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What Really Matters When Choosing Who to Date

The takeaway: Don't rule anyone out.

Key points

  • Dating is hard, but the easy part would seem to be knowing what you want in a partner.
  • The context or the situation has a greater impact on what you think you want in a partner than you may realize.
  • What you say you want in a relationship may not match whom you actually pick.

There are lots of reasons why dating is hard—navigating dating apps, working meetups into your schedule, finding fun things to do, and working through initial (potentially awkward) conversations. But some parts should be easy... like knowing what you want in a partner.

That seems simple. You should have little trouble identifying the personality traits, characteristics, and qualities you find appealing in a potential romantic partner. Do you want someone who is tall or short? Serious or funny? Mysterious or predictable? Do you want a super-smart partner, an ambitious partner, a down-to-earth partner, or a caring partner?

You can likely answer those questions easily, even confidently. Makes sense. because you should be in the best possible position to know what you want. Researchers call these ideas about what you like your summarized attribute preferences (Ledgerwood et al., 2018) and compare them to your functional attribute preferences, or what you actually pick.

Cool research-y terms aside, a key question is whether stated preferences for romantic partners’ traits actually guide subsequent choices. Do people know what they want? To test this, a research team from the University of California, Davis, and the University of Toronto conducted four studies with more than 1,000 participants to see how well individuals’ stated dating partner preferences match their actual selections (da Silva Frost et al., 2022).

What the Researchers Found

First, the researchers learned that context matters. What participants thought they wanted was influenced by incidental factors, which suggests that what people think they want isn’t as well thought out as we would like to think.

In practical terms, this means you may think that you want a partner with a really outgoing personality. However, you may have only developed that preference because you found outgoingness appealing in other fun contexts, such as at a party. In other words, it’s not really the particular trait of outgoing you like as much as the contexts in which you noticed it.

Second, the researchers learned that participants’ preferences for dating partners did influence the types of dating sites they used. That is, various dating sites emphasize different qualities in their users, providing access to different pools of potential partners. The researchers found that participants' stated preferences (i.e., their summarized attribute preferences) did match up with their dating site selection. For example, if someone said they wanted an outgoing partner, they picked a dating site that featured more outgoing users.

Finally, the key question about how well a person’s stated preferences (what they say they want) match what they actually pick (what they actually like) revealed very little association. In the study, participants' beliefs about how much they desired a confident partner was only weakly related to their interest in using a dating site featuring confident people.

In other words: What you prefer and whom you pursue are often quite different.

But why? It may be that people really have no clue about what they want. They were wrong about it, but now when they meet a potential partner, they simply correct their previous mistake (e.g., “I thought I wanted a confident partner, but I was so wrong because this unassuming person is great.”).

It’s also possible that when thinking about preferences in the abstract (“What type of partner do you want?), participants objectively weigh their preferences. However, upon meeting an actual real-life person, they can lose their objectivity and make more spontaneous decisions. More generally, all of this also speaks to the fact that we fail to account for the power of the situation and how much actual experiences impact us.

The Take Home

To put this to use in dating, here are two insights:

  1. Don’t rule out potential partners because they don’t possess a certain “must-have” trait. Be very careful about applying too harsh of a “filter.” You may be missing out on wonderful partners because you’re wrong about what you think you want.
  2. There may be no substitute for getting out there. You may think you know what you want in a partner, but the best way to truly know is to go out and have actual experiences.

It’s also worth noting that we’re all notoriously bad at predicting the future. We do a good job thinking we know what we will want or how we will act. However, our accuracy very often falls far short of our confidence. To some degree, it’s not our fault. There are numerous factors comingling and interacting simultaneously that influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Far too many, in fact, for us to precisely monitor and account for. It’s no wonder that relationships are so complicated.

Facebook image: popovartem com/Shutterstock


da Silva Frost, A., Wang, Y. A., Eastwick, P. W., & Ledgerwood, A. (2022). Summarized attribute preferences have unique antecedents and consequences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication.

Ledgerwood, A., Eastwick, P. W., & Smith, L. K. (2018). Toward an integrative framework for studying human evaluation: Attitudes towards objects and attributes. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 22, 378-398.

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