Q&A  | 

Can tech change the way we love, by Omri Gillath

"Watching porn becomes the central route to sex-ed, especially when the traditional system (schools, parents, etc.) fail to provide a good alternative."

Tags: 'AI' 'Dating apps' 'Omri Gillath' 'Online dating' 'Relationships' 'Technology impacting'

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Omri Gillath is a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. He is one of the world's top pundits in relationships and their underlying mechanisms: his research focuses on behavioural systems, especially the attachment, caregiving, and sexual mating ones.

Recently he started exploring the role of attachment in the ties between humans and non-human AIs as well as online relations. His multi-level, multi-method research in the field of attachment has been groundbreaking and can help us answer the question 'Can technology change the way we love?'.

In your TED talk, you mentioned a study by Harvard University performed over more than 80 years which concluded that close relationships and being loved were the number one predictor of happiness, as well as a key factor for our mental and physical health. How is technology impacting close relationships, and therefore our capacity to be happy or experience happiness?

As I wrote in my recent blog, technology has both positive and negative impacts on close relationships. On the one hand, it helps us connect, people have their entire network at the tip of their finger, and they are never alone. That said, technology also has the potential to harm our relationships. For example, some people replace in-person close interaction, with online virtual interactions, missing all the advantages such closeness brings (like an increase in oxytocin, safety, and yes, happiness).

Finally, the way people treat their technological devices (e.g., smartphones) as disposable, might generalize to how they treat their relationships.

In your work, you mention three kinds of prevalent attachments between people: anxious, avoidant, and secure. Is there a genetic predisposition for online relations too, or any kind of predisposition for that matter?

Anxiety, avoidance, and security are people’s attachment styles, and they are usually conceptualized as dimensions (low to high). Thus, we all have scores on each of these dimensions. 

In our work, we showed that people are born with a genetic predisposition to be higher on a given dimension.

So while we didn’t look for (and didn’t find) a genetic predisposition specific for online relations, the genetic tendencies we identified affect people’s attachment style, which in turn affects their online interactions and relations.

Omri Gillath

Can technology change the way we love?

Technology itself is only a tool, it is not changing our needs for intimacy and security or our tendency to create attachment bonds.

Technology, however, might change the way we fulfill these needs, and whether or not they are being fully fulfilled in a way that makes us happy.

People can, instead of having authentic close relationships with other humans (in a romantic relationship or a friendship), develop a parasocial relationship (e.g., bonds with media figures), a one-sided connection that is used in an attempt to fulfil their need to belong. Such a relationship might act as a (temporary) replacement, and might be better than nothing, but is usually considered not as healthy or as fulfilling.

There is not a lot of research on the impact of online relationships, and the findings are contradicting. Some researchers find no negative effects; others find multiple negative effects of technology (e.g., Sherry Turkle). I personally believe that like everything else in life it is about finding a balance. Using technology while being aware of potential downsides.

Some people consider online dating means no harm and it actually helps to choose the right person whereas others warn of the 'objectification' of people and relationships. What's your opinion on that?

The upside is in the variety that people can find online the specificity (e.g., finding someone who likes exactly what you do or have similar interests), and, overall, the access. It also helps people who are shy, socially awkward or suffer from social anxiety, who find face-to-face dating hard or impossible.

However, research shows that online dating can actually undermine the outcomes: It tends to reduce three-dimensional potential mates to two-dimensional chunks of information.

Those often fail to fully represent the experiential aspects of social interaction, which are essential to evaluate whether two people are compatible. Furthermore, as you noted, the huge number of potential mates often leads online daters to objectify potential partners and themselves.

You also mentioned that there have never been so many singles in the US, a trend we observe in Spain and Europe too. To which extent is technology influencing that trend and which other factors count in?

One example is the use of online dating apps, like Tinder and Grimmer, which as I mentioned above increase objectification, so others are seen as objects meant to fulfil my needs (sex?) and nothing more rather than a long-term partner. Such apps also may increase the fear of missing out (FOMO).

People do not want to commit, afraid that there is a better partner just around the (virtual) corner waiting for them.

Finally, people may generalize the way they treat objects as disposable, to their relationships, and dispose of their romantic partners with the first signs of trouble, rather than trying to work things out.

2019 registered over 42 Billion visits to Pornhub compared to 28.5 billion in 2017. Visitors also viewed videos for a longer time. This means the web registered an average of 115 million visits per day last year -the equivalent of the populations of Canada, Australia, Poland, and the Netherlands all visiting in one day, following the company's annual report. How is this impacting society?

That is an empirical question and we need more research to answer it. The increased access, similarly to online dating, can be a positive thing (people can find quick and easy relief) or a negative thing, especially if people end up being addicted, prefer porn over real sex, or use porn to evaluate their real-life partners and sexual relationships.

One example is that more teenage boys expect their opposite-sex partners to enjoy and want anal sex, as they see in porn, although only a minority of teenage girls actually do. The age of exposure to hard-core sex is decreasing (currently in the US the mean is 11 yrs old), which may explain such unreal expectations. Watching porn becomes the central route to sex-ed, especially when the traditional system (schools, parents, etc.) fail to provide a good alternative.

In a world meant to be steered by AI, will relationships allow us to prevent total control of our lives by algorithms?

Yes, the choice is ours, and we need to make the rules and keep boundaries that would allow us to stay in control. That goes for privacy as well. Technology is not stopping for anyone, new advancements will keep coming whether we are ready or not. We as a society need to make sure we understand the meaning of these advancements and the implications of using them.

To do that we need to invest resources and study these issues in a systematic scientific way.

In the face of the huge influence of technology in our lives, how can we prevent it from negatively impacting our capacity to live happily?

As I said above, we need to study the implications, and make the public aware of them and the potential dangers.

We also need to provide ways that would allow us to keep using technology (because people will) while maintaining our close relationships that are so important for our mental and physical health and longevity.