“Everybody wants what they can’t have.” You’ve probably heard this saying a few times in your life. It describes the underlying human characteristic of an increased desire of things that are forbidden or cannot be attained. A common instance of this saying occurs in romantic relationships. In most relationships, each one of us has come across temptation in one form or another. When you are in a committed relationship, there are inevitably going to be other people you come across that you may find physically attractive. But what kind of effects can this extra-attraction have on your relationship, and what is causing this underlying taboo desire?
Previous research has shown that people use a cognitive strategy of limiting their attention to attractive alternatives as a way of maintaining their relationship (Miller, 1997). This research found that those in relationships who chose to look at attractive alternatives for shorter amounts of time had higher levels of relationship satisfaction, commitment, adjustment, and investment in their relationship than those who looked longer. Basically, this research showed when the people themselves made a conscious effort of not looking, their relationships were better off than those who looked longer at attractive alternatives to their relationships. But what happens when the motivation not to look comes from another source other than you?
Based on reactance theory and the process model of mental control, if you are explicitly told by your partner not to look at attractive alternatives to your relationship, you would respond with greater interest in that alternative. So based on these theories, it should be no surprise that if your partner catches you checking out an attractive passerby and gets mad at you, you will feel a stronger desire for that person you just got caught checking out. So in essence, the opposite effect is found from limiting your attention to other attractive people yourself than having someone explicitly limiting your attention. But does this hold if the limitation of attention is caused in an unconscious fashion?
A recent study by DeWall, Maner, Deckman, & Rouby (2011) investigated the effects of unconsciously imposing limitations on the attention to attractive members of the opposite sex. By using a visual attention modification task, attention was drawn to one side of a computer screen by presenting a target on that side while a picture of an attractive member of the opposite sex was displayed on the other side of the screen. In a series of experiments, the researchers found three important results.