The Science of Love: Personality & Romantic Preferences
How personality traits could change romance in the digital age
Posted Apr 24, 2011
The importance of physical attractiveness in mate selection is well-documented (e.g. Hill, 1945; Buss, 1989; Swami et al., 2009). In choosing a romantic partner, physical attraction is not only important for its own sake, but also because someone deemed to be attractive is also more likely to have other positive characteristics attributed to them, irrespective of any supporting evidence (see Langlois et al., 2000 for an excellent review). Indeed, research shows that a person's own physical attractiveness predicts whom s/he is likely to choose as a romantic partner (Lee et al., 2008) and that men - for whom looks are more important in partner selection than for women (e.g. Harrison & Saeed, 1977, Buss, 1998, Li & Kenrick, 2006) - are more likely to fall in love with physical than psychological attributes (Galperin, 2010).
Perhaps more importantly - especially for the romantic spirits out there - research also indicates that looks alone are not enough. As one would expect, when it comes to long-term romantic satisfaction personal or psychological qualities play a critical role (Nevid, 1984) - and here is where personality kicks in. However, romantic compatibility is a complex issue; while it has long been the focus of attention of biologists, psychologists, artists and philosophers, understanding and predicting the factors underlying a "perfect love match" remains a largely unaccomplished task.
Can personality psychology - the study of why and how individuals differ - shed some light on the nature of romantic compatibility? It would seem so. In fact, personality theory appears to be quite useful for illustrating the relationship between perceived attractiveness and, for example, personality factors (Ahmetoglu et al., 2009), attachment style (Doherty et al., 1994) and social context (Albada, Knapp & Theune, 2002).
Predictably though, the study of personality and romantic partnerships has raised at least as many questions as answers. For example, are people more compatible if they have the same or opposite personality traits? (is it more "birds of a feather flock together" or "opposites attract"?); are personality traits as important determining compatibility as are values, IQ, and demographic factors?; are all traits equally important?; are there real individual diffences in preferred partners, or does everybody like the same (but go for what they can realistically get)?
Although researchers have attempted to answer some of these questions, evidence is often contradictory. For example, there is a wealth of research supporting the view that partner similarity - "like-attracting-like" - leads to better outcomes (e.g. Byrne, 1971; Botwin et al., 1997; Klohnen & Luo, 2003). Yet this seems to contradict evidence of the converse (e.g. Dyrenforth et al., 2010), at least for some traits (e.g. Drayer et al., 1997; Schmitt, 2002). Such contradictions could at least in part be cause by the inaccurate or ambiguous knowledge people have of the qualities they really want in a partner; moreover, what we want may be different from what we need, and what we say we want is often different from what we really want (Eastwick & Finkel, 2008). Given the recent increase in rational decisions relating to one's choice of partner -- in many countries, online dating is now the second most popular way of finding a partner (after "friends' recommendation" and ahead of "bar or club") it is more important than ever that people realise what they actually want and need in a partner, and what implications different profiles may have.
Clearly, partner selection is now a huge industry and there are myriad ways for the modern singleton to find Mr/Mrs Right -- with many web-sites promising the "perfect compatibility test" or to match daters on the "deepest dimensions of compatibility". Whether we consider personal ads, speed-dating, social networking or online dating, we see the language of love being abbreviated. Romantic success for the MTV generation, therefore, relies not only on self-awareness and clear and concise self-presentation, but also on an ability to infer and appraise the qualities of potential partners, as quickly and accurately as possible, based on very limited information.
Can the Era of Digital Love advance the Science of Romantic Compatibility? Or should we just revert to old-fashioned methods? A few years ago, I decided to investigate the role of personality and individual differences on romantic compatibility; one of the reasons that motivated this decision was this rather powerful quote I saw in Wired magazine:
"Twenty years from now, the idea that someone will look for love without looking for it online will be silly, akin to skipping the library card catalog to instead wander the stacks because 'the right books are found only by accident (...) Serendipity is the hallmark of inefficient markets, and the marketplace of love, like it or not, is becoming more efficient." (Wired, 2002)
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Acknowledgment: Thanks to my PhD student Beth Anderson for helping me prepare this blog