satisfaction," the authors report.

The research team reached this conclusion through a series of field and laboratory studies. Their first effort was a broad survey conducted in the United States. They recruited 280 people across the country — on average, 33 years old and married roughly 8 years — to fill out an online questionnaire rating marital satisfaction.

The respondents also provided information about their and their spouse's daily commutes, including travel time and whether or not they left together, and indicated on a directional diagram the path each took to get to work. (Because the survey extended across several cities, the authors could not use subway or metro maps to trace the exact route.)

Meanwhile the researchers conducted a similar survey on the streets of Hong Kong. They approached 139 people (average age 42, length of marriage 13 years) and once again asked them to rate their marital satisfaction. This time, because all the respondents were from the same city, the researchers asked them to trace the route of their and their spouse's commutes on a city metro map, in addition to answering the same broader questions about the trip to work.

In both cases the researchers found a statistically significant link between the direction of the commute and the satisfaction of the marriage. The correlation held true even when other factors like length of marriage, number of children, and commute time were controlled. What's more, the connection existed whether or not the couples left for work at the same time — in other words, whether or not man and wife might have chatted the whole way to work didn't seem to make a difference.

The cross-cultural nature of the study gave it an air of universality. Still, the researchers couldn't pin down cause from a field survey; after all, perhaps couples who commuted in the same direction, even if they didn't leave at the same time, met up more often after work for dinner or a drink. That alone might account for their better bond.

So the researchers designed a laboratory study that could help them control the cause of their behavioral discovery. They recruited 80 students and placed them in random male-female pairings. The new couplings believed they were taking part in a study of physical exercise, and each was told to perform a task of walking to an exercise room, lifting a dumbbell, returning to the main room, and repeating the task.

The task itself was meaningless; what really mattered was how the couples traveled to perform it. Some couples walked to their exercise rooms in the same direction on a very similar route. Others went the same direction along slightly different routes down the hall. Still others left in different directions, lifted the weights, returned, and left again.

After the task was complete, each person filled out a form that rated their satisfaction with their partner — little more than a total stranger. Just as the survey results would predict, the only significant indicator of partner was whether or not the random couple traveled the same direction to complete its task. Those who went different ways didn't care as much for one another, and even those who took similar routes in different directions didn't have a strong link.

On the surface the finding seems like a strange one, if not totally implausible. But there is some precedent for it in the psychological literature. Previous studies have found that seemingly irrelevant similarities — such as birthdates and fingerprint style — have an impact on interpersonal exchanges. Research has also found a link between the metaphor of movement and behavior; in one recent study, people primed for "forward movement," a stand-in for "achievement," were more motivated to fulfill a goal.

The present research takes these core psychological theories a step further. Just as people who split up are said to "part ways," the new work suggests that going the same way reflects a broader cognitive commonality and may, in turn, increase interpersonal attraction. The authors conclude (references removed for clarity):

That is, we assumed that engaging in goal-directed behavior (e.g., commuting to work, or walking to an experiment) can activate a mental representation that includes more general concepts of goal-directed activity (i.e., the pursuit of goals more generally.

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