When It Comes to Love, Do You Really Know What You Want?

Research into why we may not end up with our 'ideal' partners.

Posted Jun 10, 2015

wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

What do you look for in a romantic partner—good looks, a sense of humor? Maybe you seek someone who shares your values, habits, or interests. That mental checklist reveals your ideal partner preferences; your list of preferred traits and behaviors may determine whether someone you meet is "dateable." These preferences might be weighted depending on how important they are to you: A prospect with differing political views might be eliminated, but someone who doesn’t share your cycling hobby might make the cut. 

But what if our real-life dating decisions actually have nothing to do with our stated hypothetical partner preferences? A literature review (Eastwick, Luchies, Finkel, & Hunt, 2013) argues that what we think we want isn’t necessarily reflected in our initial dating decisions.

Evidence suggests we are consistent in the abstract: If asked to evaluate someone on paper, you’ll likely judge their overall attractiveness in accordance with your stated criteria. This match between ideal preferences and hypothetical preferences may help us feel like we rely on our ideal preferences to help guide our dating decisions. But what happens in real life? 

Research suggests that in initial face-to-face encounters, our ideal partner preferences have little effect on our romantic desire (Eastwick et al., 2013). When we initially meet someone, our level of romantic interest in the person is independent of our standards. We might have no immediate interest in Jason (or Jane), although he should actually be a fantastic match based on our ideal mate preferences (and would be a great long-term partner). Conversely, we might be attracted to Joe (or Joanne), despite his poor fit with our criteria. 

Why do we have trouble implementing our ideal preferences to determine how attracted we are to potential prospects?

Face-to-face interactions are complex. When meeting someone new, we witness a large, diverse set of traits and attributes, including many that are not on our list of ideal vs. not-ideal characteristics. The added complexity makes comparisons on the traits that we do care about tricky, and can change the meaning of different traits as well. As a result, we can be attracted to people who don’t fit our criteria and have a lackluster response to those who do.

What does it mean, then, if our ideal partner preferences, at least on paper, don’t seem to predict how attracted we are to people in person? As the authors suggest, this might explain why many people who meet online think they are perfectly matched, but end up having unexciting first dates when they initially connect in person.

A practical take-home from this research? Give people a chance before writing them off as poor matches. If your initial attraction is independent of your standards, as the above suggests, then first encounters may not provide enough information to help you make a good judgment. You might miss a well-suited long-term partner if you don’t give him or her an opportunity to reveal just how perfect he or she is. 

References

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, 623-665.