Do we know what we want in a romantic partner? Probably no more than a random stranger


We can all describe our ideal partner. Maybe they are funny, attractive and curious. Or maybe they’re down to earth, smart, and thoughtful. But do we really have a particular view of ourselves, or are we just describing positive qualities that everyone loves?

New research from the University of California, Davis suggests that people‘s preferences for an ideal mate do not reflect any unique personal ideas. the paper, “Negligible evidence that people desire partners who uniquely match their ideals,” was published last week in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“People in our study could very easily list their top three attributes in an ideal mate,” noted Jehan Sparks, former UC Davis doctoral student and lead author of the study. “We wanted to see if these top three attributes really mattered to the person who listed them. In fact, they didn’t.

In the research, over 700 participants named their top three ideals in a romantic partner – attributes like funny, attractive, or curious. Then they reported their romantic desire for a series of people they knew personally: some were blind partners, some were romantic partners, and still others were friends.

The participants felt a more romantic desire as this personal acquaintance possessed the three main attributes. While Vanessa listed funny, attractive, and curious, she felt more craving for funny, attractive and curious partners.

“On the surface, this looks promising,” noted Paul Eastwick, professor in the psychology department at UC Davis and co-author.

“You say you want these three attributes, and you like people who have those attributes. But the story does not end there. – Professor Paul Eastwick, UC Davis

What would a stranger say?

The researchers added a variation: Each participant also examined the extent to which the same personal acquaintances possessed three attributes named by another random person in the study. For example, while Kris indicated that her top three attributes were down-to-earth, intelligent, and thoughtful, Vanessa also felt more desire for down-to-earth, intelligent, and thoughtful knowledge.

“So at the end of the day we want partners who have positive qualities,” Sparks said, “but the qualities you specifically list don’t really have any special predictive power for you.” The authors take these results to mean that people don’t have a particular idea of ​​what they personally want in a partner.

Eastwick compared it to ordering food at a restaurant. “Why are we ordering off the menu for ourselves?” Because it seems obvious that I will like whatever I choose. Our results suggest that, in the romantic realm, you might as well let a stranger order for you – you’re just as likely to like what you get.

The results have implications for the way people approach online dating. People typically spend many hours scouring online dating profiles looking for someone who specifically matches their ideals. Research by Sparks and colleagues suggests this effort may be misplaced.

“It’s really easy to spend time looking online for someone who seems to match your ideals,” Sparks noted. “But our research suggests an alternative approach: don’t be too picky up front about whether a partner matches your ideals on paper. Or, better yet, let your friends pick your dates for you.

Sparks is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cologne. His co-authors: Eastwick; Christine Daly, Indiana University School of Medicine; Brian Wilkey, University of Texas, Austin; Daniel Molden, Northwestern University; and Eli J. Finkel, Northwestern University. It was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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