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The Real Reason We Date People We Shouldn't

Research discovers the lengths we'll go to avoid hurt feelings.

Relationships frequently fall apart due to irreconcilable incompatibilities. Sometimes these incompatibilities are so stark that they seem like they should have been obvious from the start (e.g., one person wants children, the other partner doesn’t; one person is deeply religious, the other isn't). Why don’t such dealbreakers prevent relationships from getting off the ground in the first place? And why do people so frequently wind up with incompatible romantic partners?

Some time ago, I wrote a post about how single people can readily recite all the traits they seek in a mate, and yet these preferences seem to go out the window when they actually make real-life dating decisions. Research in laboratory settings consistently shows that what people say they want in a partner has virtually no bearing on who they actually choose to date.1,2 And yet, once people are in established relationships, they are happier when their partners match their ideals.2,3,4 In other words, we know what we want in a romantic partner, but we often fail to choose dating partners based on those preferences—despite the fact that choosing partners who possess the traits we prefer would probably make us happier in the long run.

Clearly, the human mate selection process has room for improvement.

My colleagues and I recently explored one way in which dating decisions may get derailed: Concern for other people’s feelings. In order for a person to select only dates who meet their ideals, they have to filter out all the other available—and interested—potential partners who don’t meet their ideals. However, human beings are prosocial animals: We don’t like to reject people, and we don’t like to cause other people pain. Rejecting undesirable dates may then be quite difficult to do—perhaps harder than we anticipate—and this desire to avoid hurting others’ feelings may be part of what leads us to start to build relationships with people who don’t meet our ideals.

I tested these hypotheses with Dr. Geoff MacDonald and Dr. Rimma Teper.5 In two studies, we brought single undergraduate students into the lab and presented them with a dating profile that ostensibly belonged to a fellow student. In Study 1, we made the potential date seem undesirable to the participants by pairing the profile with an unattractive photograph. In Study 2, for each participant, we seeded the dating profile with traits the participant had previously identified as personal dealbreakers. (For example, if the participant had said in a previous survey that they would never date a person who was highly religious, or a smoker, or a person who voted conservative, then the dating profile they received would indicate that the potential date was a highly religious conservative smoker. Alternatively, the potential date could be made to be an atheist liberal non-smoker, or some other combination of traits—whatever was inconsistent with the participant’s personal preferences.)

In both studies, some participants were randomly assigned to the hypothetical condition: These participants were told that we had been unable to schedule anyone for their session, and so the dating profile was from a previous session. They were asked to imagine that the person was in the lab and ready to meet them, and tell us what they would choose to do if the situation were real. Other participants were randomly assigned to the real condition, in which they were led to believe that the potential date was actually in the lab and ready to meet them.

We found that people were much more likely to agree to a date with the undesirable suitor when they believed the situation was real rather than hypothetical. In Study 1, only 16% of people in the hypothetical condition predicted that they would agree to a date with the unattractive potential partner, but 37% of participants in the real condition actually agreed to a date with the unattractive potential partner.

Similarly, in Study 2, 46% of participants in the hypothetical condition predicted that they would agree to a date with the incompatible potential partner; however, 74% of participants in the real condition agreed to a date with the incompatible potential partner. In both cases, we found that our effects were partially explained by concern for the potential partner. When people thought that the potential partner was actually in the lab, they were motivated to avoid hurting that person’s feelings—significantly more so than the people who were only imagining the scenario—and that helped to explain their willingness to agree to go on a date with this person.

This research suggests that rejecting dates from people who don’t meet our ideals is easier said than done. Although we like to think of ourselves as being choosy and selective, when actually faced with an opportunity to go out with someone, it’s difficult to turn the date down because doing so might cause that person pain. In future work, my colleagues and I will investigate the long-term consequences of this phenomenon: Just how far might people be willing to go to avoid rejecting someone?

On the one hand, incompatible pairings might just fizzle out after a date or two, as the would-be partner’s flaws become increasingly obvious. On the other hand, research suggests that our empathy for a person tends to grow as we get closer to them.6 So our motivation to avoid rejecting a person may only strengthen, not weaken, as the new relationship develops. Either way, these findings suggest that in order to wind up with an ideal match, it’s important that we overcome the pain of rejection—not just of experiencing it, but of inflicting it as well.

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This article was originally written for Science of Relationships, a website about the psychology of relationships that is written by active researchers and professors in the field.

1. 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, 245-264.

2. 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.

3. Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., & Thomas, G. (2000). Ideals, perceptions, and evaluations in early relationship development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 933-940.

4. Eastwick, P. W., Luchies, L. B., Finkel, E. J., & Hunt, L. L. (2014). The predictive validity of ideal partner preferences: A review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 623-655.

5.Joel, S., Teper, R., & MacDonald, G. (in press). People overestimate their willingness to reject potential romantic partners by overlooking their concern for others. Psychological Science.

6. Loewenstein, G., & Small, D. (2007). The scarecrow and the tin man: The vicissitudes of human sympathy and caring. Review of General Psychology, 112, 112-126.

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