Self-control is the key to success in most walks of life. Plenty of bright young people flunk out of school just because they’re bored or too easily distracted, and it’s the ones who are determined to stick it out despite the challenges that graduate. Likewise in the workforce, self-control is the key to the outstanding job performance that leads to raises and promotions.
Another aspect of life where self-control is essential: intimate relationships. No matter how much you love your partner, there will be times when you’ll want to do something you know will hurt them. Impulsive partners wreck their relationships with their thoughtless misdeeds, while those with self-control hold their urges in check and keep their eye on the long-term.
Less clear is whether self-control is also important when you’re looking for a romantic partner. On the one hand, if you exercise too much self-control, you might not follow up on potential dating opportunities that could lead to the love of your life. On the other hand, if you exercise too little self-control, you may waste your time with dating partners that are never going to give you what you want.
Until now, virtually no research has looked at the relationship between self-control and dating success. To fill this gap in the literature, Tilburg University (the Netherlands) psychologist Tila Pronk and colleagues invited college students to a series of speeding dating events so that they could observe the formation of dating relationships in real-time. The results of this study are summarized in an article these researchers recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Before the speed dating began, each participant responded to a questionnaire that assessed two aspects of their personality—self-control and sociosexual orientation. Self-control was measured with items such as “I am good at resisting temptation” and “I am able to work effectively toward long-term goals.” Participants indicated their agreement with each statement on a 7-point scale ranging from “completely disagree” to “completely agree.”
Sociosexuality is a measure of a person’s interest and willingness to engage in short-term sexual relations with multiple partners. Those with a restricted sociosexual orientation report a strong preference for a long-term relationship with a committed partner, while those with unrestricted sociosexual orientation prefer having multiple short-term sex partners.
Each speed date lasted three minutes, during which time the couple could talk about anything they wanted to. At the end of the date, each partner indicated on a form whether they wanted to go out on a date with that person.
Then they switched partners, and the process repeated until all of the men and women had met each other. The researchers collected the forms and later provided contact information to the couples who’d expressed a mutual interest in meeting again.
Of course, the forms also provided useful data for the researchers, namely how selective each person was in choosing potential dating partners. The more partners they were interested in, the lower their selectivity. Likewise, those who expressed interest in fewer partners were deemed to be highly selective.
The researchers hypothesized that selectivity would be correlated with self-control, but only for those with a restricted sociosexual orientation. In other words, they believed that participants who were looking for a long-term committed partner would indicate an interest in only a few partners if they were also high in self-control. The assumption here is that these people would only express an interest in those who clearly met their criteria for an intimate partner.
When it came to participants who reported unrestricted sociosexuality, the researchers expected there to be no relationship between self-control and selectivity. After all, you can’t have lots of sex partners if you’re overly picky about who you go out with.
While these hypotheses are intuitively appealing, the data revealed a more complex relationship among the three variables of self-control, selectivity, and sociosexual orientation.
The first hypothesis was largely supported by the data, in that those who were looking for a long-term committed partner and who described themselves as high in self-control indicated an interest in only a few of their speed-date partners. The researchers speculated that these persons were evaluating each speed date as a potential long-term partner, and those that didn’t pass muster were simply rejected.
Contrary to expectations, however, the second hypothesis also showed an association between self-control and selectivity, only this time in the opposite direction. In other words, as self-control went up, selectivity went down. Thus, when it comes to seeking out multiple short-term sex partners, those high in self-control also expressed interest in more speed-date partners, whereas those low in self-control showed interest in fewer dates.
On further reflection, this pattern of results makes sense. In our society, monogamy is the default mode for intimate relationships. Once we find a sex partner, we tend to assume we’re in a committed relationship. Many people, especially when they’re young, practice serial monogamy. That is, they commit to a relationship until there's a breakup, and then they transition to a new monogamous sex partner. Still, the intention is to have only one sex partner at a time.
However, pursuing a short-term mating strategy as a lifestyle requires a lot of effort. Not only do you need to have “game,” that is, the set of skills necessary to attract sexual partners, you also need to be on your game at all times. So-called pickup artists play the numbers, interacting with as many potential sex partners as possible, hoping that some of them will pan out. In other words, it takes a lot of self-control to follow through on every lead to a potential sexual encounter.
Until now, virtually no research has been done on the relationship between self-control and success in the dating market. The work of Pronk and colleagues shows the importance of self-control in interpersonal attraction. Those seeking a long-term committed partner need self-control to weed out encounters that are unlikely to pan out, while those seeking multiple short-term partners need self-control to keep on task while pursuing their “game.”
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Pronk, T. M., Karremans, J. C., Demetriou, A., van der Meij, L., & Denissen, J. J. A. (2020). The role of self-control and sociosexual orientation in partner selection: A speed-dating study. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407520977675