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Is Meritocracy Useful in Searching for a Romantic Partner?

Many people go about this search in the wrong way.

“I want a man who's kind and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?” —Zsa Zsa Gabor

In a meritocracy, one is judged according to one’s personal past performance and achievements. Is this the best principle to follow when looking for a suitable romantic partner?

What is meritocracy?

Meritocracy is a system in which people are chosen in light of their personal past performance and achievements, without taking into account their past circumstances, including their socioeconomic background. In social organizations, this view holds that certain resources, such as entering universities or getting certain positions, should be distributed according to performance, as measured by the examination of demonstrated achievement. Meritocracy intends to abolish various types of biases, some of which, like nepotism, should indeed be eliminated. However, it is also evident that disregarding a person’s background is likely to generate a tremendous bias against those from less fortunate circumstances. Indeed, a common criticism against meritocracy in the educational system is that it is increasingly stratified, and an elite class that is created represents a narrow segment of the population. Hence, it ignores diversity.

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In his book, The Diversity Bonus (2017), Scott Page argues that teams including different kinds of thinkers outperform homogenous groups on complex tasks. Page severely criticizes the meritocracy system's ability to build successful teams. He argues that the principle of meritocracy — the idea that the “best person” should be hired — runs counter to the multidimensional or layered nature of complex problems. In his view, there is no best person. Page claims that even if people have extensive knowledge about the relevant domain, no test or criteria applied to individuals will produce the best team. Every domain possesses such depth and breadth that no test can suffice. He argues that optimal hiring of teams to fulfill certain complex tasks depends on context; hence, optimal teams should be diverse. When creating a forest, you do not select the best trees; rather, you choose trees that are compatible with each other, and this requires diversity.

Romantic diversity

Emodiversity — that is, the variety and relative abundance of the emotions that a person experiences — is an independent predictor of mental and physical health, such as decreased depression and less visits to doctors (Quoidbach, et. al, 2014). Is romantic diversity useful as well? We can speak about holistic diversity, when the lover takes into account the range of the beloved's features and sees him or her as a diverse, whole person, and object diversity, when a person’s love is directed at various individuals. The first form of diversity, which is highly praised, underlies long-term, profound love. The second form is more disputable. Polyamorous lovers claim that loving two people at the same time does not damage, and can even enhance, the intensity and depth of their love for each individual (Ben-Ze’ev & Brunning, 2017).

The value of meritocracy in choosing a romantic partner

“I don't wish to be everything to everyone, but I would like to be something to someone.” —Javan

The value of meritocracy in guiding one's decision when choosing a romantic partner is not immediately evident in light of the complexity and diversity of such a task.

The non-relational properties of the beloved, such as wisdom, external appearance, social status, financial state, performance, and achievements, which stand on their own, are typical constituents of meritocracy. However, such properties alone cannot determine the generation of long-term, profound love, at the heart of which lie the interactions between the partners. On the contrary, it is often the case that on their way up, successful people are quite inconsiderate of others. Our partners can be highly educated, attractive, rich, and famous, but they just might not suit us. We might not find them sufficiently sensitive to us or genuinely interested in our flourishing; sometimes, they might even be threatened by our success or autonomy. Moreover, being with a person who is, in light of the principle of meritocracy, highly superior or inferior to you is quite problematic, and often leads to low-quality relationships and a greater tendency to engage in extramarital affairs (Ben-Ze’ev, 2016).

Despite the above considerations, the non-relational properties of the beloved are not without value in generating romantic love. These properties, such as wisdom, external appearance, social status, financial state, and achievements, stand on their own, regardless of the lover’s perception. The lover does not have a privileged epistemic status concerning them; they are mostly open to other people's examination, and there is a wide consensus about them. For example, it is easier to fall in love with a rich, wise, and handsome person than with a poor, stupid, and ugly one. Furthermore, the former are more likely to provide better circumstances for our personal flourishing.

The most relevant properties for generating profound romantic love are the relational properties, which encompass the way the two lovers interact with each other. Examples of such properties are caring, kindness, reciprocity, sensitivity, and the ability to bring out the best in each other. The major concern of relational properties is that of suitability in enhancing the couple's flourishing. This concern relates to the uniqueness of the specific romantic connection.

Compatible with these claims, Paul Eastwick and Lucy Hunt (2014) present empirical evidence showing that most people's judgments about mate value are more relational than non-relational, especially as people get to know each other better over time. They further suggest that although consensus emerges on desirable (non-relational) qualities in initial impression settings, this consensus is weaker than the tendency of participants to see one another as uniquely and subjectively desirable or undesirable over time. Eastwick and Hunt conclude that despite the unbalanced distribution of desirable non-relational properties in the population, “mating pursuits take place on a more-or-less even playing field in which most people have a strong chance of being satisfied with their romantic outcomes” (2014: 729).

Concluding remarks

“I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” —Marilyn Monroe

The principal of meritocracy can easily assess non-relational properties, while romantic uniqueness, which is generated by the partners’ unique interactions, is not subject to such a comparative assessment. Hence, the value of meritocracy in searching for a suitable romantic partner is limited.

The diversity and complexity of romantic partnerships are much greater than those of a successful professional team of neuroscientists or company managers. Accordingly, the optimal romantic match is hard to predict without considering the partners' actual joint interactions. In any case, matches should not be based on finding the best person in the world, but rather on locating the most suitable partner in the couple’s given circumstances.

Many people, it seems, go about the search for their desired partner in the wrong way. They start with the non-relational properties and then try to see whether the relational properties ensue. A partner with all the best individual qualities may be alluring, but bearing in mind that romantic concerns apply to the connection between the partners, rather than to them as individuals, it is essential to value the importance of strong relational properties in the search for profound love.


Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2016). Envy and Inequality in Romantic Relationships. In R. Smith, U. Merlone, and M. Duffy (eds.), Envy at work and in organizations. Oxford University Press, 2016, 429-454.

Ben-Ze’ev, A. & Brunning, L. How Complex Is Your Love? The Case of Romantic Compromises and Polyamory. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 2017.

Eastwick, P. W., & Hunt, L. L. (2014). Relational mate value: Consensus and uniqueness in romantic evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106, 728-151.

Page, S. E. (2017). The diversity bonus: How great teams pay off in the knowledge economy. Princeton University Press.

Quoidbach, J., Gruber, J., Mikolajczak, M., Kogan, A., Kotsou, I., & Norton, M. I. (2014). Emodiversity and the emotional ecosystem. Journal of experimental psychology: General, 143, 2057-2066.