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Once a physicist: John Gottman

John Gottman is a psychologist who specializes in the study of relationships

Why did you originally decide to study physics and mathematics?
The beauty of mathematics always struck me as a wonderful thing. In the Yeshiva [Jewish school] I attended in Brooklyn, New York, we learned algebra at age 10, the same time as we studied logic and the Talmud. As for physics, Albert Einstein was a hero for many immigrant Jews who escaped Nazi oppression, including my parents, who left Vienna in 1938. (Other members of my family were not so fortunate; I lost 26 relatives in the Holocaust.) Einstein was championed in the popular press as "the Jew who ended the war", thanks to his equation E = mc2, which in my youth was always written inside the mushroom cloud of an atomic-bomb explosion. Yet this distortion of history did not seem like a horror back then, because it was presented to me, a child, in simplistic terms: forced by Hitler to escape from Germany, Einstein was the Jewish scientist who succeeded by the power of his mind, physics and mathematics, in ending the war. So physics seemed glamorous to me.

What led you to switch to psychology?
After I finished my undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics in 1962, I went on to study mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. One condition of the fellowship was that you had to live in the Graduate House in your first year, and you were randomly assigned a roommate there. My roommate was a psychology student, and I found his books much more interesting than my own, so I started taking psychology classes at MIT and nearby Harvard University. I was hooked, and my Master's thesis ended up being a mathematical model for how people "learn how to learn".

How did you become interested in relationships?
Honestly, it was because I was not doing too well at them. So, I decided to study how some people managed them well, while some others, like me, totally messed them up.

How is your work helping people who struggle with relationships?
In my work with [University of California, Berkeley psychologist] Bob Levenson on marital therapy, I have used the way that physics evolved as a model. Like the early astronomers, Bob and I began by searching for patterns in couples' interactions that differentiated the "masters" from the "disasters" of relationships. We found that we could predict almost perfectly what would happen to a marriage over many years, just from the couple's physiological responses to stressful situations like marital disputes, or coding their interactions, or their self-reports. Then, with help from my wife Julie Schwartz Gottman and from James Murray (the father of the field of mathematical biology), we started developing theories. For the past 15 years we have been using nonlinear difference equations (and, more recently, differential equations) to explain these patterns. So to continue the physics analogy, we are now at the stage where Newton comes in: we have a theory that seems to work in helping people not only understand their relationships, but also to make them better.

What are you working on now?
Using game theory and nonlinear differential equations, I have developed a "trust metric" and a related metric that measures "trustworthiness" and betrayal within a couple. In one example, we compute the trust metric by first coding particular husband or wife behaviours as plus, minus or neutral. Then we organize the coded behaviours into a 3 × 3 matrix where each cell contains the average numerical rating that each "behaviour exchange" received when one partner – let's say it's the wife – reviewed them on a video recording. We can then compute how much a change in the husband's behaviour improved the "pay-off" for the wife, and vice versa. The definitions emerge from the mathematics, and we now have an empirically derived theory of how to build trust.

What advice would you give to people studying science today?
I believe that mathematics and science need to be partners in elucidating underlying patterns in nature and building theories of how things work. Nothing in life is really beyond precise measurement and scientific understanding, not even concepts that appear as elusive as "trust" and "love". The real task of a scientist is to find an interesting problem and stick to it. Keep asking the same basic question again and again, and eventually the door will open. The answers are invariably elegant and beautiful.

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Physics World.

last edited: September 11, 2018

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