While I’m on record for asserting that persuasion is antithetical to love, when that love leads to marriage and that marriage hits the rocks, then persuasion may be a useful play. Under these conditions, love is not making the marriage work and it is very likely that other factors (money, sex, children, job, lousy communication skill) are pushing love toward dissolution. Other Guy Couples often need to make individual and dyadic changes and those changes can be facilitated through persuasion.

We know that couples counseling – counseling that almost always includes fundamental persuasion forces like Dissonance, Central Route work, or Implementation Intentions – does work in face to face settings. Consider this observation.

Couple therapy is efficacious in randomized trials (Cohen’s d = 0.56–0.82; Lebow, Chambers, Christensen, & Johnson, 2012), with evidence that integrative behavioral couple therapy (IBCT), on which the current program is based, is effective for as long as 5 years following treatment (Christensen, Atkins, Baucom, & Yi, 2010). However, couple therapy is underutilized; only 19% of couples have sought couple therapy to improve their current relationship and only 37% of divorced couples sought couple therapy prior to ending their marriage (Johnson et al., 2002). Furthermore, ethnic minority couples—who are at highest risk for relationship distress—are half as likely to seek couple therapy before divorce (Doss, 2014).

Open the Windowpane on those meta averages and you get Medium to Large differences, 35/65 to 25/75. Couples counseling makes an obvious and easy to observe positive difference. But! Note in that quote that most Other Guy Couples in trouble don’t go to therapy, about 20-40% depending on the Local. So. A face to face intervention does work and very well, but most Other Guys who need it and would probably benefit from it, don’t use it.

Does this sound like an opportunity for iInterventions?

Of course, it does, but as we’ve frequently noted iInterventions often fail and for a variety of predictable reasons. Most commonly they fail because the iIntervention requires High WATTage and self control from Other Guys who are in some kind of distress (depression, substance abuse, domestic violence). Given that most people most of the time prefer to operate on Low WATT habit, iInterventions fail because Other Guys simply won’t make the effort needed, a factor that is overcome in face to face interventions.

A research team noted these problems in the Local and devised an iIntervention for Other Guy Couples in trouble that blended both Internet and human contact for an 8 week field experiment. Here’s the Internet portion of this play.

The OurRelationship (OR) program was developed to serve as an online tool to help couples solve a specific relationship problem they selected. The program was based on integrative behavioral couple therapy IBCT (Christensen et al., 2010); accordingly, its key components were the promotion of emotional acceptance and resulting behavior change. The program consisted of three sections: Observe, Understand, and Respond. In each section, each partner worked separately as they generated material for a joint conversation that took place at the end of each section . . . The program concluded by providing tailored feedback to the couple showing their improvement since beginning the program and offering suggestions for next steps (e.g., referrals).

The ICBT requires each member of the couple to do online homework and assignments, then work together as a couple on the same issues. The assignments focus each person on problems and solutions and, importantly, gives them a common method and terminology for talking about the problems and solutions. But! All of this is done as only an iIntervention. What about the human contact?

Contact with project staff during the intervention occurred in two ways. First, couples had four conversations over the phone or via videoconference with their coach; in the current study, two master’s-level graduate students and a bachelor’s-level project coordinator served as coaches . . . The second type of contact couples had with their coach was through an asynchronous chat feature, which was used primarily to send standardized reminders to participants regarding upcoming appointments as well as encouragement to stay on schedule.

While all of this play is mediated either through the Internet or phone or teleconference, observe that an outside human is actively connected throughout the eight weeks of the intervention. That person keeps the Other Guy Couple on schedule, provides feedback, offers encouragement, and suggests alternatives. You see how the inclusion of that helper works to increase WATTage and self control for the couple in treatment.

To test this, the researchers recruited couples primarily through media.

Fifty-seven percent of couples first came to the site after visiting an online search engine such as Google, entering a search term such as “free marriage counseling,” and clicking on an “organic” (i.e., nonpaid) search result. Thirteen percent of couples were directed to the site after clicking on paid advertisements on search engines. The remainder of couples (30%) came directly to the site after learning about the program through media coverage, social media (e.g., Facebook), paid advertisements on other relationship-oriented sites, or through word of mouth.

While they don’t provide an exact count, you can see that the overwhelming majority of couples got into this field experiment through media sources with a small, unstated number from word of mouth. Thus, you can get Other Guy Couples into this iIntervention through mediated sources.

The couples were then randomized into either the 8 week treatment described above or placed in Wait-List control group. The control means that all those Couples did get access to the iIntervention later, but just waited as a time and content comparison group. All couples were tested before the field experiment then twice later at 4 and 8 weeks for the main outcomes and there were additional surveys throughout the 8 weeks on secondary outcomes. That sounds like a lot of counting, but realize all this is done by computer and is much easier and faster to accomplish.

Despite all this counting, an 8 week work period, and all the opportunities for distressed couples to bail out of this effort, nearly 90% of the Other Guys completed the study in both conditions, treatment and control. That is impressive. Clearly the couples were motivated to hang in there either with doing the painful work of the treatment or suffering through the wait. This is a tough Skinner Box and if you’ve been married you’ve probably been in something like it if only for a few days. I think it is a big deal that a near 90% completion rate obtained.

Now, we can count the change. And there is a lot of change to count, so I strongly advise you to read the paper for the details. I’m only going to hit the main headlines. Begin with sheer survival.

Results reveal that the intervention created significant, medium-sized improvements in relationship satisfaction (Cohen’s d = 0.69). Examinations of clinically significant change in relationship satisfaction revealed that 32% of participants were recovered by the end of the intervention, 25% were improved, 36% experienced no change, and 7% deteriorated. The intervention also significantly improved relationship confidence, with an effect size approaching a medium effect (d = 0.47). Likely due to a lower reliability, the majority of participants showed no clinically significant improvement in relationship confidence (64%) while others reported that they were recovered (31%) or deteriorated (5%). The effects of the program on relationship satisfaction and confidence did not significantly differ by gender.

That Cohen’s d opens a Medium+ positive change, about a 35/65 difference. If you were standing outside two unmarked doors for the rooms of the two conditions, you’d easily hear either more fighting or deadly silence in one compared to the other. This is an obvious improvement from the iIntervention.

The treatment not only aimed at helping to save the marriage, but to also help each individual. Let’s count some of that change.

Compared to the waitlist control, individuals in the intervention condition experienced significantly greater reductions in depressive symptoms (d = 0.50) and anxiety symptoms (d = 0.21). Additionally, individuals in the intervention condition experienced significantly greater improvements in work functioning (d = 0.19), quality of life (d = 0.18), and perceived health (d = 0.23).

The Windowpanes are smaller for the individuals (except for depressive symptoms), but I find them meaningful in this context. Marriage is one of those Locals where a little means a lot. Small gains accumulate over time and you can build momentum, establish and strengthen healthy habits. As individuals, the Other Guys felt better and functioned more effectively with the iIntervention.

Hey, kids, it looks like with this one field experiment, we’ve got quite a successful count for an iIntervention. But, caution! This isn’t replicated. It’s only 8 weeks. Could a different team of people produce similar results or is there a unique level of skill and talent in this research team that you need? As we often observe in meta studies of interventions, you almost always find a few studies that blow the top off the curve, but the remainder barely hit a Small effect and many are outright failures. Remember, it’s not just the play, but the panther running it that hits the TACT.

Even with this concerns, we can still observe important features of this success.

1. You can run everything through a technological device, but it helps to have a real human for oversight, control, and maintenance. Recall that this entire operation ran through either computers or telephones. No face to face contact ever between the researchers and the Other Guy Couples. Many iIntervention failures deliberately omit any contact from an outside person, trying to test the pure effect of an app ‘n iGizmo. And, I think, that’s one key reason why they fail.

Other Guys simply lack the constant WATTage and control needed to just WATtap the iIntervention app icon for the 6 or 8 or 12 weeks the treatment requires. Having an outside human agent, even through mediated contact, is enough persuasion to keep the Other Guy Couples in the Box and working on the Plays within the treatment. And, catch that key distinction I’m making between Box and Play.

The outside agent motivated the Other Guys Couples to stay in the Box, to stay on schedule, to hit the computer, to read the assignments, to complete surveys. By keeping the Other Guy Couples in the Box, they were more likely to get the Plays within the treatment, that pattern of Observe, Understand, and Respond. Make sure you catch this difference because it is a nuance that kills many persuasion efforts. You may have the greatest persuasion play ever devised, but if you can get and keep Other Guys in the Box that focuses them on the Play, then it won’t work.

2. Do a cost/benefit analysis on this thing. If you ran this in the standard face to face treatment Local, you’d have tremendous time, money, and effort costs. Trained and certified personnel are not cheap. And, the Other Guy Couples have to pay for the service both as a fee (or insurance premium) and with time out of their busy lives. Recall that the outside human agents who ran the Box were either grad students in training or bachelor degree assistants. And, nobody had to leave home and could schedule the work at their convenience. Then think about how they recruited the Other Guy Couples: free search pop ups from Google and Google adsense on key words, then spread through social media. The cost difference is huge.

Yet, the more efficient iIntervention produced Windowpanes that are right in the wheelhouse of average effects from the more expensive face to face treatments. The cost/benefit analysis easily favors this iIntervention.

3. Think about reach. We noted at the top of the post that most couples in distress do not avail themselves of any marital counseling, even though we know from meta analysis of randomized controlled trials, that treatments do work. You can leave this iIntervention hanging out on the Internet, just quietly waiting for someone to tap in, then start running. Anyone with access to an iGizmo could potentially find this treatment. They don’t need a referral from a physician. They don’t need to see a TV commercial. They don’t even need buzz from a friend. A Google search on key words like “free marriage counseling” would pop the link to this treatment.

Certainly, this approach will not reach all the distressed Other Guy Couples when they need it, but it certainly increases the odds that they will at least stumble into it. That is a tremendous potential advantage to this approach.

Let’s get out of here.

We might have a winning approach to an iIntervention. While you can still run virtually everything as a standard app ‘n iGizmo operation, you need to have an outside human who keeps the Other Guys in the Box. Remember that none of the coaches or assistants in this field experiment were licensed therapists. They were not delivering the key Plays. That came from the Internet work assignments and feedback. The agents were persuasion operators who kept the Other Guys in the Box that then made the Plays easier to run and work.

Next, while I did not detail this, you need Plays that are proven to work in ways that can be easily translated into stand alone Internet applications. Everything about the Observe, Understand, and Respond treatment has been extensively tested. And, it can clearly be reproduced in text, image, and sound for delivery via an iGizmo. This is a tricky point. You may have something that changes Other Guys when you are there to make subtle adjustments in the living Local. I think this field experiment shows you need to have Plays that are direct, clear, simple, easy to explain, easy to execute without much immediate help. Remember that nearly 90% of the treatment group finished the program. Online. With minimal contact from a coach in training. Think about that.

Finally, we still need more research on this specific iIntervention and others. You will find cases like this one that demonstrate an obvious and compelling success. But, we still don’t know exactly why this thing did so well. My hard earned experience leads me to believe much of the effectiveness comes not only from the Play but from the panther. If the team doing this is just a bunch of Other Guys who think they know about persuasion, then the Play will probably fail. If you are trying to sell books or t-shirts or seminars, this is okay. You’ll do great while those foolish Other Guys will fall into predictable self persuasion to explain their inevitable failure.

Even if you want to Make The World A Better Place, you’ve still got to work like a Child of the Night. Good intentions do not guarantee good persuasion.

Doss, B. D., Cicila, L. N., Georgia, E. J., Roddy, M. K., Nowlan, K. M., Benson, L. A., & Christensen, A. (2016). A randomized controlled trial of the web-based OurRelationship program: Effects on relationship and individual functioning. Journal Of Consulting And Clinical Psychology, 84(4), 285-296.

doi:10.1037/ccp0000063