Do We “Grade” Potential Partners Like Teachers Grade Exams?

Thinking about low expectations in the dating game

Posted Aug 17, 2012

In an earlier post, I urged readers not to “score” or “rank” potential dating partners. But even if you don’t—and of course you don’t—it may be reasonable to expect that other people might, especially people you’re dating or considering dating. In this post, I want to explore several ways people might rank or “grade” current or potential partners, drawing from my experience as a teacher having to grade exams and papers. (If you’ve never done this, trust me—it’s the best! Not quite as much fun as repeatedly slamming your head into a wall, but close.) 

There are several ways a teacher can grade an exam, which differ in terms of where the student “starts” before you begin grading. Some approaches work better with numerical grades and others with letter grades, but all approaches can work with both. If you’re grading numerically, you may start the student at zero and then add points for questions correctly answered. If they do everything very well, they get all the points available, ending up with the top score (usually a 100). Or, you can start the student off with the top score and then take away points as they miss questions or fail to answer them well enough. Finally, if you assign letter grades instead of numerical grades, you may use either method above, or you might start with a benchmark, your idea of what a B paper is (for example), and then grade papers based on how they compare to the benchmark; better papers may get an A while lesser ones get a C or worse. 

Ideally, all three approaches will result in the same grades; in particular, the first two should be equivalent, especially if you grade using a point system. (Earning 80 points out of 100 is the same as losing 20.) I find the third approach better for long essay exams, in which it is hard to take off “points,” but I have an idea what a “good” exam should look like.

Enough about grading—as I write this, with one week left until fall semester starts, I don’t want to think about grading any more than I have to! But I suspect people measure up their dating partners (or potential dating partners) in similar ways—and, more important, people suspect that other people assess them in one or more of these ways. And even though the first two methods may be equivalent when grading a multiple-choice exam, there’s no guarantee they will result in the same assessment of a potential or current dating partner, given the different mindsets that each starts with when applied to social interactions (and the fact that there are no obvious "points" to give).

For example, we might suppose the first two methods can be linked to a general outlook of optimism or pessimism. An optimistic person will meet his or her date (or potential date) and be hopeful, giving the other person the benefit of the doubt until something happens to lower their opinion of the person. On the other hand, a pessimist will assume the worst from the beginning, waiting to be impressed but not holding his or her breath. We could dig deeper, of course, and look for reasons behind the optimism or pessimism—such as past experiences with expectations being confirmed or defeated—but for present purposes I imagine they would match up with these approaches as I’ve described. (The third approach, “baselining,” is somewhere in between the first two; the person sees actual or potential dating partners as “OK,” and then adjusts his or her impression up or down after more time is spent with the person.)

What I’m more interested in is how people expect to be assessed by others. This can also be tied to optimism or pessimism, but in this case these attitudes are reflective, largely based on self-confidence and assumptions about how other people see them. For instance, I first thought of this topic in connection to self-loathing or low self-confidence. Such people are more likely to assume that other people have low expectations of them—in other words, they assume other people start their assessment of them at zero and then wait for them to build up from there (whereas more attractive prospects start at 100 and work their way down). But if self-loathers imagine that they are starting at zero and have to climb their way up—which they likely have little confidence they can do—they may feel they’re defeated before they even begin. It’s one thing to fail to impress someone when you expect he or she starts with high or even medium expectations, but if the other person has low expectations to start with, you may feel you have no chance, especially if you lack self-confidence. 

Of course, it’s difficult to tell exactly how these assumptions relate to self-confidence. The assumption that other people “grade” you starting at zero may either reflect low self-confidence or contribute to it, or they may be codetermined by some other factor. But if a person considering getting into the dating scene feels that he or she has poor skills and is starting at a disadvantage compared to other people, we can imagine that would represent a severe deterrent to jumping in at all. 

If I didn't have such an aversion to using sports metaphors when discussing dating, I'd say this is like starting at the one-yard line with your best running back out with an injury. (Good thing I wouldn't do something like that.)

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For a list of my previous Psychology Today posts on self-loathing (and other topics), see here.

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