It’s no secret that people like to see themselves positively. Decades of research indicates that people go to great lengths to accentuate their positive qualities and downplay their flaws. But what happens when an attractive potential partner has those flaws? In a recent pair of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers Erica Slotter and Wendi Gardner hypothesized that when people are attracted to flawed potential partners, their romantic desires may motivate them to adopt those flaws themselves. The authors cited the example of Sandy Olsson from Grease, who (spoiler alert?) decides to give up her squeaky clean, goodie-two-shoes image in an effort to win over her “greaser” love interest, Danny Zuko.
Slotter and Gardner tested their hypothesis with a cleverly-designed experiment. Participants – all single college students – viewed a bunch of characteristics, or traits, that ranged from very positive (e.g., intelligent, kind) to very negative (e.g., selfish, dishonest). They rated how positively they viewed each trait, and indicated how much each trait described them. Next, the participants read a profile of another student who was allegedly a student at the same school. Importantly, the profile was tailored to each participant to include a trait that the participant had rated as both negative and uncharacteristic of themselves. For example, if a participant rated themselves as being very selfless, and had noted that they dislike selfishness in others, then the person in the profile was said to be selfish. Participants were randomly assigned to read that the profile was either a dating profile of a single student (experimental condition), or a professional profile of a student who was running for student government (control condition). The experimental condition captures the situation of being romantically interested in a flawed person, whereas the control condition represents simply coming across a flawed person in a non-romantic context.
After reading the profile, participants again rated themselves on the positive and negative personality traits. When the participants thought that the profile was of a student running for student government, they did not rate themselves any differently after reading the profile. In other words, simply coming across a flawed person in a non-romantic context did not affect participants’ views of themselves. However, when participants read a dating profile of a romantically-single person, it actually changed participants’ perceptions of themselves: participants rated negative traits as being more characteristic of themselves after being presented with dating profiles of people who ostensibly had those traits. For example, for the participants who rated that they were quite selfless and that they disliked selfishness, they actually rated themselves as being more selfish after being presented with an attractive dating profile of a selfish person. The researchers obtained the same pattern of results in a follow-up study conducted online with a community sample of adults. Again, after being exposed to an attractive but flawed potential date, participants were more likely to agree that they held those same flaws themselves.
What does all this mean? In efforts to gain the affections of an attractive potential dating partner, people are willing to take on the possible partner’s negative traits themselves. Importantly, these studies did not test whether or not people actually start displaying the flaws of their love interests. For example, if a person becomes smitten with a selfish or dishonest person, is the person actually more likely to behave selfishly or dishonestly? Future research needs to test this question. But, the present research does suggest that people are willing to see themselves as more flawed. Such a finding should not be taken lightly: altering a person’s identity is no small feat. Like Sandy who went from being a good girl to a rebel, people may be willing to make important changes to their images in efforts to win over their love interests, even when those changes are unflattering.
Slotter, E. B., & Gardner, W. L. (2012). The dangers of dating the “bad boy” (or girl): When does romantic desire encourage us to take on the negative qualities of potential partners? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 1173-1178.
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