Do We Actually Know What We Want in a Romantic Partner?

When it comes to finding a partner, do we know what we really want?

Posted Sep 29, 2020

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When looking for a romantic partner, people often spend a lot of time thinking about who they’d like to end up with and seeking someone who checks all the boxes. Online dating makes this all the more common as people learn about someone’s traits before they ever meet them.

But what if we aren’t good at predicting what we actually want? What if everything we say we want goes out the window when we actually meet someone face-to-face?

In one study, Eastwick and Finkel (2008) brought groups of single students into the lab to take part in a speed dating study. Each student interacted with 9 to 13 other singles. Prior to the speed dates, everyone reported on their “ideal preferences.” That is, they reported on what they were looking for in a partner. To do this, they filled out questions about the importance of different traits related to physical attractiveness, earning potential, and personality for their ideal romantic partner. Then, after each 4-minute speed date, they rated the person they’d interacted with on those same traits, as well as rating their feelings about the person, such as whether they liked them, were attracted to them, and would say “yes” to seeing them again.

If people know what they want, then they should be more attracted to people who match their stated “ideal preferences.” However, there was no evidence that what people said they wanted predicted who they ended up liking. That is, people who said physical attractiveness was really important were no more likely to like people they rated as physically attractive than people who they rated as less physically attractive. Likewise, those who said earning potential was really important were no more likely to say “yes” to those who they rated as highest on earning potential.

It is worth noting here that there were classic gender differences in people’s stated “ideal preferences.” That is, females rated earning potentials as more important than males, whereas males rated physical attractiveness as more important than females (there were no gender differences in personality preferences). However, these gender differences disappeared when looking at people’s preferences after actually meeting their speed dates, a finding that has been replicated (Selterman, Chagnon, & Mackinnon, 2015).

Although what we say we want doesn’t necessarily determine who we are attracted to when we interact with potential partners, our implicit preferences might actually matter. In a series of studies, researchers found that people’s explicit preferences for physical attractiveness (stated preferences in response to survey questions) predicted their interest in romantic partners based on photographs, but not during actual live interactions (Eastwick, Finkel, Eagly, & Johnson, 2011). However, their implicit preferences for physical attractiveness (based on reaction time tasks when they responded to words related to physical attraction without even realizing they’d seen them), did predict how interested they were in potential partners during face-to-face interactions. Why?

Implicit preferences are thought to be more strongly linked to momentary behavior or “gut reactions,” especially when the situation is ambiguous or complex. Thus, this may be exactly what people are relying on during face-to-face interactions with a potential romantic partner. This finding has interesting implications for online dating in which people go from seeing a photo to meeting in person. What we think we want when looking at a picture on an app may not be what actually matters once we meet someone in real life.

What about the long-term success of a relationship? What people say they want doesn’t necessarily line up with what they actually prefer when meeting potential partners in person. However, there is some evidence that people end up rating their actual romantic partners more positively and are less likely to divorce if their partner meets more of their ideals in terms of having more of the traits they find important and less of the ones they don’t (Eastwick, Finkel, & Eagly, 2011; Eastwick & Neff, 2012). So, although we might forget about those ideals in the heat of the moment when meeting someone new, they may end up mattering again in the long run.

Facebook image: Hrecheniuk Oleksii/Shutterstock

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