When we think about the kind of person we’d like to date, we often list the qualities we most desire in a partner—our dealmakers. But we also have our deal breakers—qualities that would disqualify someone as a dating prospect, regardless of how many other wonderful traits they have. There has been a great deal of research on dealmakers, but until recently, not much on deal breakers. In a series of studies, Peter Jonason and colleagues investigated the most common relationship deal breakers and how they affect our dating choices.1
What are the most common deal breakers for men and women?
In the first study, the researchers just wanted to get a general sense of what traits people were likely to see as deal breakers. They surveyed 92 college students who were asked to list their personal deal breakers for long- and short-term relationships. Most of the students didn’t name that many—an average of just under 5 deal breakers for long-term relationships, and 3 for short-term relationships.
That first study generated a list of 49 possible deal breakers. In a second study, a separate sample of 295 students rated the extent to which they felt that each of those 49 traits was a deal breaker for them. In general, women were more likely than men to identify these traits as deal breakers. The table below shows the most common deal breakers. They tended to focus primarily on health (STDs, bad smells); dating behaviors (dating multiple partners, already in a relationship); and negative personality traits (untrustworthy, abusive, uncaring).
Of course, small samples of college students don’t represent most singles. So in a third study, the researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,744 single American adults. These participants were given a list of 17 traits and were asked to check off the ones they felt were deal breakers (as many as they wanted). The table below shows the percentage of participants who chose each of the 17 traits, broken down by gender. Participants chose an average of six deal breakers, with women choosing slightly more than men.
How do deal breakers affect our dating choices?
The researchers also wanted to understand how these deal breakers affect our dating decisions. So they conducted three other experimental studies, varying the deal-breaking information that participants received about potential mates.
In one experiment, 132 adults evaluated profiles of four potential mates who were attractive and successful. They were asked to rate how likely they would be to consider a purely sexual relationship; a short-term relationship; a committed long-term relationship; or a friendship with each of these four people. After the participants made their ratings, they learned that each of the potential mates possessed a specific potential deal breaker (e.g., an unhealthy lifestyle, undesirable personality traits, interest only in a casual sexual relationship when you’re interested in a serious relationship, or vice-versa). Participants then re-evaluated their interest after learning about the deal breakers.
The results showed that non-dating-related deal breakers (unhealthy lifestyle, undesirable personality traits) made people less inclined to have any type of relationship with the person, including friendship. The deal breakers that involved discrepancies between their own and the potential mate's dating intentions, however, only negatively impacted romantic interest. And while one might have expected men to be more willing than women to date someone interested in casual sex when they wanted something more, the researchers did not observe this. Men were generally more willing than women to engage in both short- and long-term relationships with each of the potential mates. Finally, women had a more negative reaction than men to learning that a person had negative personality traits.
In their last two experiments, the researchers examined the relative effect of deal breakers and dealmakers. The question: Are deal breakers more important than dealmakers in determining romantic interest?
In one study, 193 adults were asked to imagine they had just met someone new, and to rate how learning new pieces of information about that person would affect their likelihood of accepting or rejecting the individual as a short- or long-term relationship partner. Five pieces of information were potential deal breakers—poor hygiene; short tempered; has an STD; promiscuous; and drinks excessively—and five were dealmakers—physically attractive; kind; good career; good sense of humor; intelligent.
The results showed that the deal breakers had a bigger effect than dealmakers on participants’ interest in a potential mate. However, this wasn’t true for everyone: Those who saw themselves as undesirable short-term mates rated dealmakers as more important than deal breakers when considering the person as a short-term mate.
In a final experiment, the researchers varied the relative number of deal breakers and dealmakers that participants learned about a potential mate (dealmaker:deal breaker ratios of 0:5, 1:5, 2:4, 3:3, 4:2, 5:1, or 5:0). They then asked 271 adults to consider a situation in which their potential partner had x DEALMAKERS and y DEAL BREAKERS. They were asked to rate how likely they would be to consider that person as a friend; a short-term partner; or a long-term partner. Like the previous study, this experiment also found that deal breakers had a bigger effect on relationship intentions than did dealmakers; this tendency was greater for women than for men.
The researchers interpreted their findings as being consistent with evolutionary theory which posits that women are more discriminating in their mating choices than men. This was supported by women’s slightly greater tendency to deem various traits deal breakers and their tendency to be especially affected by the presence of deal breakers in a potential mate. However, statistically, these gender differences were significant, but fairly small, suggesting that men and women don’t differ very much in terms of their deal breakers or how important they are in their dating decisions.
This research also shows that when it comes to evaluating potential mates, we don't "accentuate the positive," as the old song goes, but rather, we put more weight on important negative traits.
The big unanswered question in this research is how this operates in people’s actual mate choices. What we say we want in a mate doesn’t always line up with what we really choose. Research on speed-dating has shown little correspondence between the traits people claim they are looking for in a mate and the traits possessed by the people who interest them at an actual speed-dating event.2 In addition, research has shown that people are often willing to agree to a date with a flawed suitor if they believe that person is real, rather than hypothetical.3
Would these deal breakers really break the deal in a real-life dating context, or are we more willing to compromise than we admit?
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.
1 Jonason, P. K., Garcia, J. R., Webster, G. D., Li, N. P., & Fisher, H. E. (2015). Relationship deal breakers: Traits people avoid in potential mates. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1–15. Published online before print. doi: 10.1177/0146167215609064
2 Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2008). Sex differences in mate preferences revisited: Do people know what they initially desire in a romantic partner?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(2), 245-264. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124
3 Joel, S., Teper, R., & MacDonald, G. (2014). People overestimate their willingness to reject potential romantic partners by overlooking their concern for others. Psychological Science, 25(12), 2233-2240. doi: 10.1177/0956797614552828