The Lowdown on Hooking Up

Eliza Weitbrecht, nominated by UC for the MAGS Award, smiles and wears a purple shirt.

What do the social sciences and everyday college life have in common? More than you might think—just ask clinical psychology PhD candidate Eliza Weitbrecht. Her award-winning master’s thesis explores the “hook up” culture of college students. Nominated for the MAGS Award, Eliza’s research focuses on the motivations and expectations young adults associate with casual sexual encounters.

Curious to understand the people around her, Eliza became interested in the study of psychology. As an undergraduate at Indiana University, she set a goal of attending a doctoral program in clinical psychology, pursuing research opportunities wherever she could. Her research with divorcing couples lead to more questions about the way humans behave in intimate relationships.

In her first year of graduate study at UC, Eliza coauthored a paper on college student romantic activity. During her research, she encountered a topic that sparked her interest: the “hook up” culture of young adults. The findings suggested that single young adults had poorer emotional well-being than those in committed relationships, a link that was stronger with women than men.

"I wondered how the prevalent no-strings-attached attitude toward dating and sex may impact how individuals navigate relationships during this time, and how hook ups may be experienced differently for today's young men and women," says Eliza. "This overarching question fueled the development of a two-wave longitudinal study on college student casual sexual behavior."

And so Eliza began the research process that would culminate in her master's thesis, "Investigating the Hook Ups of Emerging Adult College Students: Motivations, Expectations, and Ideal Outcomes Associated with Hooking Up." The first step was convincing students to participate in such a personal study. Thanks to the psychology department's research participation requirement (and Amazon gift cards), Eliza was able to recruit 348 undergraduate UC students. Participants completed an online survey at the beginning of the semester, and then another survey 10-15 weeks later.

The first part of the study examined participants' motivations for hooking up, expected and ideal outcomes, and the gender differences within these constructs. The second investigated the actual outcomes of participants' most recent hook ups, and whether or not their ideal outcomes were fulfilled.

Eliza and her research team found that sexual pleasure was the most common motive for hooking up overall, but there were several gender differences among the other given motives. Men and women agreed that a friends-with-benefits type of situation was the most commonly expected outcome, but their ideal outcomes differed significantly. The majority of men reported that they were just fine with a continued sexual relationship, while the majority of women reported that they'd like to establish a romantic relationship as well.

As researchers followed up on participants' most recent hook ups, they found that the actual outcomes of hooking up varied considerably, with a continued sexual relationship being the most common. One third of participants reported that their ideal outcome had been met, suggesting that men and women may have incompatible approaches to hooking up. This could be a barrier for women to experience the committed relationships they most commonly reported as ideal, given that men appear to be less interested in forming long-term commitments during college.

"I was surprised that men and women differed on 11 of 12 hook up motives, indicating that they have divergent motivations for hooking up," says Eliza. "Despite that hook ups by definition are casual and commitment-free, 52% of women compared to 30% of men reported hooking up in hopes of initiating a relationship. And 65% of women compared to 35% of men considered a relationship to be the ideal outcome of these encounters, yet follow-up data showed that the majority of hook ups did not actually lead to a relationship."

Eliza says that engaging in casual sexual activity is a developmentally appropriate task during young adulthood, as long as safety and health are considered. But her research does highlight a potentially negative aspect of hooking up: when people don't have the same expected outcomes in terms of future involvement and commitment, this can result in disappointment and emotional distress. "I questioned if women in particular may be disappointed in these outcomes or feel they have few options for fulfilling romantic desires," she says.

As Eliza examined the findings of this study, she began to wonder if hooking up could be predictive of poor well-being among college students. Her PhD dissertation focuses on investigating several questions: How is hooking up associated with psychological and physical health? Do these associations vary by gender? Are individuals who have certain motivations from hook ups, such as the desire to initiate a relationship, at greater risk for poor outcomes?

Currently on a pre-doctoral psychology internship at the Orlando VA Medical Center, Eliza is also focusing on specialty mental health, where much of her work involves treating veterans with PTSD both individually and in couple's therapy. When her internship ends, she hopes to acquire a post-doctoral fellowship, followed by a career in couples psychology and intimate relationships at a VA or academic health center.

For students looking to complete extensive research studies like Eliza's, she says that having a genuine interest and passion to motivate your study is key. "You will be working with this data for months or even years to come," she says. "Find burning questions that you think are truly interesting and important to answer."

Written by Dakota Wright, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School Office