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Much of the research on attractiveness seems to conclude that certain features are universally attractive in a date, mate, lover, or spouse. In other words, there is a general consensus on who is appealing (and who is not). Therefore, it seems that individuals looking to get or keep a mate should focus on building up a handful of traits...and forget about the rest.
Sometimes, however, unique physical or personality features are appealing too. Perhaps someone "grows on you" over time. Maybe they seem to fit a specific type you like, which is outside of the norm. In any case, someone who does not look or act in a typically alluring manner can become a date or mate nonetheless. How does that happen?
Consensus and Uniqueness in Romantic Evaluations
As it happens, a recent article by Eastwick and Hunt (2014) addresses this very question. Specifically, the pair investigated whether people can agree on who is attractive as a partner (consensus), or whether each person has their own standards (uniqueness). They also measured whether this consensus or uniqueness changes over time.
To explore these issues, the investigators conducted three experiments. In the first, Eastwick and Hunt (2014) wanted to find out what features individuals actually evaluated in a mate. In other words, what did people consider appealing...and why? They asked participants to write essays on the topic and analyzed their answers. As a result, the researchers came up with several categories of features that individuals found attractive in a date, mate, or partner:
Classic Mate Value Measures
- Vitality/Attractiveness - being attractive, outgoing, a good lover, and having a nice body.
- Status/Resources - being intelligent, financially secure, well dressed, and having a good job.
- Popularity - being desired by others.
Relational Mate Value Measures
- Satisfaction - being a desirable, attractive, valuable, and satisfying relationship partner.
- Values/Respect - being respectful, equitable, moral, agreeable, and considerate as a partner.
In the next experiment, Eastwick and Hunt (2014) asked participants to evaluate classmates on the above mate value measures over the course of a semester. The researchers then analyzed the data to see; 1) how easy/harsh each participant judged mates overall, 2) how much participants agreed on who was attractive - and who was not, 3) how much participants found unique features attractive compared to their peers. Their results showed:
- Some participants were easier judges than others. In other words, some found everyone more attractive...while others found no one attractive.
- Participants tended to agree on who was vital/attractive and popular, especially upon first meeting them.
- Participants generally disagreed on who would make a satisfying and respectful relationship partner. In other words, participants found unique and different features appealing when considering someone for a relationship. These unique features became more important over time too.
Study 3 tested these features among friends and acquaintances. The results were similar to study 2. Overall, there was much greater consensus about vitality/attractiveness than there was on relational mate value measures. Thus, individuals tend to agree on universal features that are physically and sexually attractive in a lover, while also including unique traits that they find desirable too. In contrast, when considering a longer-term relationship partner, each person seems to have their own criteria.
What this Means for You
To improve your own love life, there are a couple of important take-home points from these results...
1) Some people are harsh judges - Some people in the studies above did not like anybody. So, do not get discouraged when you meet them. Instead, look for potential partners who are a bit more reasonable with their standards. Also, make sure your own standards are not too high. If you find yourself not liking anybody, you may want to reevaluate your own criteria (for more, see here, here, and here)
2) People roughly agree on attractiveness/vitality, especially for first impressions - While individuals do have unique traits that they desire, universal features play a significant role in sexual attraction. There is at least a general agreement on what features are beautiful and handsome. This is especially true at first meetings and early in relationships. Thus, to put a best foot forward and get some positive attention, it pays to do the best you can with your looks and personality (for more, see here and here).
3) Everyone also has their unique tastes and preferences - Each person also looks for something a bit unique and different to satisfy them, especially in longer-term relationships. So, you don't have to be a "cookie cutter" Barbie or Ken doll, with matching bland personality. In fact, having different personality traits, hobbies, and values may make you uniquely appealing to someone else for a relationship partner. Furthermore, these unique features may become more attractive over time, as others get to know the real you a bit better. Therefore, while there are a few universally attractive characteristics that are important, for the long-run it is important to "do you" and be a distinctive person. Then, let others get to know you too!
These results also roughly mirror my discussion in the last article about the difference between "liking" and "desiring" (see here). More specifically, there seems to be more universally appealing characteristics that individuals find physically/sexually desirable, especially in the short-term. In contrast, each person has more individual, distinctive features that they like in a longer-term relationship partner.
Depending on your own love-life goals, you may want to cultivate different traits and features over time. If you would like more desire and sex in your love life, then it might be beneficial to spend some time on those universal and classic mate value features, that most people agree are appealing - while also giving it your own unique spin. If you're working toward a more longer-term and companionate relationship, then focus on what you can give to a partner that is unique, different, and special. Keep the balance between the two...and you will truly have a satisfying love life overall.
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Until next time...happy dating and relating!
Dr. Jeremy Nicholson
The Attraction Doctor
Previous Articles from The Attraction Doctor
- Eastwick, P.W., & Hunt, L.L. (2014). Relational mate value: Consensus and uniqueness in romantic evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106, 728-751.
© 2014 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.