- The “matching hypothesis” predicts that people will end up with partners with similar mate values.
- In online dating, people want the best partner with the highest mate value and try to date up, but often fall short.
- Ultimately, partners with matched mate values have the best relationships.
When looking for a romantic partner, what’s your ideal? You most likely want to be with someone physically attractive, super smart, successful, with solid values and an amazing personality.
You want a partner with the highest mate value possible, the proverbial 10 out of 10. Really, who wouldn’t want to date a celebrity or supermodel?
That’s what we want, but how does the dating game really work?
A Simple “Rule” of Dating
Here's a thought experiment: Imagine 100 single people looking for a relationship, and put them in a room together for an evening. Who would end up together? It depends on lots of different factors and is potentially very complicated. Then again, it may be deceptively simple. One straightforward prediction about who ends up together is based on a longstanding relationship science theory.
Specifically, the “matching hypothesis” predicts that people will pair up with a partner with the same social mate value (Walster et al., 1966). Your social mate value includes all the factors that make you more or less desirable to date, such as your physical appearance, qualities, skills, traits, personality, etc. Essentially, according to the matching hypothesis, if you are a 7 out of 10 in terms of mate value, you’ll end up with another 7, or very close. 10s go with 10s, 2s with 2s, and so on.
But is that what actually happens?
What You Want vs. What You Get
Researchers had nearly 200 participants complete an online questionnaire about their mate value/self-worth based on qualities like physical attractiveness, self-esteem, likeability, warmth, kindness, and trustworthiness (Taylor et al., 2011).
Next, participants created their own online dating profiles and imagined they were looking for a partner. They viewed potential partners’ profiles and indicated whether they thought the person in the profile “would probably respond favorably to me if I contacted him/her.”
Highly attractive participants were more interested in contacting high mate value partners, while less attractive participants sought lower value partners. However, those lower mate value participants actually preferred the more attractive potential partners; they just weren’t inclined to follow through on that preference.
In other words, it seems that everyone wants a high mate value partner, but only those who think they have high value themselves are confident enough to pursue the 9s and 10s out there. Notably, it wasn’t clear if people would be successful in trying to “date up,” but it did show that people generally didn’t try—likely due to a fear of rejection.
They also followed up with daters on an online dating site and found similar results. Users often contacted targets who were out of their league (i.e., more attractive than them). Why not? Online dating and dating apps are low stakes in being rejected (i.e., people don’t have to flat out tell you no; they can simply not respond). That leads to a “shotgun” approach where you contact lots of more attractive people as a more viable strategy that is less threatening to your ego.
However, that wishful thinking didn’t really pay off in the study, because those contacts weren’t reciprocated (i.e., a 7 contacting a 10 didn’t hear back from them). Instead, users only received messages back when the user was in their league (i.e., when a 7 contacted another 7). It seems daters took their shot at better partners—you can’t blame them for trying—but those efforts were unsuccessful.
The lesson is clear: What we want, pursue, and get may be quite different. But, in this case, falling short may not be such a bad thing.
The Benefits of Not Getting What You Want
Ultimately what we all want is a fantastic relationship. We may assume that’s more likely with the highest possible mate value partner we can get. But we may be wrong about that.
To test the implications of matching and mismatching partners’ mate values, researchers conducted a study using > 12,000 partner ratings from members of a Namibian community (Prall & Scelza, 2022). As in the previously discussed study, participants wanted partners who were more attractive than they were. For example, 3s and 4s wanted 8s and 9s. Again, people aspired to get a partner who was better than them.
But again, it was wishful thinking. Although participants wanted to shoot for the stars, they ultimately ended up with partners matched to their own mate value. For example, a person with a mate value of 6 was likely to end up with another 6 (or potentially a 7 if they were a bit lucky, or a 5 if they were a bit unlucky). Ultimately, despite wanting much more, a 4 is most likely to partner with another 4.
And that's a good thing because when partners had matching mate values (i.e., an 8 with an 8, a 4 with a 4, or a 6 with a 6) they had better relationships. Specifically, they reported better sexual history, had more frequent interactions, and stayed together longer.
What This Means for You
Overall, the message seems to be: What you want and what you get may be two different things. It’s a fact of life: The love lottery doesn’t care about your wishes. Instead, your own mate value rating (how attractive you are to others based on your physical attributes and personality) determines the partner you'll most likely end up with. If you’re a 3, you have a different dating pool than if you’re an 8.
Instead of “dating up,” we should date “in our own league,” and “shop within our price range." It’s just another example of how we don’t always know what’s best for us in relationships. When seeking your perfect match, you may not get what you think you want. Instead, you may get exactly what you need to have a great relationship.
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Prall, S., & Scelza, B. (2022). The effect of mating market dynamics on partner preference and relationship quality among Himba pastoralists. Science Advances, 8 (18), https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abm5629
Taylor, L. S., Fiore, A. T., Mendelsohn, G. A., & Cheshire, C. (2011). “Out of my league”: A real-world test of the matching hypothesis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 942–954. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167211409947
Walster, E., Aronson, V., Abrahams, D., & Rottman, L. (1966). Importance of physical attractiveness in dating behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 508-516.