Who You Love Changes Who You Are

New research on how far we'll go to become similar to a new love.

Posted Mar 31, 2016

Source: wrangler/Shutterstock

I apologize, but I’m about to engage in some shameless self-promotion. You see, we’ve had some really exciting developments in my lab over the past few months and I simply have to share them with someone—so I’ve chosen you.

A lot of my research focuses on the interplay between our relationships and our identities. Basically, I am interested in who you think you are and how the relationships, especially the romantic relationships, that you find yourself in impact this over time. One of the things that I focus on heavily is how feelings of initial attraction—your desire to be with a potential partner—can impact how you see yourself.

My early research (Slotter & Gardner, 2009) demonstrated that the desire to be romantically involved with someone predicted changes in people’s self-views to become more similar to the desired partner. In these studies, we exposed people to potential dating partners via fake online dating profiles. The potential partner’s profile always contained some personality trait (musical, artistic, athletic, etc.) that our participants claimed was not part of their identity on an earlier survey. We found that, if the participant was interested in the potential partner, they thought the target trait was truer of themselves after viewing the profile than they had before.

As we know, similarity is an important predictor of attraction in fledgling relationships (e.g., Byrne, 1971, c.f. Slotter & Gardner, 2009), so it makes sense that individuals might try to make themselves more similar to a person they have romantic feelings for. Essentially, if someone you were interested in was, say, very artistic and you were not, you would alter your views to paint yourself (pun totally intended) as more artistic in the interest of furthering the desired relationship.

In these early studies, however, we always focused on positive personality traits. Our participants were changing their self-views in positive, rather than negative ways. Being musical, for example, is a lovely thing to be. More recently, we’ve demonstrated that individuals are also willing to make themselves more similar to desired partners in more negative ways. Specifically, we’ve found that individuals are willing to take on moderately negative traits of a desired partner, such as being clumsy, disorganized, or absentminded (Slotter & Gardner, 2012). It’s worth noting that participants were not willing to view themselves as possessing more seriously negative characteristics such as being selfish or unkind.

In some very new work out of my lab, we’re finding that individuals’ self-esteem seems to be an important predictor of whether or not individuals are more likely to take on positive versus negative personality traits due to their attraction to a potential romantic partner. Individuals who have chronically low levels of self-esteem tend to view themselves more negatively in general. In these new data, these individuals are more likely to change their self-views to be more similar to a desired partner by taking on the partner’s negative characteristics rather than their positive ones. Individuals who have chronically high levels of self-esteem, on the other hand, do exactly the opposite: They change their self-views to take on the positive rather than the negative traits of desired partners in their efforts to further their romantic connections (Slotter, 2016).

Overall, the objects of our affection can have a profound influence on how we see ourselves. Our romantic desires can prompt us to alter how we define our identities in both positive and negative ways. Importantly, how we see ourselves to start with, via dispositional self-esteem, can influence whether these changes to our identities shift us in positive or negative directions. The next time you find yourself at the beginning of a relationship, consider how your feelings for that new partner might be influencing you, and how your own views of your self-worth might be coloring those experiences.

Slotter, E. B., & Gardner, W. L. (2009). Where do “You” end and “I” begin? Pre-emptive self-other inclusion as a motivated process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1137-1151.

Slotter, E. B., & Gardner, W. L. (2012). The dangers of dating the “bad boy” (or girl): Romantic desire encourages the adoption of even negative qualities of potential partners. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48¸ 1173-1178.

Slotter, E.B. (2016). Dispositional self-esteem moderates the tendency to spontaneously self-expand to adopt the positive versus negative characteristics of potential partners. Unpublished data.