A lot of research, from all over the world, has asked people about what they prefer in a future romantic partner. There is a big assumption in almost all of this research: that these preferences matter when people choose a romantic partner from many possible alternatives. For example, if my friend Chris says he prefers a woman that is a few years younger than him, outgoing, ambitious, and wants to start a family (eventually), most would assume when deciding to enter a romantic relationship he should be more likely to select someone that closely matches, rather than defies, his preferences. If my friend Shelby says she is looking for a dark-haired man with sagacious eyebrows who can simultaneously walk and chew gum, then she should be more likely to enter a relationship with a man that is both intelligent and has eyebrows and that scores high on the sagaciousness scale (assuming he knows what sagaciousness means).
I have not counted the number of studies that focus on “interpersonal attraction”, the general term used to describe research that is concerned with partner preferences, but it is safe to say that there are hundreds upon hundreds of published research studies on this topic.1 So do individual’s preferences for a romantic partner when they are single reflect the traits and personalities of their actual future romantic partners?
According to my understanding of the available research, there is no definitive answer to this question.2 Simply put: We don’t know. What do we know? Here is a brief summary:
1) Key Finding: If you ask people that are in a relationship about their ideal romantic partner preferences, it turns out their current romantic partner is a fairly close match to these preferences.3
Limitations of this work: after entering a relationship people can change their preferences to match the realities of their new partner, and partners can over time change each other to more closely match their own preferences. Thus, we don’t now whether (a) those ideals reflect actual ideals held by study participants before they met their current partners, or (b) partners became more ideal over time (but didn’t initially match the ideals).
2) Key Finding: When reading a description of a possible romantic partner (e.g., descriptions of people on a dating website), people report being more attracted to potential partners that more, versus less, match their own preferences.4
Limitation of this work: In many of these studies the “potential” romantic partner does not really exist, but rather was created by the experimenter; No real relationship can ever materialize. Therefore it is not possible to determine if preferences predict actual mate choice.
3) Key Finding: If you ask one group of people the age of their preferred romantic partner, and then look at the ages at which another group of people actually got married, there is a lot of overlap.5 That is, men prefer women that are somewhat younger than themselves, and women tend to prefer men that are somewhat older than themselves; looking at actual marriage records, men tend to marry women that are younger than themselves, and women tend to marry men that are old than themselves.
Limitation of this work: Long story short, stated preferences and marriage patterns were never assessed in the SAME group of people, and therefore we cannot confidently conclude that preferences caused marriage patterns.
4) Key Finding: If you have people meet actual potential partners (such as in the context of speed dating), it turns out that people’s preferences for what they want in romantic partners does not predict who they say they actually liked during the speed dating event.6 It seems, therefore, that individual’s preferences for a romantic partner predict how much they like written descriptions of other people, but not how much they like actual people after meeting them.
Caveat: Using somewhat different “getting acquainted” research procedures, other researchers have found that people’s preferences for romantic partners do predict who they say the liked.7
Limitation of this work: All of this research asks about initial attraction (or liking) and not about actual relationship formation. In the existing speed dating research, for example, almost no speed daters actually started dating each other so it’s impossible to know whether people ultimately pair of with someone who matches their preferences.
In none of the research mentioned above is it possible to determine if the preferences of research participants assessed when they were not in a romantic relationship were associated with the traits and qualities of their romantic partners after they began a new relationship. Suggesting that the available research provides incontrovertible support for or against the idea that mate preferences matter for actual mate selection is therefore largely speculation. We know a lot about people’s preferences for future romantic partners, but we know very little about how these preferences influence people’s decisions to begin romantic relationships with real others that do or do not match their preferences. Given that a lot of research assumes that preferences matter when people choose to start relationships with new romantic partners, and some recent research suggests that preferences do not matter (at least for initial attraction after meeting people at one point in time), a large gap exists between what we think we know and the actual research record. As stated clearly by Tullett,8 “…a study that uses self-reports of behavior as a proxy for actual behavior is only as informative as the existing knowledge of the association between the two.” Translation: people telling us what they might do does not substitute for what they actually do. Thus, today, our existing knowledge of the association between preferences and actual mate choice is weak.
Gaps this large in the research literature, however, are wonderful research opportunities! But this research opportunity comes with some challenges—researchers need to follow people over time as they enter new relationships.
So, let’s get started.
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Lorne’s research program focuses on a variety of topics relating to the different stages of romantic relationships (e.g,. interpersonal attraction, relationship formation, and relationship maintenance). His lab adopts a variety of theoretical perspectives in this research, including Attachment Theory, the Ideal Standards Model, theories of self-enhancement and self-verification, and evolutionary theories of human mating. He is a former editor of Personal Relationships, and when not working he enjoys smoking meat.
1Eastwick, P. W., Luchies, L. B., Finkel, E. J., & Hunt, L. L. (2014). The predictive validity of ideal partner preferences: A review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 623-665.
2Campbell, L., & Stanton, S.C.E. (2014). The predictive validity of ideal partner preferences in relationship formation: What we know, what we don`t know, and why it matters. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8, 485-494.
3Fletcher, G. J. O., Simpson, J. A., Thomas, G., & Giles, L. (1999). Ideals in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 72-89.
4Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., & Eagly, A.H. (2011). When and why do ideal partner preferences affect the process of initiating and maintaining close relationships? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1012-1032.
5Kenrick, D. T., & Keefe, R. C. (1992). Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in human reproductive strategies. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 15, 75–133.
6Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2008). Sex differences in mate preferences revisited: Do people know what they initially desire in a romantic partner? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 245–264.
7Li, N. P., Yong, J. C., Tov, W., Sng, O., Fletcher, G. J. O., Valentine, K. A.,…Balliet, D. (2013). Mate preferences do predict attraction and choices in the early stages of mate selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 757-776.