Do We Actually Know What We Desire In A Romantic Partner?

Survey research has consistently found that men and women differ in the degree to which they desire certain traits in their romantic partners, with men placing relatively more value on physical attractiveness and women placing relatively more value on status and wealth. These findings have often been explained in evolutionary terms (which you can read more about here). In light of this, one might naturally assume that these stated mate preferences would predict the characteristics of the persons that men and women actually express interest in; however, research suggests that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, our stated partner preferences might say relatively little about who we’re attracted to in real life.

In a 2008 article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers reported the results of an elaborate speed-dating study in which they sought to determine whether the traits people said they desired before a speed-date matched up with the traits of the persons in whom they expressed the most interest. A total of 163 college undergraduates from Northwestern University completed a pre-study questionnaire about their mating preferences followed by a 2-hour speed-dating event in which they went on 9-13 “dates” each. After the speed date, participants were given information about their matches and completed a series of follow-up surveys every 3 days for the next month in which they provided on-going information about their romantic lives (including information on whether anything developed from their speed dating experiences).

Results of the pre-study questionnaire revealed evidence of the traditionally observed gender differences in stated mate preferences (i.e., men placed more emphasis on physical attractiveness and women placed more value on status/resources). However, these stated preferences didn’t predict who people went for in the speed date. In fact, what people said they desired in the initial survey was largely independent of the persons they were actually attracted to in real life. In other words, people who initially said they would be more inclined to date someone who is physically attractive or who has high earning potential were no more likely to select dates who had those characteristics.

It is also important to note that this effect held for both men and women—that is, neither sex’s stated preferences was a better predictor of their real life preferences.

How do we explain this pattern of results? The authors suggest that it has something to do with the fact that when we report our mate preferences on a survey, we’re thinking about things is a very cool, rational way and that this isn’t at all representative of how we make actual mating decisions. During the course of a live interaction, our emotional states and level of arousal likely intervene and influence how we perceive others.

To put it another way, when we fill out a survey about our partner preferences, we generate plausible theories about what we think we might find attractive in others; however, these theories tend to be less than accurate because they fail to account for how real life situations and interactions will affect our judgments. As a result, we may find that we over- or under-weight the value that we assign to certain traits when we're filling out psychological surveys.

Of course, these data are limited in the sense that they only reflect how college students’ stated preferences matched up with what they did during a speed date. Speed-dating is a unique context and college students are a unique population. Nonetheless, these results suggest the provocative possibility that we many know less about what attracts us to other people than we think we do.

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To learn more about this research, see: Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2008). Sex differences in mate preferences revisited: Do people know what they initially desire in a romantic partner? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology94(2), 245-264.

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