From Dibble, Drouin, Aune & Boller (2015)

This time, something very much unrelated to my own research. A topic that has I’ve been quite interested in as of late is the effect of e.g. Facebook’s chat, and the algorithm that chooses which users to display at the top of the list, on people’s social and possibly romantic relationships. When discussing this theme, a friend of mine suggested a paper called Simmering on the Back Burner: Communication with and Disclosure of Relationship Alternatives.

The paper in question defines back burners as

people we are romantically and/or sexually interested in, who we’re not currently involved with, and with whom we keep in contact in the possibility that we might someday connect romantically and/or sexually. People can have back burners even if they’re already in a romantic relationship with someone else. Also, a former romantic and=or sexual partner can still count as a back burner so long as we still desire a romantic and/or sexual connection with them.

and goes on to note that most people have a number of them on their Facebook friend list whether currently engaged in a romantic relationship or not, most people do not tell about them to their partners (if they have any), most people identify their “closest” back burner as a casual or close friend, et cetera. I think my back burner count is probably lower than that of the average subject in this study, but I haven’t actually gone through my list, and then again, this study was naturally performed on American college students, a group whose social life is probably somewhat different from mine.

Interesting stuff. In hindsight, it is quite obvious that this phenomenon exists, but I very much like the name chosen by the researchers for it. I’m a bit sceptical of the results, though; according to the study, there’s a significant difference (statistically and substantially) in the number of “sexually desirable alternatives” identified by subjects depending on whether they are asked about back burners specifically or about contacts that they would like to be romantically or sexually involved with in general, and I’m not sure this should be the case. Also, as said, the study was done on U.S. college students, of whom most were of Asian origin (although this is probably more likely to mean that the study underestimates the phenomenon, if Asian Americans are more conservative than the average American).

Dibble, J. L., Drouin, M., Aune, K. S., & Boller, R. R. (2015). “Simmering on the Back Burner: Communication with and Disclosure of Relationship Alternatives”. Communication Quarterly, 63(3), 329–344.

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