In his book “The Mathematics of Marriage” John Gottman talks about an experiment he conducted with over 400 newly married or engaged couples. The couples were observed by Gottman and his team completing a simple task together like a jigsaw puzzle, a word game or even just shooting baskets with a little ball. Based on this 20 minute or less interaction Gottman predicted how long the marriage would last; two years or less, four, six, eight or ten.

He didn’t share these predictions with the couples, which was either a blessing or a curse depending on your viewpoint I guess, (‘Next time I’ll just find someone I really hate and buy them a house’ as the old gag goes).

After ten years he checked back in and published his results. He was over ninety percent accurate. Yes…ninety percent! That’s a very impressive result for such a short observed interaction. Gottman has backed up these results in subsequent studies too, not just with marriages but also people who’ve had lasting business partnerships, friendships or productive working relationships.

What Gottman looked for was the ratio of positive to negative interactions. He called it the Magic Ratio.

On the positive side are what mum would have called ‘Manners’. Using your name, saying please and thank you, using questions rather than directives (‘Can you find time to see me this afternoon?’ versus ‘My office two pm’.) helpful acts and encouraging or praising each other.

Negative interactions include cynicism, contempt, discrediting or criticising each other, rudeness, ignoring, talking over each other and directives.

He found the ‘magic ratio’ to be five to one. If there are five positives to each negative the relationship thrives. Below five to one it fails. Interestingly, once it gets to twelve to one or more the relationship is also now likely to fail. This is because individuals begin to be suspicious of each other’s’ motives…they’re ‘laying it on too thick’.

‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ is the expression of a widely held tenet in psychology: Humans tend to reciprocate like behaviour. If you are nice to me I’m actually hard wired to be nice back to you. (This isn’t true for psychopaths by the way…if you’re dealing with them at home or work you need more help than I can offer).

Think about your own relationships at home and work…is there a five to one positive to negative ratio in your interactions. At work and with people we know very well there can be a tendency to overlook these basics…I’m too busy to say good morning or talk about your weekend…I’m working! When I first read Gottman my son was about six and I thought my ratio with him would be positive. It wasn’t. Kids live in a world of No…”Stop that. Don’t do that. Get down from there. Don’t put your sister’s head in the oven” and so forth…it made me rethink the way I communicated with him.

Evolutionary psychologists see the building of an ‘Emotional Bank Account’ (as Gottman describes it) as a tool which betters my chances of getting my own genetic material into the next generation. If I have friends and neighbours who owe me favours then that can be a real help to me successfully raising kids. Sixty thousand years ago when I had some extra bear meat I shared it with Uggg from the next cave up. The expectation though is that Ugg will do the same for me. In the 21st Century I mow a little bit of my neighbour’s pavement while doing my own lawn but I do so in the knowledge he’ll do some of mine when he mows his own.

Here’s the thing though. The neighbour is unlikely to exactly match the amount you’ve done; in fact they are very likely to do just a little bit more…they ‘Over-Reciprocate’ and that can be a real advantage if you know how to leverage it, a topic we’ll explore in our next epistle.

Learn more about the Emotional Bank Account and building personal resilience in our workshop on Dealing with Change.

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