Study: meeting potential partners changes preferred traits

Daniel Schlessinger

New research published this month by Northwestern Profs. Eli Finkel and Alice Eagly and Texas A&M University Prof. Paul Eastwick shows that people abandon their list of preferred traits in a romantic partner once they meet a potential mate in person.

In an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the authors stated, “Particularly when initiating relationships, it seems that potential partners who happen to match our ideal partner preferences get no preferential treatment from our hearts.”

In a series of three experiments, the researchers studied the dating preferences of undergraduate students. In the first experiment, they asked participants to select the three traits they most and least desire in a significant other, respectively, from a list of characteristics, according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

After a participant filled out the questionnaire, the researchers would create a written description of a potential mate that exhibited these desirable traits, which the survey participant would rank in terms of his or her romantic interest.

However, when the participant met an actor exhibiting their “nonideal” qualities, they showed little difference in their romantic interest rankings.

“People are not simply the average of their traits,” said Finkel, NU professor of social psychology, in a Northwestern NewsCenter press release. “Knowing that somebody is persistent, ambitious and sexy does not tell you what that person is actually like. It doesn’t make sense for us to search for partners that way.”

Although people may disregard their list of preferred characteristics for a romantic partner when they first meet someone, the authors point out when it comes to long-term relationships, those traits are important.

“Once a relationship has been established, the match between a current partner’s traits and the pattern of our ideal partner preferences may ultimately affect relationship well-being,” the authors said in the Journal.

Eastwick said although the study is more important for older people who might use an online dating service, it does play some role in the lives of college students.

“The truth is, the college students probably haven’t come into the online dating thing,” Eastwick said. “But you learn about potential partners through your friends talking and even though that person might not sound good ‘on paper,’ you meet someone in person and you find they really weren’t that bad.”

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