The Rolling Stones were really on to something there. It works in all walks of life, in my opinion. But now, a new research paper from Northwestern University is showing that it definitely applies to the world of dating.
We all have a pretty good idea of what it is that we’re looking for in a person to spend our time with. Good looks, a nice smile, a calm demeanor, good sense of humor, extreme flexibility or hopefully all of the above might be on your menu. But time and again, we all see friends who inevitable go out with the “wrong kind of guy.” I know several women who continually bang their heads against the wall and end up saying (sarcastically), “I sure know how to pick them!”
Maybe it’s not just the wrong ones, though. Ever stop to think about whether or not we end up with the type of people that we’re claiming we want to be with? Psychologists Paul Eastwick, Eli Finkel and Alice Eagly sure did. Except once they wondered about it, they set out to find some answers with a handful of experiments.
The first two ran along similar lines. Single subjects were asked to pick out the attributes most important to them in a mate. They were then given a paper “profile” of a potential love interest that was chosen to be right in line with their desires or completely against them. They then worked on a set of directions with the supposed owner of said profile. The participants were asked their level of romantic interest in the guy or girl both after seeing the paper profile and after meeting them in person.
The results showed that a personal meeting – even a brief one devoid of casual chat – was enough to convince people that the potential suitor might be worth their time even if their “profile” did not match up with their supposed desires.
The second experiment attempted to determine why this happened. What about the actual meeting caused people to overlook their initial checklist of characteristics?
To determine this, the researchers used pretty much the same experiment, except this time they also asked the participants to rate how positive or negative each of the suitor’s characteristics were. For example, daring might be rated as a good quality and clownish might be rated negatively.
But what do these words mean, exactly?
The answer lies in that question. The experimenters discovered that after the personal encounter, those who decided they could see themselves pursuing the relationship slightly altered their definitions of the characteristics to better suit their desires. For example, the guy might have labeled himself proud and clownish, which the participant saw as stubborn and childish. But after meeting the person and deciding they weren’t all that bad, the same characteristics might have become confident and funny.
As the paper writes, “Metaphorically speaking, a potential partner’s traits may be like moving targets,” meaning both that people change the meaning of words to fit the people they become attracted to and that such initial surveys can be ambiguous.
So with those moving targets, people can explain away the negative characteristics of that hottie at the bar to better align them with what it was they say they wanted in the first place. But if you succeed, you might succeed in getting what you want in that moment, but are you getting what you need?
The final experiment looked at whether or not the characteristics that people say they desire in a mate actually come into play once they find one. For participants who registered for a speed dating event, the researchers asked them how important 12 different characteristics were to them in a potential mate. Three years later, they followed up to see how their current partner or crush stacked up.
If the person was in a relationship, they asked them to rate their partner on the same 12 descriptors. If the person was single, they asked them to rate someone they’d currently like to pursue. Surprisingly enough, those in a relationship did seem to have gotten what they wanted. Their partner’s scores matched very closely to what they said they wanted three years ago. But the single people seemed to be pursuing others who didn’t fit the profile.
So in the short term, when asking people out and dating, it seems like people are willing to compromise pretty heavily on their standards, or at least slightly alter the meaning of their standards to fit the person. I mean, I’ve always said that I wanted a musician. But then again, she does know how to play the toaster song with forks and our Toastmaster. That has to count for something, right?
But in the long run, it does seem that we end up with what we need.