Do People Actually Have Dating Deal Breakers?

Research suggests deal breakers don’t prevent us from saying yes to dates.

Posted Dec 27, 2020

Source: Pixabay

In my last post, I suggested that we don’t actually know what we want in a romantic partner. But some might argue that while they might not be able to identify their ideal partner, they are fairly sure they know what they don’t want: Their list of deal-breakers.

  • Big drinker.
  • Tee-totaler.
  • Different political beliefs.
  • Wants kids.
  • Doesn’t want kids.
  • Too tall.
  • Too short.
  • Different religion.
  • Too messy.
  • Too clean.

They know the traits and behaviors that would render someone automatically un-dateable. Some deal breakers are major incompatibilities, some just personal quirks, but they all add up to instant rejection.

Imagine examining online dating profiles and coming across someone who had one of your deal-breakers. You’d instantly move on. But what if you got to know the person first, or found yourself attracted to their picture, and only then found out they possessed one of your deal breakers? What would you do?

Samantha Joel and colleagues presented just such a situation to single undergraduates who were interested in dating: Ninety-nine single participants who came into the lab for a “matchmaking study” were included in the final analyses. As part of a separate, earlier study, the participants completed a set of questions asking them about their deal-breakers ("Would you ever consider dating someone who…"). Then, in the lab, Joel and colleagues had participants fill out their own basic dating profile.

Next, they were presented with three different dating profiles and told they were from other undergrads at their university whom they could potentially date if they were interested. They selected the one profile they liked the most. After they made their selection, participants received more information about the person. To find out if people actually acted in real life like they imagine they would in this type of situation, the researchers had two conditions:

  • In the real-life condition, participants were told the person they’d selected was in the same lab session as them and was interested in meeting them. They then received more information about the person, including that the person possessed three of the traits they’d previously identified as deal-breakers. They were then asked to complete a follow-up questionnaire, including whether they’d like to go on a date with the other person, and were told it would be given to that person.
  • In the hypothetical condition, participants were led to believe the profiles they were choosing between were from participants in a prior lab session. They then received the same additional information about the person they’d selected as in the real-life condition and were asked to imagine it had come from that person. They also completed the same follow-up questionnaire, including whether they’d like to go on a date with the other person, and were asked to imagine it was going to be given to that person.

The big question the researchers wanted to answer was how likely people were to say they’d be open to going on a date with someone who possessed some of their deal-breakers, and whether that would differ between people in the hypothetical situation versus the real-life situation in which they believed they would actually meet the potential date.

So what did they find?

Joel, Teper, & MacDonald, 2014
Source: Joel, Teper, & MacDonald, 2014

As shown in the pie charts above, when participants imagined someone was interested in dating them who they'd been interested in initially but then found out possessed three of their deal-breakers, 46% said they’d accept the date. That is, nearly half of the people agreed to date someone who possessed three of their deal-breakers. And 74% of those who thought the person was actually in the same lab session and would potentially be meeting them agreed. That is, nearly three-quarters of the people were willing to date someone who they knew had traits that they considered to be deal-breakers. They said they’d never consider dating a tee-totaling, too-tall vegan — and now they were agreeing to give them their contact info so they could arrange a date.

Why were people in the real-life condition so much more likely to agree to meet the other person? The researchers found that these participants typically felt bad and didn’t want to hurt the other person's feelings. In fact, the entire paper focuses on the fact that we overestimate our willingness to reject people because we underestimate our concern for their feelings. Rejecting someone may be easy to do when you are swiping left or right and have never met the person, but when you have established some sort of contact with them, suddenly their feelings seem to come into play.

Facebook image: Koretskyi/Shutterstock


Joel, S., Teper, R., & MacDonald, G. (2014). People overestimate their willingness to reject potential romantic partners by overlooking their concern for other people. Psychological Science, 25(12), 2233-2240.