Positive Illusions: Brad Pitt or Danny DeVito?

Among such different approaches to the issue there is a more specific one proposed by Lisa Neff and Benjamin Karney (2002). The researchers conducted a study of newlywed couples that followed spouses over a period of up to 4 years. This research assessed the partners’ opinions about each other varying in degrees of specificity, as well as their level of relationship satisfaction. The researchers found that on an abstract, ‘global’ level it is beneficial to idealize a partner. For instance, an obvious positive perception that he or she is a nice/good person is general enough to minimize a risk of disappointment from a partner’s shortcomings. However, on a more specific level it is beneficial to have more accurate perceptions of one’s partner. The authors refer to these two levels of partner perception respectively as ‘global adoration’ and ‘specific accuracy’, and found them to be associated with greater relationship satisfaction and stability than ‘blind’ adoration. So, thinking again about John and Mary, it is probably better for Mary as well as the relationship if she sees John as a great guy, who happens to be not that good at cooking, instead of seeing him as her own Clark Kent. The latter is unattainable, even for Brad Pitt, consequently leading to inevitable disappointment. Thus, Neff and Karney’s (2002) model seems to strike the golden mean: on the one hand having a very positive and possibly idealized, general view of a partner; while on the other hand having quite an accurate understanding of his or her specific limitations.

Now, creating or inhibiting positive illusions on general or specific domains is easier said than done. If you currently are in a relationship that makes you happy, my advice would be not to overanalyze things, and just stick to that which has worked so far. For those less fortunate among us, these ideas and theories might at least offer some food for thought, and hopefully can make you smarter and happier the next time around.


Anonymous (1994). Picture courtesy of Love's Illusion: Music from the Montpellier Codex, 13th C. Harmonia Mundi.

Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1, 79 – 98.

Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2002). Judgments of a relationship partner: Specific accuracy but global enhancement. Journal of Personality, 6, 1079-1112.

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