Research Identifies What Marks The Beginning Of A Great Relationship

Researcher Tatum Jolink explains the role our instinct plays when initiating a new relationship.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 30, 2023

A recent study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science examined the initiation and progression of platonic and romantic relationships, focusing on behaviors during initial interactions. Affectionate touch, shared laughter, and partner gratitude were found to positively influence immediate interest in affiliating with a new person.

I recently spoke to Tatum Jolink, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study that she conducted in collaboration with Dr. Sara Algoe during her time as a graduate student at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We discussed in detail the importance of shared laughter and the significance of relying on initial impressions for the successful development of relationships. Here's an overview of our conversation.

Can you provide an overview of your motivations behind your study on initial interactions and the development of platonic and romantic relationships?

The study idea originated at the start of my graduate training with Dr. Sara Algoe at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I had always been interested in relationship initiation and hoped to pursue that line of work in graduate school with Sara. In our first meetings as mentor and mentee, as we were getting excited about this shared interest, we began discussing gaps in the literature – we know what makes individuals "attracted" to new people, we know some of the factors that help initial interactions go well – but it became clear that very little work had actually tracked new relationships over time as they began and progressed (or petered out).

This is in part because this experience or process is difficult for researchers to capture. Imagine going on a first date and being asked if you wanted to be in a research study with that person. Would you say yes? To either the study or the second date? I bet most people wouldn't.

In order to overcome some of the practical difficulties in capturing the relationship initiation process in real time, we designed this study. Some strengths we saw in this design:

  1. It doesn't require buy-in from the new relationship partner, hopefully circumventing any potential awkwardness about recruitingthemto answer surveys aboutyouas they are deciding if they want a relationship with you. We didn't want to inadvertently thwart those opportunities for people.

  2. Short of following people around with a clipboard and a camera, this design was as close to naturalistic and ecologically valid as we could come up with. It allows participants to immediately report on potential new relationship partners (and to be clear I mean either friends or romantic interests) while – hopefully – being unobtrusive yet feasible within their daily activities. The initial interaction survey was short – meant to be answered on a phone in the car on the way home from a night out or waiting for your next class to start.

  3. And perhaps most importantly, all the relationship developments were tracked (i.e., participants reported on those budding relationships three days, one week, and approximately two months after their inception) online from the comfort of the participants.

They did not need to come into the lab, they didn't need to schedule an appointment, they didn't even need to speak with one of our study team. At the predetermined time, a survey link was sent to their phone. Unobtrusive yet feasible.

While we're not saying we completely solved all the challenges with collecting this data, this study is one of the first of its kind to capture real life initial interactions with new friendships and romantic interests and collect data on what comes after. I'm so grateful to our participants for taking us on their journeys with them.

What was the methodology of your study? What were some of your most important findings?

Our participants were incoming first-year college students at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Participants had to be romantically single, and open and willing to make new friends and go on dates that semester. Once eligible participants were enrolled, they attended a study session in our psychology lab to complete some baseline measures and get acquainted with the expectations of the study. A team member walked them through what was to come in the next few months as they met new people during their first semester on campus.

Specifically, participants completed an initial social interaction report anytime they had a meaningful (in-person) initial interaction with someone they felt there was potential for a friendship or romantic interest. They didn't have to be certain, but they had to sense possibility. These initial interaction reports were to be completed as soon as possible after the conclusion of the first meeting and participants could complete up to nine reports on nine new people.

On average, we received over 4.5 reports from 129 participants, or 591 initial social interaction reports total. Reports assessed what happened, how participants felt (both emotionally and about the interaction partner), and what participants hoped would happen next. Three days later, they completed a brief check-in about that new person. One week later (or four days after the 3-day follow-up), they completed the same check-in again. Then, at the end of the study, or approximately two months later, participants reported on the current status and quality of all of their new potential relationship partners. In the same survey, participants completed final assessments on their well-being, social connectedness at college, and stressors.

We found a few novel and promising results I'd love to highlight.

  1. First, our prediction that behaviors matter during initial interactions was right. Touch, laughter, and gratitude were positively associated with immediate interest in affiliating with the new person (think: wanting to go back for more).

  2. Next, interestingly, we did not find differences in these effects by relationship type: the three behaviors similarly predicted interest in affiliating with new friends and new romantic interests. This is novel because, as far as we know, little to no work has examined the simultaneousdevelopment of friendships and romantic relationships, by the same people. It was intriguing then to reveal initiation processes unfolded similarly between the two relationship types.

  3. Finally, post-interaction interest in affiliating was critical to linking the social behaviors with long-term outcomes, including seeing the person again within the week, having a relationship with them two months later, and reporting ongoing affiliation and relationship satisfaction at two months. There was one exception to this: shared laughter. In addition to predicting long-term relationship developments through the mechanism of post-interaction interest in affiliating, shared laughter itself directly predicted all of those outcomes one week and two months later.

Therefore, sharing a laugh with someone new is a powerful signal that a relationship is worth pursuing. Who knows, it might be your new best friend or next great love you're giggling with.

You focused on the reports of three key behaviors in initial interactions, namely, affectionate touch, shared laughter, and partner's gratitude expression that were associated with immediate interest in affiliating with new individuals. Can you elaborate on the potential psychological mechanisms that underlie this association, particularly in terms of how these behaviors go beyond factors like warmth, competence, and attractiveness?

I definitely can, and we tested this in the paper, too. There is existing evidence demonstrating that affectionate touch, shared laughter, and partner's expressed gratitude are important behaviors within existing close relationships, in terms of eliciting affiliation in the moment and forecasting relationship quality and well-being.

This prior evidence has also identified psychological mechanisms to these associations. Because of their relevance within established relationships, we thought these focal behaviors (and their respective mechanisms) were good candidates to test within a new relationship context. Put simply, each behavior is directly linked with immediate interest in affiliating with a new social partner.

In addition, unique social perceptions one can have about the partner also help to explain this association. (For the stats-savvy readers, we're talking about mediation here.) The social perceptions we tested were informed by prior literature within relationship science and all worked as predicted.

Specifically, perceiving intimacy and closeness from the social partner mediated the association between affectionate touch and interest in affiliating; perceiving similarity with the social partner mediated the association between shared laughter and interest in affiliating; and perceiving the social partner as responsive (i.e., caring, validating, and understanding) mediated the association between partner's gratitude and interest in affiliating.

What these results tell us is that the behavior is important, but it's the (positive) social perceptions about the new person that really help drive the association between the behavior and wanting to get to know that person following an initial interaction.

Notably, your findings suggest that while not all potential connections evolve into full-fledged relationships, the identified behavioral precursors still have predictive value in relationship development. Could you discuss the implications of this finding for our understanding of the progression from initial interactions to lasting relationships?

To me, these findings highlight how much we don't know about initial interactions and the exciting possibility of discovering other behavior precursors from initial interactions. So many things can happen in those moments.

People can dance together, play board games, listen to music, be surrounded by others, or be completely alone. Someone could share something great about their day, or keep quiet; they could show respect for others, or reveal a bias. A person could just be on their phone. Someone could talk about their mother, their religious beliefs, their own bodies. Do any of these behaviors matter? Do any of them signal a future with someone? We don't know (empirically), but I want to find out.

What advice would you give to those looking to initiate a healthy and successful platonic or romantic relationship? Are there specific recommendations or insights that emerge from your study's findings?

Honestly, I'd boil the takeaways from this paper down to two things.

First, find – or look out for – someone you can laugh with. I don't necessarily mean find someone you think is funny. It's less about humor as an ideal characteristic and more about co-experiencing laughter together. Shared laughter connects us because it is a powerful signal of agreement, or someone with whom you share a worldview, perspectives, values, etc. And also, laughing together is fun so who wouldn't want a relationship with more of it?

Second, post-interaction interest in affiliating was a key mechanism explaining the association between behavior in initial interactions and long-term relationship developments. That tells me the initial impression we have immediately after meeting someone of if we want to get to know them is worth trusting. Listen to those instincts as you leave an initial interaction. If your first thought is, "I can't wait to see them again" then you should try to see them again.