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Why Your Romantic Choices Can Surprise You

What we say we want vs. what we actually want.

Key points

  • Our stated mate preferences and our actual mate choices often do not match one another.
  • This mismatch may be driven by unconscious or subconscious factors.
  • We can still find ideal relationships even with partners who do not possess all of our ideal characteristics.
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A variety of research shows that our stated mate preferences and our actual mate choices often do not match one another (Eastwick et al., 2011; Fugère et al., 2023; Kurzban and Weeden, 2005; Luo and Zhang, 2009).

For example, my colleagues and I found that although women stated that they preferred men who were ambitious and intelligent over men who were physically attractive, those women were also more likely to choose the more attractive man (rather than the ambitious and intelligent man) as the best long-term mate. Similarly, Kurzban and Weeden found that although education and kindness were rated as more important by speed-daters than physical characteristics, those speed-daters were more likely to choose future dates who were physically appealing rather than educated or kind.

One reason that our self-reported preferences may not match the traits of our chosen mates is that attraction is strongly influenced by subconscious or unconscious factors. Just as we may underestimate the importance of physical attractiveness to our mate choices, we may be unaware of some of the other strong influences which drive our attraction to others.

When researchers ask individuals which attributes are most desirable in a long-term partner, respondents tend to say that traits like kindness, intelligence, and a good sense of humor are essential in a partner (Lippa, 2007). Although researchers Conroy-Beam and Buss (2016) found evidence that our mate preferences do drive our mate choices, they also explain why we might choose partners who lack those “essential” traits.

First, despite the seemingly endless number of potential partners we might encounter on online dating platforms, a person “who actually embodies all of these desired qualities may not exist in the eligible mating pool.” That is, because each potential partner possesses a set of traits, it might be difficult to find one person who exemplifies all of our preferred characteristics. For example, we might find someone who is kind and smart but not very funny or someone who is funny and smart but not very kind. As the authors state, “Fulfilling one preference often requires relaxing another.”

Second, “mating is an inherently competitive endeavor: desirable mates are always in short supply compared with those vying for them.” Therefore, although someone who is a very desirable partner themselves might have an easy time finding an ideal mate, for most people, it will be difficult to find a partner who matches all or even most of our ideals.

Finally, “Each person must not only select their preferred mate, but also be selected by that mate.” Even if we manage to find a partner who embodies all of our ideal characteristics, that person has to also be romantically interested in us.

Fortunately, it is often easy to be satisfied with a partner who doesn’t possess all of our ideal traits. For example, if we find that a partner is kind and smart but not funny, we tend to put less emphasis on a sense of humor moving forward (Fletcher et al., 2000). Similarly, we tend to put more emphasis on the positive traits which our partners do possess. Furthermore, the better we know potential partners, and the more we respect them, the more attracted to them we feel, regardless of the traits they possess (Kniffin and Wilson, 2004).

Although our romantic choices may be surprising, and although our partners may not have all of the traits we think we require, we can still find ourselves in ideal relationships.

Facebook image: Just Life/Shutterstock


Conroy-Beam, D., & Buss, D. M. (2016). Do mate preferences influence actual mating decisions? Evidence from computer simulations and three studies of mated couples. Journal of personality and social psychology, 111(1), 53.

Eastwick, P. W., Eagly, A. H., Finkel, E. J., & Johnson, S. E. (2011a). Implicit and explicit preferences for physical attractiveness in a romantic partner: A double dissociation in predictive validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 993–1011. doi:10.1037/a0024061

Fletcher, G. O., Simpson, J. A., & Thomas, G. (2000). Ideals, perceptions, and evaluations in early relationship development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 933–940. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.79.6.933

Fugère, M. A., Ciccarelli, N. C., & Cousins, A. J. (2023). The importance of physical attractiveness and ambition/intelligence to the mate choices of women and their parents. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. DOI:10.1037/ebs0000325

Kniffin, K. M., & Wilson, D. (2004). The effect of nonphysical traits on the perception of physical attractiveness: Three naturalistic studies. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25(2), 88–101. doi:10.1016/S1090-5138(04)00006-6

Kurzban, R., & Weeden, J. (2005). HurryDate: Mate preferences in action. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26(3), 227–244. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.08.012

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

Luo, S., & Zhang, G. (2009). What leads to romantic attraction: Similarity, reciprocity, security, or beauty? Evidence from a speed-dating study. Journal of Personality, 77(4), 933–964. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00570.

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