The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Hidden Brain Puzzle Finding Love: Quantity vs Quality

Romance depends on quality, not quantity

When people have too many romantic choices, either on the internet or during “speed dating,” they tend to choose partners based on superficial physical characteristics. You might think that having a large number of potential mates to choose from could help you make better choices. But new research suggests the opposite happens — as the number of our choices increase, our ability to make sophisticated choices decreases.

There’s nothing wrong with valuing good looks and attractiveness, of course. But most people are also looking for something more in their mates — shared values and interests, perhaps, or similar perspectives on life and religious beliefs. Many of these criteria go out the window when people are asked to choose among a large number of potential mates, during mate searches on the internet or during speed dating.

Here’s a puzzle that explores this phenomenon:  You are a single person looking for a mate with a good education and positive values. You would also like to be with someone physically attractive. You sign up for a speed-dating service, where you have brief conversations with potential partners. You (and potential partners with similar criteria) are LESS likely to focus on physical attributes, and pay more attention to intelligence and values if
A) There are 12 potential dates at the event
B) There are 24 potential dates at the event
C) There are 36 potential dates at the event
D) There are more than 36 potential dates at the event

The correct answer is A — you are less likely to focus only on physical characteristics when there are 12 potential dates at the event.

I based this puzzle on research conducted by Alison Lenton at the University of Edinburgh and Marco Francesconi at the University of Essex, who studied 84 speed dating events. Both men and women preferred dates who were taller, younger and well-educated; women preferred men who were not skinny, and men preferred women who were not overweight.

At events that featured 24 or more potential dates, however, Lenton and Francesconi found that both men and women fell back on simple heuristics, such as the physical size and weight of the people they were meeting. When potential dates numbered fewer than 24, both men and women paid more attention to other details that the men and women themselves reported were important to them. This has important implications if you are signed up with a speed dating service — you will make better choices, and your potential partners will make better choices, if the events are small rather than large.

What’s interesting about this research is that similar findings have been reported in many other domains. Human beings typically think that having more choices will help them make better decisions. That would be true if we only had conscious minds, but having more choices also brings the hidden brain into play in an unexpected way, and ends up producing less sophisticated thinking.

In a press release, Lenton said, “we look for different attributes in partners than what we look for in a chocolate, a jam or a 401(k) plan. But one of the points we’re trying to make in this article is it’s the same brain we’re carrying around. There are constraints on what our brains can do – they’re quite powerful, but they can’t pay attention to everything at once.”

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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