Last year, I briefly ran an analogue dating service. I’ll never know what inspired me to start it—maybe my stable relationship had me missing the excitement of single life—but I loved the simplicity of it. There were no questionnaires, no algorithms, no thoughtful matchmaking. Instead, I collected phone numbers from singles I met at bars, soccer games, and dinner parties, and arbitrarily set them up with each other. While most of my “matches” never went anywhere, I was surprised by how many turned into second or third dates. Even more surprising was how easy it was to recruit singles. Everywhere I went, it seemed there was someone frustrated enough in their love life to take a chance on a date arranged by a complete stranger.
This strategy may not be as crazy as it sounds. When it comes to predicting who we’ll click with, your guess truly may be as good as mine. At least that’s what a recent study, “Negligible evidence that people desire partners who uniquely fit their ideals,” suggests.1 It was published this June in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “The data were very compelling in telling the story that we might not have a lot of insight into what’s really driving our romantic desire,” says Jehan Sparks, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cologne and the lead author of the paper. “We tested it in a lot of different ways and got really consistent results.”
Singles’ own romantic ideals weren’t any better at predicting their romantic interest than the ideals a random other person in the study came up with.
Sparks and her team conducted two studies exploring whether our romantic ideals—the qualities we say we want most in a partner—predict who we’re actually interested in dating. In the first study, singles went on a blind date with a stranger and reported how things went. In the second, almost 600 people (both single and partnered) nominated five friends or acquaintances of their preferred gender and rated them on how romantically desirable they were. (Partnered participants were asked to rate their current partners instead of friends or acquaintances.)
In both studies, the researchers asked participants to list their top three romantic priorities—whatever qualities they themselves found most important in a partner—and then rate romantic candidates on each. That is, participants from each study reported how well they thought each of those qualities described their candidates—dates for the first group, personal acquaintances for the second—using a scale ranging from 1 (“Extremely uncharacteristic”) to 11 (“Extremely characteristic”). They also reported how romantically interested they were in the candidates by stating how much they agreed with statements like “____ is very much my ideal romantic partner,” and “_____ is always on my mind.” Because the question about romantic priorities was open-ended, the list of qualities people came up with across the two studies was varied, including everything from having tattoos to being good with kids.
This was the catch: In both studies, not only did people evaluate potential partners using their freely chosen romantic ideals, they also had to judge a romantic candidate’s desirability using someone else’s romantic ideals—the three priorities nominated by some random other person in the study. (The researchers made sure these qualities were different from the qualities participants came up with themselves.) For example, if Nadya’s three priorities were “good cook,” “loyal,” and “funny,” and Mira’s were “smart,” “outgoing,” and “has a great body,” Nadya would rate her romantic candidate(s) on six qualities: good cook, loyal, funny, smart, outgoing, and has a great body. In theory, if a candidate scored high on the three characteristics Nadya said were important, she should also rate that candidate as highly desirable; however, if Nadya’s candidate scored high on Mira’s three characteristics, it shouldn’t make much difference for Nadya’s romantic interest.
But that’s not quite what the researchers found. While singles’ own romantic ideals did predict who they said they’d be interested in dating, those ideals weren’t any better at predicting their romantic interest than the ideals a random other person in the study came up with. In other words, Nadya would be just as likely to be interested in Taylor if she thought he was loyal, funny, and a good cook (her own ideals) as if she thought he was smart, outgoing, and had a good body (Mira’s ideals). Only partnered participants were slightly more self-aware—their personal romantic priorities were better predictors of their romantic interest than those of random strangers—but even in this case, the difference was small at best. Across the board, romantic “priorities” seemed to be less related to romantic interest than you’d expect.
People could also just be inept at figuring out what will make them happy in love.
The results raise questions about whether we really have special insight into what we want. When it comes to romance, many people like to think they have a “type,” and they know what it is. Sparks’ research suggests this is an illusion. “Are we just describing positive qualities that everyone wants?” she says. “We might not fully understand our own preferences.”
This is consistent with prior research by Patrick Markey, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Villanova University. He says, “It’s hard to predict the sort of person you’re going to end up with.” Markey has found that people tend to say they want partners who are similar to themselves—to believe that being with someone more or less like them will make them happy.2 But the people they end up going for—and, more importantly, staying with in the long term—often end up being different from them in unexpected ways.
The research, conducted with Markey’s ex-wife, psychology professor Charlotte Markey, used surveys and statistical modelling to explore the connection between personality, romantic attraction, and relationship quality. When the duo surveyed singles about the personality traits they were looking for in romantic partners, they found that a similarity model—the age-old idea that birds of a feather flock together—best described the data. But when they asked people in long-term relationships to rate their current partners using the same personality dimensions, the similarity model didn’t quite hold up. It seemed the happiest couples differed in terms of dominance, the tendency to take control of the situation. Other research has found similar results: From best friends to married couples, the most compatible people seem to differ on this key personality dimension.3
Romantic “priorities” seemed to be less related to romantic interest than you’d expect.
The only problem is, we’re very bad at realizing this: “If I were to ask the average person, they’re going to say they want a person just like themselves in terms of dominance,” says Markey. “But what we get isn’t that at all. What actually works is the opposite of what we want.” Psychologists don’t know for sure why this might be, but it might have something to do with the challenges of predicting how life, and relationships, will evolve in the long term. “Especially if you’re younger, it’s hard to know what life is going to be like as you grow older and start to add things to your life like mortgages, housework, and children,” says Markey. “A person might be a lot of fun to go on a date with but it’s hard to understand how the daily interactions you’re going to have with them as a romantic partner are going to play out. We don’t really think about that.”
Research by biological anthropologist Helen Fisher provides some support for this perspective. Her work with brain-imaging technology has identified three distinct but overlapping neurological systems that drive our romantic desires: lust—also known as the “sex drive”; romantic attraction—the rush we feel when we first fall in love; and attachment—the comfortable, stable connection partners experience over months, years, or decades together. Each of these systems is associated with its own brain patterns and hormonal activity, and each, Fisher argues, developed to ensure the survival of our species in a different way. Lust motivates us to pursue a range of sexual partners—to explore and experiment with possible “mates”—while attraction encourages us to get selective, to conserve precious time and energy by coupling with someone specific. Finally, attachment ensures partners stay together long enough to raise their own children—to provide the support needed to set the next generation on its way.
These three different motivations may be one reason why, when it comes to the long term, many of the factors that predict successful relationships are remarkably practical. The way couples argue with each other is linked to whether or not they stay together.4 Bringing positive emotion into conflict can keep couples together, while withdrawing or bringing up past disagreements can drive them apart.5 Also significant to a couple’s relationship longevity is whether they split up household chores evenly, or whether they practice the same religion.6,7 “It’s not When Harry Met Sally kind of stuff,” Markey says. “But it’s these very mundane things that are usually the most important in our relationships. After all, that’s what most of our life is consumed with.” We may be attracted to dreamy ideals like “handsome” or “inspiring” in the early stages of attraction, but when it comes to sharing a life with someone, a partner who’s willing to pick up the groceries or take care of the kids once in a while might be a better bet.
Of course, this disconnect between romantic ideals and realities may be a simple question of circumstances. People sometimes settle. You’re lucky to find someone who matches your romantic ideals. And even if you do, they may not be single—or even interested in you, for that matter. People could also just be inept at figuring out what will make them happy in love, or struggle to express what they want a romantic partner to be like.
“I think people are miscommunicating what it is that they really want,” says Moe Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist. In his work, he helps both couples and single people navigate romantic relationships. Like Sparks and Markey, he’s found that many people struggle to align what they say they’re looking for with what they truly desire. “There is this other part of us that we’re often operating from, but it’s hidden from our conscious level of thinking,” he says. A person whose parents were often angry while they were growing up may say they want to end up with a “nice” partner, but often what they really want is someone who won’t yell at them like their parents did—someone who will stay calm in times of conflict. “What I find a lot is that people don’t clarify that bigger theme,” Brown says. “They don’t break it down further.”
Sparks, at least, is optimistic about our lack of self-awareness. “When I think about the people I’ve ended up really liking or falling in love with, they all had something that violated the things that I really think I want. We’re more open to other qualities than we realize.”
Instead of evaluating potential dates on strict criteria, she encourages us to lean into that openness—to take a chance on love and see where it takes us. “Go with what you’re feeling as you experience it,” she says. “That’s going to be a more reliable indicator than these things that you say you want on paper.”
Alice Fleerackers is a freelance writer and a doctoral student at Simon Fraser University, where she studies health and science communication. Find her on Twitter @FleerackersA.
1. Sparks, J., et al. Negligible evidence that people desire partners who uniquely fit their ideals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 90 103968 (2020).
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