Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Practical Visual Anthropology for Married People

At first I saw this picture and thought it to be an interesting representation of what some visual anthropologist do: juggling observation, filming and writing text about real human events all at the same time.

But the accompanying story (or does the illustration accompany the story?) is fascinating itself and serves as a perhaps practical application of visual methods in the social sciences.

From "Can You Really Predict the Success of a Marriage in 15 Minutes? An excerpt from Laurie Abraham's The Husbands and Wives Club" By Laurie Abraham at

He (John Gottman) and his colleagues at the University of Washington had videotaped newlywed couples discussing a contentious topic for 15 minutes to measure precisely how they fought over it: Did they criticize? Were they defensive? Did either spouse curl his or her lip in contempt? Then, three to six years later, Gottman's team checked on the same couples' marital status and announced that based on the coding of the tapes, they could predict with 83 percent accuracy which ones were divorced.


When he and a handful of other research teams began videotaping couples in conflict in the 1970s, the approach was revolutionary. Instead of just asking people how they argued or resolved disputes, researchers could see and hear them in action. A math major at MIT before he switched to psychology, Gottman developed a coding system that not only tracked the content of speech but the emotional messages that spouses send with minute changes in expressions, vocal tone, and body language. Using facial recognition systems, Gottman's code accounts for the fact that, for instance, in "coy, playful, or flirtatious interactions," the lips are often turned down. "It looks like the person is working hard not to smile," he writes. Conversely, "many 'smiles' involve upturned corners of the mouth but are often indices of negative affect." Such meticulous parsing allowed Gottman to coin the phrase "negative affect reciprocity," because he saw, frame by frame, the vicious emotional circles that characterize clashing spouses.

Abraham goes on to critique Gottman's mathematical and statistical assumptions.

What Gottman did wasn't really a prediction of the future but a formula built after the couples' outcomes were already known. This isn't to say that developing such formulas isn't a valuable—indeed, a critical—first step in being able to make a prediction. The next step, however—one absolutely required by the scientific method—is to apply your equation to a fresh sample to see whether it actually works. That is especially necessary with small data slices (such as 57 couples), because patterns that appear important are more likely to be mere flukes. But Gottman never did that. Each paper he's published heralding so-called predictions is based on a new equation created after the fact by a computer model.

So it seems even with sound visual methods, how they are interpreted, used and reported on can be problematic. Still, I like the picture...

Read the whole story at

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