Self expansion model

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The self-expansion model assumes that individuals ultimately form relationships to facilitate growth and progress (see A. Aron & E. N. Aron, 1986-; A. Aron, Norman, E. N. Aron, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000-; E. N. Aron & A. Aron, 1996). This theory can explain some key observations, such as the finding that engaging in creative and challenging activity together, of reflecting upon events that provoked shared laughter (Fraley & Aron, 2004), improve satisfaction in relationships.

Description of the model

According to the self-expansion model, the yearning to grow and expand is key motivation in humans (A. Aron & E. N. Aron, 1986). That is, as a consequence of this motivation, individuals inherently enjoy novel, exciting, and challenging activities, which promote this growth and expansion.

One of the key sources of growth and expansion derives from romantic relationships (A. Aron & E. N. Aron, 1986). That is, when individuals form a romantic relationship, their own sense of self assimilates some of the qualities and characteristics of their partner. If their partner, for example, is mathematical, the individuals themselves feel their self encompasses this attribute.

Thus, romantic relationships, especially with someone who is different to the self (Aron & Aron, 1997), can fulfill this desire to grow and expand. As a consequence, individuals experience the positive affect, and feelings of flow and absorption (Graham, 2008) that such growth and expansion evoke. Individuals begin to associate these positive affective states with the relationship. Over time, as a consequence of this association, they perceive the relationship more positively. That is, they attribute their positive affective states to the relationship (A. Aron, Norman, E. N. Aron, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000-; Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991).

Hence, according to this account, love emanates from this desire to grow and expand (E. N. Aron & A. Aron, 1996). That is, love motivates the formation and maintenance of romantic relationships.

Determinants of relationship satisfaction

Initially, many relationships are fulfilling, because partners can readily engage in novel and challenging activities to satisfy their desire to grow and expand. As the relationship progresses, however, fewer opportunities to engage in novel and challenging experiences are available. Self expansion might stall, feelings of boredom rather than positive affect might surface, and relationship satisfaction might decline (A. Aron, Norman, E. N. Aron, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000).

Instead, to maintain solid relationships, couples must identify more opportunities to engage in inspiring, exciting, and novel activities together. Couples who can uncover such opportunities will tend to maintain a flourishing and satisfying relationship (E. N. Aron & A. Aron, 1996).

Empirical evidence

Inclusion of partner in the self

According to the self-expansion model, individuals tend to assimilate the traits and characteristics of the partner into their conceptualization of themselves. A variety of studies have confirmed this hypothesis (Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Tudor, & Nelson, 1991-; Mashek, Aron, & Boncimino, 2003-; Smith, Coats, & Walling, 1999).

Some of these studies examine allocation of resources. Participants were asked to allocate money to themselves, a best friend, and another person. In some conditions, participants were informed that nobody would know if they received this money or not. Typically, participants would allocate money to themselves and their best friend to a similar extent-; they would not allocate money to other individuals, like stranger or acquaintances, for example (see Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991)

A second set of studies show that memory advantages for words that relate to the self also apply to terms that relate to romantic partners or close friends. That is, usually individuals can more readily memorize a list words, such as adjectives, if they apply to themselves. Nevertheless, they can also memorize words that apply to someone who is close to them (for a meta-analysis, see Symons & Johnson, 1997)

A third set of studies indicates that individuals confuse traits that represent themselves with traits that represent their partners (e.g., Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991). In a typical study, participants must decide whether or not various adjectives or traits describe themselves. Reaction times are protracted when the traits correspond to their partner but not themselves.

Measure of inclusion

Aron, Aron, and Smollan (1992) also developed a procedure to assess the extent to which individuals feel they have incorporated their partner into their conceptualization of themselves. Several pairs of circles are presented, each with varying levels of overlap, ranging from no overlap to complete overlap. Participants specify the pair of circles to represent the extent to which they feel their partner is included in their sense of self. This measure predicts marital satisfaction as well as relationship maintenance over the next three months.

This scale can also be used to represent overlap between the self and some social collective, such as the community (e.g., Mashek, Cannaday, & Tangney, 2007). A continuous version of this scale has also been developed, which ranges from 0 to 100, using a computer (see Le, Moss, & Mashek, 2007)

Impediments to novel activities

According to the self-expansion model, relationships that impede growth and expansion should be experienced as unsatisfying. Indeed, Lewandowski and Bizzoco (2007) showed that individuals experience more positive moods after a dissatisfying relationship dissolves. When individuals dissolve such obstructive relationships, their mood improves and they are also less likely to endorse items such as "I feel as though many of my good qualities have been lost" and "I do not feel like myself anymore". Hence, any loss of self tends to be reversed.

Preference for similarity

The self-expansion model also implies that individuals will often value traits in their partner that differ from their own characteristics. Such traits enable these individuals to expand their conceptualization of themselves.

Aron, Steele, Kashdan, and Perez (2006) corroborated this proposition. They demonstrated the usual inclination of individuals to prefer strangers who are similar to themselves. However, if told they might be able to form a relationship with this stranger in the future, this preference of similarity diminished significantly.

Simialrly, Amodio and Showers (2005) showed that couples who are dissimilar to each other are more more satisfied with their relationship. Interestingly, the benefits of dissimilarity decline when individuals are committed to each other. Presumably, commitment may curb the motives to expand the self.

Antecedents to self expansion

Engaging in novel activities

The self-expansion model also implies that couples who engage in exciting activities together-experiences that will facilitate growth-will experience relationship satisfaction and passionate love. Again, this proposition has been confirmed in several studies (A. Aron, Norman, E. N. Aron, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000).

In some of these studies, however, these exciting activities were also physiologically arousing. Hence, excitement and arousal was confounded. To counter this issue, studies have shown that couples who engage in exciting, but not arousing, tasks also experience relationship satisfaction and passionate love (Lewandowski & A. Aron, 2004).

More specifically, Graham (2008) applied the experience sampling method to examine whether momentary engagement in exciting activities together corresponds to changes in relationships satisfaction. Consistent with the self-expansion model, such activating and exciting experiences did coincide with perceived relationship quality.

Individual self-expansion

Proponents of self-expansion usually direct their efforts to the benefits of relationships to self-expansion. Yet, some researchers have shown that individuals can experience self-expansion themselves (Mattingly & Lewandowski, 2012). That is, novel, exciting, and interesting activities alone can foster a sense of self-expansion, and this state can promote effort.

Specifically, in the first study, some participants were instructed to complete tasks that epitomize self-expansion. The tasks were novel, for example. Participants were told to shift a variety of objects, such as paper clips and rubber bands, using only a pair of chopsticks. Other participants shifted the same objects but with their hands.

Next, the degree to which participants felt their sense of self had expanded was assessed. Specifically, they answered questions including "Do you feel a greater awareness of things?"; "Do you feel an increase in your ability to accomplish new things?", "How much do you feel that you have a larger perspective on things?", " "How much has doing the previous activity resulted in your learning new things?"; and "How much has doing the previous activity increased your knowledge?". The novel activities did instill a sense of self-expansion, even after controlling the time that individuals devoted to these tasks.

The second study generated the same pattern of results even when the tasks were purely cognitive rather than physical, thus controlling level of physiological arousal. Specifically, in this study, after participants read a series of novel, exciting, and interesting facts, they experienced a sense of self-expansion. Other studies showed that self-expansion does indeed enhance persistence and effort on a variety of tasks, such as squeezing a hand grip. Presumably, self-expansion is rewarding and, therefore, activates mechanisms associated with an approach motivation. Furthermore, these benefits were observed provided the task was novel, interesting, and exciting even if the activity was not challenging.

Self concept clarity

As Lewandowski, Nardone, and Raines (2010) showed, when individuals are certain of their qualities and attributes, called self concept clarity (see also optimal self esteem), they are more likely to feel a sense of overlap with their relationship partners. In one study, participants completed a series of measures. Specifically, self concept clarity, relationship satisfaction, relationship commitment, inclusion of others in the self, and self esteem were all measured. Self concept clarity was indeed associated with both satisfaction with relationships and commitment to romantic relationships. Furthermore, inclusion of others in the self, in which people feel their identity overlaps considerably with their partner, mediated these relationships.

Presumably, if self concept clarity is elevated, individuals are more certain of which qualities they have yet to acquire. They can, therefore, more readily determine which qualities in their partner they need as a means to complement these shortfalls. They can determine which attributes in their partner they would like to integrate with their own self concept. Nevertheless, because of their clarity, they are still cognizant of their own attributes, ensuring they maintain a sense of personal identity. Accordingly, they feel a stable connection to this person, enhancing relationship quality.


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Created by Dr Simon Moss on 10/12/2008

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