Which Are More Powerful, Turn-Ons or Turn-Offs?

New research on our true deal-breakers and deal-makers.

Posted Feb 15, 2016

Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock
Source: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

Thinking about what I wanted to post here next, I found myself returning over and over again to the idea of making this piece more personal than usual. You see, I am recently divorced and have started dipping my toe back into the dating pool…hesitantly. I am nervous about dating again because I really do want to find the right partner for me. This means choosing someone who is better for me in the future than the people I have chosen in the past. Because of this, and probably also because of the ridiculous number of online dating profiles I have been looking over lately, I have found myself thinking a lot about what it is I am looking for—and what I am looking to avoid.

I can come up with a list of “deal-breakers,” characteristics of a partner that would mean I would have no interest in dating him, much more easily than I can come up with “deal-makers,” or characteristics I feel I absolutely must have in a partner. I started wondering about whether or not there was a reason for my focus on deal-breakers, and whether others did the same thing.

In the research literature on initial attraction, there’s been an overwhelming focus on the deal-makers—the traits that people desire in their romantic partners. Researchers have focused less on deal-breakers, but recent work by Jonason, Garcia, Webster, Li, & Fisher (2015) is starting to change that. Specifically, the authors conducted six different studies aimed at assessing whether people did, in fact, claim they had deal-breakers. They analyzed what those deal-breakers tended to look like, and how and when individuals took their deal-breakers into account when making relationship decisions.

The researchers found that people do believe there are deal-breakers. They asked participants what factors would make them reject someone as a potential short-term, casual sex partner—and then what factors would make them reject someone as a potential long-term committed partner. For short-term partners, deal-breakers emerged as a top 10. Across the 92 participants surveyed, the traits largely focused on health/hygiene issues (STD’s, poor hygiene, smells bad) or issues of physical attractiveness/chemistry (is unattractive, does not take care of themselves, is bad in bed). In contrast, the top 10 deal-breakers for long-term relationships emerged as largely involving undesirable traits (untrustworthy, inattentive/uncaring, anger issues) or health/hygiene issues (STD’s, poor hygiene, smells bad). Importantly, participants listed more deal-breakers on average for long-term vs. short-term partners.

The other studies the authors conducted revealed that women were more likely than men to report reduced interest in a potential partner based on the presence of deal-breakers (from the list above) when evaluating someone as a short-term partner. Both sexes showed reduced interest in the context of potential long-term partners. The authors argue that women have more to lose, potentially, from short-term relationships (e.g., unwanted pregnancy) and thus should be choosier in their casual partners. In contrast, both sexes have a lot at stake in long-term relationships, so they should be equally choosy.

Finally, the research revealed that people seem more sensitive to the presence of deal-breakers than deal-makers. Across two different studies (of the six total studies), the researchers demonstrated that people were significantly more attentive to, and influenced by the presence of, deal-breakers than of deal-makers. Overall, deal-breakers reduced people’s interest in romantic partners more than a similar number of deal-makers increased it.

Thus, people seem to be especially sensitive to negative information about potential partners. This was especially true for women, and for people of both genders evaluating long-term partners.

So, it seems that my recent focus on what I don’t want my next romantic partner to be like has some empirical support. As a female, and as someone seeking a long-term partner, I want to make sure I steer away from men who are uncaring or have anger issues or hygiene or health concerns. Those things are unlikely to bring me the kind of relationships that I hope to have in the future.

Beyond that, as to what kind of partner I will end up with…who knows?  

Jonason, P.K., Garcia, J.R., Webster, G.D., Li, N.P., & Fisher, H.E. (2015). Relationship dealbreakers: Traits people avoid in potential mates. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 1697-1711.

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