Olivia Wallin, Ariadne Kaylor and Marina Kare presented their research findings at the Society for Research on Adolecence early this April. Courtesy | Marina Kare

After pouring through hours of transcripts, developing their own coding scheme and presenting at the Society for Research on Adolescence conference earlier this month, three Cal Poly undergraduate researchers will compete at the 2023 CSU system-wide competition starting Friday.

Under the guidance of psychology and child development professor and Director of the University Honors Program Dr. Jasna Jovanovic – called Dr.J by her students – psychology and child development students on the research emphasis track have participated in her lab over the past two years while using a “narrative identity method” of data collection to interview Cal Poly students. The research, while varying based on the research question of each set of students, revolves around gaining a better understanding of the love lives of young adults. 

“I’ve now had three different groups of students use those data for their senior project,” Jovanovic said. “It’s been really amazing to hear all these stories.”

The most recent group undertaking the data collection includes psychology senior and lab manager Ariadne Kaylor, child development senior Marina Kare and recent psychology graduate Olivia Wallin. 

Kaylor, who first joined the lab during winter quarter of her sophomore year, began by looking into the array of themes that fall under the “umbrella of relationships.” What she found was a gap in the way prior research had assessed people’s love lives.

“There hasn’t really been anything done on the entire scope of people’s love lives, including people who are in relationships, people who are single, etc.” Kaylor said. “And so we started collecting those stories.”

When Kare and Wallin joined the lab and found they shared Kaylor’s interest in pursuing a career in clinical psychology, the three began to assess the data that had already been collected through a more clinical lens. 

“We don’t have, like, a one specific question,” Kaylor said. “But I would say, like, ‘What are the relationships between relationship dissolution, internalizing symptoms and codependency and emerging adulthood?’”

“Relationship dissolution” – also known as breakups – became a core factor in how the researchers dissected the data. Breakups contributed to their coding scheme as a “context of interest” for investigating participants’ descriptions of “codependent tendencies,” or symptoms of anxiety and depression throughout their love life stories, according to Kare.

Kare clarified that the research relied on participants’ own descriptions of their codependent tendencies and internalizing symptoms.

According to Jovanovic, there are two common directions in which breakups can go. The first is called “redemption” where people experiencing a breakup learn from the experience and carry it with them into their personal life or into their next relationship.

“The other way is what psychological literature calls ‘contamination’, where you just kind of stagnate, like, ‘I’m never going to get over this, I’m never going to date again’ – just like, no moving forward.”

Each interview – lasting roughly from 30 minutes to an hour – had the same set of open-ended questions so as to maintain consistency. Participants were pulled strictly from Cal Poly’s student pool, ranging between 18 to 25 years old.

“So the way we start the interview is we say, ‘Imagine that your love life is a book or a novel,’” Dr.Jovanovic said. “Tell me what would be the chapters in your book.”

This line of questioning led to a wide range of answers. Some people began with their first elementary school crush, while others didn’t provide details prior to when they started college.

Additional questions were asked regarding the high and low points of a person’s love story, a turning point and a challenge — all of which were aimed at getting interviewees to reflect on their own love history, according to Jovanovic. 

They ended up finding a “significant correlation between mentions of internalizing symptoms and mentions of codependency,” according to Kaylor.

As students themselves, the three researchers found they related to how students processed their own love lives. 

“It’s been really rewarding, to kind of connect with our age group on [a] more academic level of really understanding like what’s going on in this age group with relation to romantic experiences,” Kare said.

Despite many of the participants remaining anonymous to the researchers during their video interview sessions, they provided a range of personal details.

“I was really surprised by the level and like, honored, kind of by the level of vulnerability and candor that people displayed when we ask them these pretty open ended questions,”  Wallin said. “They’re telling you about some of the most pivotal moments, at least in their romantic life – or possibly just in their life, like in general – and you get to kind of keep that story.”

Once the researchers had collected a large number of interviews, they started piecing together stories to “figure out what tended to be important to people.”

“And that was really special to be able to look at those quotes and kind of deduce what the meat of it was,” Wallin said.

Dr.Jovanovic’s lab researchers are among 19 students from Cal Poly headed to the CSU research competition, which will be hosted by San Diego State University (SDSU) over the weekend. Students will present on different areas of interest, including, biological and agricultural sciences, business, creative arts and design, education, engineering and computer science among others.

“This system-wide competition will showcase research conducted by the top CSU students from the 23 campuses that comprise the CSU system,” according to SDSU’s website

Student participants will present to judges and are scored both on their oral presentations and written abstracts, according to SDSU. The first place winners will be awarded $500 and $250 will be awarded to the second place group.

Wallin, Kare and Kaylor are currently wrapping up the project with the goal of conducting a total of 150 interviews, in addition to developing a paper for submission to academic journals. Kaylor added that they are currently conducting a quantitative study to follow up the data collected in the narrative format.

The team has two goals for the quantitative study: to confirm the results of the first study to “see if those results [are upheld] with a very different methodology,” and to validate their coding scheme.

“That gives some level of evidence that our coding scheme’s effective at really identifying those constructs that it aims to identify,” Kaylor said. 

At the upcoming competition, Kaylor, Kare and Wallin are eager to network among their peers and present their findings.

“One thing I learned [is] that people are coming from a place of trying to meet their own needs and trying to do what’s best,” Wallin said. “And especially at this stage of life, there’s just a lot of mistakes that get made and hearts that get broken.”

Wallin thought this experience was “moving and special” and developed sympathy for participants and their stories.

“We’re all coming from the same internal motivation of just trying our best,” she said.

To learn more about the CSU research competition and to see the full list of categories and competitors, visit research.sdsu.edu/csucompetition. For more information on research opportunities with Cal Poly’s psychology and child development department, visit their website.

If you’d like to participate in the research and share your own love life story, email research assistant Samantha Avalos at smavalos@calpoly.edu.

Update, May 2: This story was updated to provide information on how to participate in the study, provided by Dr. Jovanovic.