On the cover of his recent book, Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari is pictured standing against a white background, with hearts over his eyes, looking down solemnly at his cell phone. The image evokes some confusion (he appears to be searching for something and doesn’t appear very happy). It seems Ansari has set out to clarify things; his book aims to tackle many important questions that young adults have in the dating world of 2015. What makes a person attractive? Can people really find love through a website or a phone app? Are people only interested in sex these days? How does dating in America compare to dating in Europe, Asia, or South America? And what’s the secret to a happy relationship? Ansari is attempting to capture the essence of close relationships in our era and to address the existential crises that many millennials feel as they try to navigate their lives and make the right decisions. Ansari is a powerful voice for my generation – one that speaks with confidence, clarity, and creativity. He is a comedian, a writer, and an actor – he’s starred in some very popular TV shows and movies, and is a prolific stand-up comic. But Ansari stands out from his colleagues in that his book strives for scientific accuracy. He’s not just looking to make people laugh, he’s looking to educate them and to shine a light on some mystifying social phenomena. In writing this book, Ansari teamed up with renowned sociologist Eric Klinenberg and consulted with several high-profile psychologists including Barry Schwartz, Helen Fisher, Eli Finkel, Sheena Iyengar, and others.
Entries in attraction (98)
When people logon to a dating site, whether it is UK.Cupid.com or Match.com, what determines who ends up with who? Although there are a myriad of factors that lead individuals to form romantic attachments, a longstanding theory in relationship science makes a simple prediction. Specifically, the matching hypothesis predicts that people will pair up with a partner who has the same social mate value.1 Your social mate value includes all of the factors that go into making you more or less desirable to date such as your physical attractiveness, your personality, etc. Essentially, according to the matching hypothesis, if you’re in London dating and are a “7” out of 10 in terms of mate value you’ll end up with another “7,” or very close. “10’s” go with “10’s,” “2’s” with “2’s” and so on.
Perhaps due to the matching hypothesis’s intuitive appeal, the field of social psychology has largely accepted it as true, despite a general lack of empirical support. To address this gap between theory and data, researchers from the University of California – Berkeley tested the matching hypothesis across several studies.
So you’re a 20-something woman out at a bar. As it happens you’re currently single and kind of interested in meeting guys to possibly date. At this club there are 2 men, of similar physical attractiveness, who have caught your eye. Man A) is sitting in the corner alone, but man B) is talking with a really attractive woman who seems to be his ex-girlfriend. Are you more attracted to man A) or man B)?
On the topic of human relationships, the famous Czech writer Milan Kundera mused, “[it is] one of life’s great secrets: women don’t look for handsome men, they look for men with beautiful women.”1
In the absence of any other information, humans tend to estimate the value of something by being aware of the demand for it. This is basic economics. Mate copying is the idea that an individual’s decision to mate or form a relationship with a potential partner is impacted by a direct observation of that person in a relationship with another, or knowledge of their romantic history.
Misattribution in Paradise: Would the Bachelor Contestants Have Connected without all of the Arousal Inducing Dates?
Somehow, even with my reality TV addiction, I was able to evade the Bachelor for the past 19 seasons, Bachelor Pad, and one season of Bachelor in Paradise. However, this summer, at the request of a friend, I sat down to watch the second season of Bachelor in Paradise. I was immediately sucked in. A revolving door of men and women moved into a villa in Vallarta-Nayarit, Mexico, all with the hopes of finding love. Each week a few cast members would be given date cards by the host of the show, instructing them to pick partners to accompany them on various excursions. While some of the date cards cast members were given led to private dinners and fantasy suites (think rose petals, champagne, and private hotel rooms), a large number of the dates involved more active plans, such as wrestling matches, bungee jumping, dancing at a club, and jet skiing. People seemed to be really into each other on the dates, but would often question their feelings shortly after when back on the serene beach. Was the post-date letdown because there were so many good looking unattached people around to pull their attention away from the partner they just went on a date with? Or was it something more -- perhaps something physiological?
With my favorite shows on summer hiatus, I’ve found myself reverting back to a few of my trusty standbys. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of re-watching the comic genius and relationship hijinks of Seinfeld. Sure, I know all of the lines and can anticipate all of the plot twists, but there’s something pleasingly familiar about my sitcom pals from the good ol’ days. While happily meandering through memory lane, it occurred to me that it has been over twenty-five years since Seinfeld first aired. To highlight the show’s continued relevance, I thought I might remind you of (if you are my age) or introduce you to (if you are younger) some of my favorite relationship “facts” that have stood the test of time. In this article, I will draw from the “The Invitations” episode from 1996 to highlight the role of similarity in attraction.
Let’s recap: Ben and Jen, Blake and Miranda, Gavin and Gwen, Zayn and Perrie, and now Miss Piggy and Kermit. There has been a wave of celebrities announcing their decisions to end their relationships in the last few weeks. Being that Miss Piggy’s announcement hit me particularly hard, I decided to analyze just what went wrong. Was it her frequent temper tantrums and karate kicks? Her obsession with fame? Lack of a social support network due to their interspecies relationship? Or perhaps it was the way she approached her relationship with Kermit from the beginning?
I stood on the stage looking out at a sea of beautiful, successful but single women. All were there to find love. As I talked about the science of love, I stopped, took a pause, stood up straight, looked from one side to the other, and then uttered, “All women lie.”
I then watched as these lovely faces transform. One woman tilted her head as her mouth gaped. Another’s brow wrinkled in confusion while a few eyes narrowed in contempt. These were educated women who just paid good money to hear me speak and I was calling each and every one of them a liar. The air of “how dare she” wafted up to the stage.
As we’ve previously written, people tend to pair up romantically with partners who are about as attractive as they are. So the most attractive people pair up with each other, followed by the next most attractive people pairing up, etc., all the way down the attractiveness scale. Scientists call this assortative mating.1 How do we know this assortative mating occurs? There is a correlation between two partners’ levels of attractiveness. This means that as one partner’s attractiveness increases, the other partner tends to be more attractive as well. People want the best partner they can get, and the more attractive a person you are, the better mate you can snag.
Although we do have some scientific evidence for assortative mating, this phenomenon really only makes sense when it is very clear who the most attractive people are. And this is not always the case.
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?
We’ve all heard how “opposites attract." But we're also told that “birds of a feather flock together."
The fact that both of these adages have been passed down for so long suggests that the role of similarity in relationships is not a simple matter.
Most research indicates that we do prefer to affiliate with others who are similar to us—who share our values and interests.1,2,3 But some claim that when it comes to personality traits, we may be most interested in complementarity. This means that for some traits, similarity is most desirable, but for others, we prefer someone who is our opposite.
The type of complementarity that has received the most attention from researchers examines two traits: affiliation (warm and friendly vs. cold and hostile) and control (dominant vs. submissive). According to this theory, we will prefer someone who is similar to us on affiliation (warm people like other warm people, and cold people like other cold people) and opposite on dominance (dominant people pair off with submissive people).4 On the other hand, we might expect that everyone, regardless of their own personality, would prefer positive traits in others. For example, even cold people should still prefer to be with someone who is warm.
In the age of online dating, science-based information about the ins and outs of dating services is both timely and important. One digital dating app has seen tremendous rises in popularity since its release - we're speaking of course about Tinder.
Tinder is a bare bones dating app that allows users to filter in rapid succession through photos of other users who are potential matches. Who you see in your pool of potential matches is based on a very limited set of criteria, customizable to the user – age, location, and gender. When two users mutually rate each other favorably (both swipe right), they are “matched,” which prompts the app to open a dialogue between the two users (basically a texting service within the application). The rest is left to the matched users.
Interestingly, there is no scientific research out there specifically about Tinder (we are unaware of any published scientific papers in psychology or related fields that focus on behavior on Tinder). This lack of data might be because of its novelty—Tinder was released in late 2012. The lack of research could also be due to the fact that Tinder's mainstream popularity is even more recent. Despite the lack of scientific data, however, like all things that attain mainstream popularity, Tinder has been subject to both criticism and support from the general public.
Full disclosure: Watching The Bachelor/ette is a huge guilty pleasure of mine. It’s fascinating not just for the entertaining drama, but also as a unique case study of relationship dynamics. If you’re unfamiliar, The Bachelor is a reality TV show in which 25-30 beautiful and presumably single women contend for the attention, love, and marriage proposal of one eligible gent over the course of about two months of filming. Every season is chock-a-block with romantic and often extravagant dates, profuse amounts of smooching, and (sometimes ridiculous) drama. (Disclaimer: Before I get to the meat of this article, I should make it clear that that while I find the show very amusing, I don’t find the format to be particularly realistic, nor do I feel like the format allows for a strong foundation that can foster a future long-term relationship to be built—though there seem to be a few happy exceptions.)
When I watch The Bachelor/ette, I love to shamelessly analyze the contestants and try to make connections to research (after all, I am a relationship science nerd). There are always a few contestants who stand out, for better or worse, and this season I’m a bit mesmerized with Whitney Bischoff in a good way. She seems very classy, but more than that, she has a very distinct voice. The pitch is quite high, and though some people might find it a bit intense, it may actually make her more appealing to our current Bachelor, Chris.
People are shallow. Psychological science has demonstrated that people often use a “what is beautiful is good” mental shortcut.1 People tend to assume positive characteristics about others based on physical attractiveness, even though these perceptions are not accurate. This bias for beauty has been shown in all types of contexts that are not limited to online dating. A classic study from the 60s on in-person dating found that a date’s hot body/face predicted romantic attraction more than personality traits, intelligence, popularity/charisma, mental health, and self-esteem.
I’m a huge fan of Slate Magazine (I read it almost daily). But recently they ran a piece that portrayed sexual fluidity in a way that was less than accurate, and perhaps ideologically biased. In the interest of scientific accuracy, I wanted to set the record straight.
What is sexual fluidity?
The Slate article contained a bold claim that, “there's absolutely no scientific evidence that female sexuality is fluid—at least not in any novel way.” This is incorrect—scientists have found a lot of evidence to support the claim that female sexuality is fluid.
But what exactly is sexual fluidity? It’s a fairly simple concept: people’s sexual responses are not set in stone, and can change over time, often depending on the immediate situation they’re in.
What is the point of music? Psychologist Stephen Pinker likens it to “auditory cheesecake,” a confection intended to tickle our neural pleasure circuits1 -- a jolt of enjoyment rather than a necessity for human survival. But 140 years ago, Charles Darwin was tinkering with another theory: that music’s true purpose is to impress the opposite sex.2 He recognised that birds don’t sing for pure joy, but to attract a mate or challenge rivals. Could music serve a similar function in humans?
Quite possibly. The lyrics of most pop songs are about relationships, with love at first sight, jealousy, and breakups being common themes. And it’s also plain that music stirs fierce emotions, from the screaming adulation that provided a second soundtrack to Beatlemania, to the Beliebers and Directioners of today whose online worshipping of their idols knows no bounds. But until recently, there’s been little hard evidence for Darwin’s theory that music is a method of sexual seduction.
When it comes to heterosexual dating preferences, does partner height matter? Data from online personal ads and a survey indicated that more women than men think height matters (57% to 40%, respectively), and tall women and short men were especially concerned with partners’ heights. Both men and women noted height differences could make physical intimacy difficult, it “felt weird or awkward” being with someone much shorter or taller, and that they had specific ranges for height they found most attractive . Women also noted they felt safer, more secure, and more feminine (because they could wear heels) with taller partners.
Yancey, G., & Emerson, M. O. (in press). Does height Matter? An examination of height preferences in romantic coupling. Journal of Family Issues.
Ever catch your partner checking out an attractive stranger on the street? Ever notice all of the good-looking opposite-sex friends your partner has accumulated on Facebook? Such things might seem harmless, but these “beautiful” people may actually make us less appealing to our partners, due to what researchers refer to as contrast effects. Contrast effects occur when something looks better or worse depending on what we compare to it. In this case, you could look less attractive to your partner when compared to someone else that is more attractive, whether that person is a sexy passerby, a good-looking co-worker, or even someone featured in erotic material. (Read more about contrast effects here.)