Source: Hassan Humayun/Flickr
When it comes to seeking a partner, many of us have a ‘type’: an ideal set of characteristics we would like to find in Mr. or Mrs. Right.
Of course, we are all free to desire whatever we want in a partner, but when it comes to starting a real relationship, most of us are constrained. When you choose a partner, that partner must also choose you. And there is no guarantee that the type of person who is attracted to you is also your ideal type.
For a long time, many scientists who studied partner-choice assumed that preferences are reflected in choice. That is, we end up with partners who possess characteristics we find attractive. But other scientists have proposed that we are so constrained in our choices it is likely that preferences have little to do with choice.
A few years ago, I and my former colleagues at Penn State University tested which of these schools of thought was true. We found that, yes, men and women’s preferences for aspects of facial appearance do match the facial appearance of their partners.
This research was a decent first step, but you may have already spotted a problem. Perhaps, once we start a relationship with someone, we shift our preferences to match their traits. For example, you might prefer a partner with blonde hair. But, after you start a relationship with a dark-haired partner, your preference for dark hair might increase.
If we only ask people about their preferences after they enter a relationship, we can’t be sure if their preferences caused them to choose their partner, or were caused by their choice of partner.
What you want and what you get
Recently, a team of psychologists from Goettingen University has addressed this question. Tanja Gerlach and her colleagues recruited around 1500 single people and asked them what they preferred in a partner. Then, five months later, the volunteers were contacted again. By this time, about a third of the volunteers had entered a relationship. The remaining volunteers were still single.
All volunteers reported their partner preferences for a second time. Also, volunteers who now had a partner rated those partners on various traits.
Gerlach found that volunteers’ preferences at the start of the study were similar to the characteristics of their partners at the end of the study. So, preference does seem to shape choice. Volunteers who wanted a partner who was physically attractive, who had high status or access to resources, or was confident and humorous, tended to have found a partner who possessed these characteristics.
There wasn’t a big difference between the sexes, although a man who desired a physically attractive partner was more likely to have found one. Women’s desire for an attractive partner was less predictive of the attractiveness of their eventual partner, perhaps because women are more inclined to compromise on physical attractiveness in favour of other traits.
But preferences do change over time. Gerlach and her colleagues found that volunteers who had started a relationship were more likely to have changed their preferences than were volunteers who remained single. Perhaps those who eventually found a partner lowered their standards?
Further analyses revealed that volunteers who started a relationship with a partner who didn’t meet their ideal did tend to lower their standards to match their partner. However, people lucky enough to shack-up with a partner who exceeded their initial standards did not increase their standards to the same degree. If we find a partner beyond our wildest dreams, we may take some convincing that they aren’t out of our league…
So, it seems that both schools of thought are somewhat correct. Do our preferences influence partner choice? Yes. But does our choice of partner influence our preferences? Again, yes.
Like me, you might find this reassuring. We are likely to find a partner who is close to matching our ideal. And, after the relationship begins, we are motivated to see our partner through rose-tinted glasses, adjusting our ‘type’ to more closely match. Now, that’s love!