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3 Ways Your Unconscious Mind May Be Keeping You Single

2. You could be hung up on an ex without even realizing it.

Many people are consciously and happily single. But if you are interested in finding a mate, consider these unconscious factors which may be affecting your status:

1. The Preference for Physical Attractiveness

When looking for a romantic partner, we all desire a certain physically attractive ideal. Although men are more likely than women to say they are looking for an attractive partner,1 a variety of experimental and speed-dating research shows that women value attractiveness as much as men do.2 This preference for physical attractiveness is rooted in our evolutionary history and may help to steer us toward partners who are healthy and able to reproduce.3 However, this preference may also be keeping you single.

Consider the case of my friend "Jason." (His and all names following have been changed.) I have known him for 20 years and he has remained single throughout that time, engaging in only a few brief relationships. Jason is moderately attractive, but he will only date women who are extremely attractive. This preference for attractiveness may be the reason why Jason is still single: Research shows that when we date more attractive partners, our partners recognize the disparity in physical attractiveness and are less committed to our relationships. They also think more about breaking up and show more interest in dating alternative partners.4

In contrast, couples who are matched in physical attractiveness are much more likely to enjoy long-term relationships.5 Rather than looking for the most attractive mate, then, you might want to consider seeking a mate who matches your physical attractiveness. These relationships can be less rife with jealousy6 and more likely to endure over the long term.

2. Hung Up on an Ex

Do you have an ex-partner you can’t forget? Interestingly, research suggests that even if you think you are over your ex, your unconscious attitude toward that person may still be positive.7 Researchers studying “implicit” attitudes, which are unconscious “gut” reactions,8 have found that these positive associations with an ex may lead to increased feelings of distress and unhappiness following a break-up, and an increased desire to reunite with the ex.7

My friend Sonia and her boyfriend of one year broke up a few months ago. Her ex was clear from the start that they could not have a long-term relationship because of their religious differences, but Sonia liked him and was content to date him knowing that their relationship would likely not be permanent. Although it has been six months since the split, Sonia continues to resist starting a new relationship. Given that they did not break up because of relationship problems, we can assume that Sonia’s implicit attitudes toward her ex remain positive.

Research suggests that one of the best ways to alleviate distress following a break-up is to find a new partner.7 Those individuals who are able to move on not only feel less distress and less desire to reunite with exes, they delight in their new partners and relationships.

3. Unfavorable Gender Ratio

If you are a student on a college campus, if you are online dating, or if you work in a setting primarily with members of your own sex, your perceived gender ratio may appear to be unfavorable. That is, in each of these environments, there may seem to be many more members of your own sex than the opposite sex. Recent research shows that when women perceive an unfavorable gender ratio, they may unconsciously adopt more positive attitudes toward short-term mating strategies such as engaging in casual sex. Interestingly, though, when respondents perceived more men than women, both male and female respondents were more likely to endorse a long-term mating strategy.9

My friend Laila is currently looking for a partner. She has tried the bar scene as well as online dating. (Yes, I have tried to fix her up with Jason, but she is apparently not more attractive than him.) Laila has noticed that there are more women than men using online dating sites. Although she is nor consciously aware of how this gender ratio may be impacting her attitudes, she has engaged in casual sex more often over the past few years. She even has a “boy toy” whom she sees occasionally just for sex. Although Laila enjoys casual sex, she is also looking for a long-term relationship.

Researchers suggest that an imbalanced gender ratio can lead to increased feelings of competition with others of the same sex, as well as a feeling that one has to adopt the sexual strategies of the gender in the majority.9 However, the perceived gender ratio is just that—perceived. According to U.S. Census data, the gender ratio for those aged 15-64 is ... 1-to-1.10 If you perceive an unfavorable gender ratio, seek out the opposite situation: For example, my friend Jason (an engineer) used to take psychology courses just to meet (ideally, highly attractive) women.

Although such unconscious influences may impact our dating and mating decisions without our knowledge, once you know about them, you can exercise conscious control and use this knowledge to attain your desired dating outcomes.

To learn more about the conscious and unconscious processes that affect our dating and mating decisions, please check out our book, The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships, here or on Amazon.


1Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12(1), 1–49. doi:10.1017/S0140525X00023992

Lippa, R. A. (2007). The preferred traits of mates in a cross-national study of heterosexual and homosexual men and women: An examination of biological and cultural influences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36(2), 193–208. doi:10.1007/s10508-006-9151-2

2Eastwick, 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(2), 245–264. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.94.2.245

Sprecher, S. (1989). The importance to males and females of physical attractiveness, earning potential, and expressiveness in initial attraction. Sex Roles, 21(9–10), 591–607. doi:10.1007/BF00289173

3Weeden, J., & Sabini, J. (2005). Physical attractiveness and health in Western societies: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 131(5), 635–653. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.131.5.635

4Fugère, M. A., Cousins, A. J., & MacLaren, S. (2015). (Mis)matching in physical attractiveness and women's resistance to mate guarding. Personality and Individual Differences, 87, 190-195.

5Feingold, A. (1988). Matching for attractiveness in romantic partners and same-sex friends: A meta-analysis and theoretical critique. Psychological Bulletin, 104(2), 226–235. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.104.2.226

Montoya, R. (2008). I’m hot, so I’d say you’re not: The influence of objective physical attractiveness on mate selection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(10), 1315–1331. doi:10.1177/0146167208320387

6Swami, V., Inamdar, S., Stieger, S., Nader, I. W., Pietschnig, J., Tran, U. S., & Voracek, M. (2012). A dark side of positive illusions? Associations between the love-is-blind bias and the experience of jealousy. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(6), 796–800. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.06.004

7Imhoff, R., & Banse, R. (2011). Implicit and explicit attitudes toward ex-partners differentially predict breakup adjustment. Personal Relationships, 18(3), 427–438. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01308.x

8Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological Review, 102(1), 4–27.

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