Can Scientists Forecast Attraction?

Here is a dream scenario: no more awkward first dates. If you are single and hoping not to be, you can fill out a detailed questionnaire and submit the information to a data base containing other similar information from other relationship-seeking singles. A computational algorithm then determines how well you match with others in terms of your personality and what you are looking for in a potential partner. Once you have been matched with another person, all you need to do is arrange a date and go from there.

If this scenario sounds familiar, that is no coincidence. Many online dating sites provide at least some primitive version of the above scenario. People seeking relationships provide first-person insight into their personality and what they are seeking in a future partner. People are then matched on the basis of the self-reported data.

As anecdotal evidence suggests, this approach can be successful. People do occasionally find love using online dating services.

However, the success of online dating services is unlikely to be a result of algorithms calculating who will be a good match for each other based on self-reports. In a recent study, published in Psychological Science in August 2017, scientists tested this sort of approach to dating and found that self-reports of personality in self and potential partners do not predict attraction.

The team, lead by psychologist Samantha Joel from University of Utah, had volunteers fill out questionnaires about their own personality traits and the traits they would like to see in a potential partner. The researchers then arranged four-minutes, face-to-face, speed dates and collected subsequent feedback about how attracted people were to their predicted matches during these brief encounters.

The researchers found that people were no more likely to be attracted to pre-determined matches than non-matches. 

The study methodology had wellknown limitations. It only allowed for testing of initial attraction, not attraction that may follow repeated encounters. It furthermore followed the existing online dating strategy of relying on self-reports in order to determine personality and the traits one would like to see manifested in a potential partner.

The first limitation is not necessarily a methodological flaw as long as we draw a sharp line between initial attraction and longer-term attraction/romantic love.

The second limitation, however, is problematic. We are often very bad judges of our own personality and the traits we are want others to possess. This limitation could have been avoided to some extent by using more sophisticated measures of personality and partner preference, for instance by relying on third-person perspectives from family members, co-workers and friends.

If this commonly used dating approach fails, however, this raises the question of whether there might be other ways to predict who may be good romantic partners. Information about personality by itself is unlikely to help predict good long-term matches. But a combination of feature matching and behavioral modification (that is, teaching people how to remain attractive to as well as attracted to their partners) may hold some promise. 

Independent studies have found that long-term attraction and romantic love are more likely to occur when the attributes that generate attraction in general together with certain social factors and circumstances that spark passion are particularly strong. Here are 11 features that together provide a decent indicator of who you will click with long-term (Aron, et al. 1989):

1. Similarly. Similarity of people’s belief sets and to a lesser extent similarity of personality traits and ways of thinking.

2. Propinquity. Familiarity with the other, which can be caused by having time spent together, living near each other, thinking about the other or anticipating interaction with the other.

3. Desirable characteristics. Outer physical appearance that is found desirable and to a lesser extent desirable personality traits.

4. Reciprocal Liking. When the other person is attracted to you or likes you, that can increase your own liking.

5. Social Influences. The potential union satisfying general social norms and acceptance of the potential union within one’s social network can contribute to people falling in love. Or if a union does not satisfy general social norms or is not accepted by one’s social network, this can result in people falling out of love.

6. Filling Needs. If a person can fulfill needs for companionship, love, sex or mating, there is a greater chance that the other person will fall in love with him or her.

7. Arousal/Unusualness. Being in an unusual or arousing environment can spark passion, even if the environment is perceived as dangerous or spooky (Dutton & Aron, 1974).

8. Specific Cues. A particular feature of the other may spark particularly strong attraction (for instance, parts of their body or facial features).

9. Readiness. The more you want to be in a relationship, the lower your self-esteem and the more likely you are to fall in love.

10. Isolation. Spending time alone with another person can contribute to a development of passion.

11. Mystery. Some degree of mystery surrounding the other person as well as uncertainty about what the other person thinks or feels or when he or she may initiate contact can also contribute to passion.

As the list makes clear, many of the factors that determine whether people connect romantically are circumstantial or a result of how people behave in courtships and relationships. While it may be possible for moden technology to determine partner matches by relying not just on personality but also on people’s particular circumstances, no such algorithm can provide us with the skills necessary to maintain a relationship that is both healthy and exciting. These types of relationship skills may need to be acquired through long-term practice and training.

Berit “Brit” Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love and a co-author of The Superhuman Mind.

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