The "bird test" is going viral on TikTok as a way to assess the health and longevity of a relationship. But the driving theory behind the test isn't new — it's backed by research from one of the leading family counseling groups in the country, the Gottman Institute.
The renewed interest in the bird test kicked off when a TikTok user who goes by @alyssacardib posted about it in late October.
She summarized it in the video as: When one partner points out something that "could be deemed insignificant" to the other person, such as seeing a bird nearby, does the other person respond with genuine interest? She recalled how she and a then-new friend had a 10-minute long conversation about a woodpecker that she spotted. They've stayed close ever since.
Other TikTok users, including former Bachelorette Michelle Young, have filmed putting their romantic partners to the test. Spoiler: Young's new boyfriend was very enthused about the cardinal by the window. The hashtag #birdtest has accrued over 6 million views on the platform.
What is 'the bird test'?
In its most literal sense, the bird test is when you point out a bird to your significant other and observe how they react.
If they engage with what you said — for example by asking, "Where?" — or just want to know more about why you're interested in the bird, there's a good chance you're in a strong, long-lasting relationship, according to proponents of the test. If the other person doesn't seem to care about the bird and makes no effort to engage with your interest in it, the relationship is supposedly less healthy.
But the bird test doesn't apply just to birds, per the Gottman Institute; it's designed to measure how often in a relationship, when one person makes a bid for connection, their partner practices what's referred to as "turning toward" versus "turning away."
Turning towards means fully engaging with a bid for connection from your partner. Turning away means not responding to it. Bids are pretty much any time a person in a relationship seeks positive connection from their partner, whether that's through affection, affirmation or just any attention. A bid could be asking your partner to take out the trash, baking cookies for them or asking for advice; they can be complex and require effort or super simple.
In successful relationships, "turning toward" — when the other person happily chats about the bird, takes out the trash, compliments the cookies or gives advice — happens more often than not, the Gottman Institute has found.
Why does the 'bird test' work?
John Gottman, Ph.D., who co-founded the Gottman Institute, tested the importance of "turning toward," the driving theory behind the bird test, in research he conducted on newlyweds.
“At the six-year follow-up (after the wedding), couples that stayed married turned toward one another 86% of the time,” according to the Gottman Institute. “Couples that divorced averaged only 33% of the time.”
Gottman-certified couples therapist Sinead Smyth previously told TODAY.com that “turning toward” is her No. 1 tip for maintaining a healthy relationship and that she and her husband try to practice it as much as they can. She also pointed out that since the pandemic, some couples have become more disengaged from each other, and they may not even notice when the other person is making a bid.
“I would start to disengage (from my husband) by escaping into my screen ... and not doing a lot of noticing if he was trying to make a bid for a connection," she recalled. "So one of the things that we have really made a point to do is really trying to reengage, like putting the phones down and really trying to do more of that turning towards.”
“People are just a bit more disengaged with each other generally, but the antidote is not to further disengage. It’s to actually engage,” she added. “So we’re really trying to be open to that, really on a daily basis. It’s really just a course correction for us.”
How to 'turn toward' your partner
The No. 1 tip from the Gottman Institute to turn toward your partner's bids successfully is to pay attention.
Really paying attention helps you identify the bid and understand its text and subtext. (It's not just about the bird; it's about caring about little things in life that your partner also cares about.)
Next, Gottman-certified therapist Zach Brittle advised that you and your partner have an honest discussion about how you both make bids and how you both respond. Understanding what your partner considers a bid will make it easier to recognize the importance of engaging with your partner the next time they seek connection.
"Make the word 'bids' part of your conversation and perhaps name your bids toward one another," Brittle suggested. "It’s OK to say, 'I’m making a bid for attention now.'"
Whether it be with a friend, family member, or romantic partner, something as simple as asking "where?" after they point to a bird outside can be a sign you truly care.