You might call it your dream date, your soulmate, or, if you’re the pragmatic sort, you may call it your list of must-haves. Regardless of the framing, if you’re single-and-looking then you probably have an idea of the sort of romantic partner you’re after. And although some of the qualities you’re looking for are probably attractive to everyone (e.g., trustworthiness), you may also be after other personality traits that are attractive to some but not to others (e.g., sophistication). Ultimately, though, does it really matter? To what extent do we actually pick partners who resemble our “ideal partner” images?

In a recent series of studies, Eastwick and colleagues1 found that it depends on the context. Partner preferences (the list of must-haves and must-have-nots) were found to predict people’s dating choices when they read about potential dates (i.e., dating profiles), but not when they had real-life interactions with these potential dates. In other words, although ideal partner preferences mattered a lot when people were evaluating their potential dates on paper, those preferences were thrown out the window once people met their potential dates in person.

But it’s not that ideal partner preferences don’t make a difference down the road. Indeed, in Eastwick and colleagues’ third study, they found that people are happier with partners who live up to their romantic standards. So why do our decision making capabilities fail us so when it comes to making that crucial initial choice? The researchers believe that it is because of the emotional reaction that comes from first meeting a potential partner. On those first few dates when we’re getting to know someone, our rationality seems to get a bit overpowered by factors such as chemistry and attraction. As a result, instead of coldly evaluating the new love interest against our standards, we tend to see the person in the most favorable way possible. Indeed, Eastwick and colleagues found that when participants actually met someone they liked, they would view their potential partner’s traits in a more positive light. For example, after having a positive encounter with a potential date who claimed to be proud, participants were more likely to associate the word “proud” with the word “confident”, rather than with the word “conceited”. In this way, the participants convinced themselves that their new, attractive date was close to their ideals...maybe even closer than the date actually was.

Of course, we know that in established relationships, seeing one’s partner with rose-colored glasses can be extremely beneficial. But is this sort of motivated reasoning adaptive in that very early, “trial-phase” of the relationship? Or, when trying to assess a brand new romantic partner, is it better to be as accurate and discerning as possible, in an attempt to end up with someone who actually lives up to our ideals? We really don’t know at this point. Future research is needed to explore exactly how much rationality, versus how much intuition, leads to better mate-selection choices in the long-run.

This post was originally written for the website Science of Relationships.

1. Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., & Eagly, A. H. (2011). When and why do ideal partner preferences affect the process of initiating and maintaining romantic relationships? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1012-1032.

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