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Do We Really Know What We Want in a Partner?

Our preferences may have a smaller influence than we realize.

Key points

  • Physical proximity and reciprocity are major factors in attraction.
  • Speed-dating studies show no correspondence between what people say they want and what they choose.
  • Data from long-term couples suggests that people's preferences probably do guide their mate selection to some extent.

If you ask most singles what they want in a romantic partner, they can easily start to rattle off a list of qualities: Smart, funny, good-looking, likes to travel, enjoys cooking, etc. But how much do these preferences really guide our dating choices? Research into attraction provides some answers.

Cottonbro studio, Courtesy Pexels
Source: Cottonbro studio, Courtesy Pexels

Factors Beyond Partner Qualities

While we often like to think that we are choosing a partner because of who they are, that is far from the only factor determining our romantic fate. Numerous studies have shown that one of the best predictors of who people befriend or marry is physical proximity.

That is, people are far more likely to end up in relationships with people in their immediate environment, such as their neighbors, classmates, and co-workers. This is only logical. After all, it is difficult to meet and get to know someone who isn't nearby. And even if you do meet a great person who lives at a distance, it takes a lot more effort to cultivate and maintain that relationship than it would if they lived close.

Another important factor in attraction is reciprocity. We tend to like people who like us. More than that, people are unlikely to pursue another person if they don't think they stand a chance with them.

The Role of Partner Qualities

People tend to believe their partners meet their ideal standards for romantic partners. But are these ideals guiding people's mate choices, or are people changing their ideals after they find a mate?

I previously wrote about a study that found that people in established romantic relationships had lower ideal partner standards than people who had just started their relationships. These results suggest that people in long-term relationships lowered their ideal standards to match their imperfect partners and that ideal preferences didn't guide their choices.

Other studies have specifically examined how people's stated preferences for a partner (what they say they want) match up with the qualities possessed by those whom they choose to date (what they are actually attracted to). One creative method researchers can use to determine how well preferences correspond with mate choices is speed dating. In speed-dating, a group of singles participates in a series of five-minute “dates” with everyone else in the group.

At the end of the speed-dating session, each dater indicates whether they are interested in each of the other daters. In one large speed-dating study, researchers asked participants to rate how important various qualities (e.g., physical attractiveness, intelligence) were in a romantic partner. They also measured the extent to which each speed-dater possessed those same qualities.

Their results showed virtually no correspondence between people's stated preferences and who they selected for speed dating. For example, participants who stated that physical attractiveness was very important to them were no more likely to choose physically attractive daters than those who stated that physical attractiveness was not important to them. Instead, everyone was more likely to choose physically attractive daters, regardless of how important they had rated that quality.

Some research suggests that when evaluating a romantic situation at a distance, preferences matter, but that when faced with actual dating opportunities, people are more open, regardless of whether or not the people in the dating pool are a good match for their preferences.

Imagine that Joan and Mary both indicate how important intelligence is to them in a partner, with Joan rating it as very important and Mary rating it as not that important. If both women were told they could access a dating site that catered to intelligent men, Joan would find this more appealing than Mary. However, if both women were given an opportunity to begin browsing such a dating site, both would end up being equally likely to use the site.

Some scholars contend that studies where people are just choosing someone in a one-time speed-dating situation or online dating simulation in the lab are too dissimilar from messy, real-life mating markets to tell us much about the real role of mate preferences. In order to get around this problem, Conroy-Beam and Buss conducted a clever computer-simulation study. They gathered data from hundreds of heterosexual couples who rated their own characteristics and the characteristics they desired in a mate.

Then the researchers created a computer simulation in which they tried to match each female in the sample with a male based on their preferences (preference-guided simulation). For example, a female with a high preference for intelligence would be matched with a male high in intelligence, but only if she possessed high levels of the characteristics the man sought. They found that the results of the preference-guided computer simulation created matches where the correlation between people's preferences and their partners' qualities was very similar to the actual correlation between those variables in the real couples.

While these correlations were somewhat small, they were statistically significant. The researchers also found that the preference-guided simulation provided results that matched the real couples better than a simulation in which people simply changed their ideals after choosing a mate. Thus, there is good evidence that preferences do influence mating decisions, even though the effect is small.

Conclusion

There are many factors that influence our dating choices beyond just the qualities potential partners possess. That list of qualities we're seeking in a partner does predict who we'll end up with, but it may matter less than most people think. It is also possible that these studies underestimate the role of these preferences because researchers tend to focus on broad characteristics, such as intelligence, warmth, and physical attractiveness, rather than the very specific and quirky qualities that may matter to specific individuals (e.g., loves video games, enjoys traveling, likes to cook).

We know that similarity in attitudes and values, which is not usually assessed in these studies, is a major predictor of who people date. So don't throw away that list of perfect partner qualities just yet!

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