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You Are Who You Date

How we mix our partners' traits with our own, even the flaws.

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It’s no secret that people like to see themselves positively. Decades of research indicates that people go to great lengths to accentuate their positive qualities and downplay their flaws. But what happens when an attractive potential partner has those same flaws?

In a recent pair of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers Erica Slotter and Wendi Gardner hypothesized that when people are attracted to flawed potential partners, their romantic desires may motivate them to adopt those flaws themselves. The authors cited the example of Sandy Olsson from Grease, who (spoiler alert?) decides to give up her squeaky-clean, goodie-two-shoes image in an effort to win over her “greaser” love interest, Danny Zuko.

Slotter and Gardner tested their hypothesis with a cleverly-designed experiment. Participants—all single college students—viewed a set of characteristics, or traits, that ranged from very positive (intelligent, kind) to very negative (selfish, dishonest). They rated how positively they viewed each trait—and indicated how much each trait described themselves. Next, participants read a profile of another young adult—allegedly a student at the same school. Importantly, the profile was tailored to each participant to include a trait that the participant had rated as both negative and uncharacteristic of themselves. For example, if a participant rated themselves as being very selfless, and had noted that they dislike selfishness in others, then the person in the profile was said to be selfish. Participants were randomly told either that the profile was a dating profile of a single student (the experimental condition), or a professional profile of a student who running for school government (the control condition). The experimental condition captured the situation of being romantically interested in a flawed person, whereas the control condition represented simply coming across a flawed person in a non-romantic context.

After reading the profile, participants again rated themselves on the positive and negative personality traits. Participants who had been told that the profile they'd read was of a student running for school government, they did not rate themselves any differently after reading the profile—in other words, simply coming across a flawed person in a non-romantic context did not affect participants’ views of themselves. However, when participants read a dating profile of a single person, it actually changed participants’ perceptions of themselves: Participants rated negative traits as being more characteristic of themselves after being presented with dating profiles of people who ostensibly had those same traits. For example, participants who rated themselves quite selfless and reported that they disliked selfishness actually rated themselves as being more selfish after being presented with an attractive dating profile of a selfish person.

The researchers obtained the same pattern of results in a follow-up study conducted online with a community sample of adults. Again, after being exposed to an attractive but flawed potential date, participants were more likely to agree that they held those same flaws themselves.

What does all this mean?

In efforts to gain the affections of an attractive potential dating partner, people are willing to take on the possible partner’s negative traits themselves. Importantly, these studies did not test whether or not people actually start displaying the flaws of their love interests. If a person becomes smitten with a selfish or dishonest person, is the person actually more likely to behave selfishly or dishonestly? Future research needs to test this question.

But the present research does suggest that people are willing to see themselves as more flawed. Such a finding should not be taken lightly: Altering a person’s identity is no small feat. Like Sandy transforming from good girl to rebel, people may be willing to make important changes to their images in efforts to win over a love interest—even when those changes are unflattering.

This post was originally written for the website Science of Relationships.

Slotter, E. B., & Gardner, W. L. (2012). The dangers of dating the “bad boy” (or girl): When does romantic desire encourage us to take on the negative qualities of potential partners? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 1173-1178.

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