Most Romantic Couples Begin as Friends


When Harry met Sally, How I Met Your Mother, Friends. These popular stories share a common theme: Friends become lovers. Is there any truth to these dramatic plots? Do friends become romantic partners in real life?

The answer is yes! In our research, conducted at the University of Manitoba, University of Waterloo, and the University of Victoria, we found that not only are romantic couples platonic friends before they become romantically involved, this path to romance is common.

We asked almost 2,000 Canadian university students and American and Canadian adults if they were friends before they became romantically involved with their current partner.

Two-thirds said yes, they had started their relationships as friends. People of varying ages, sexual orientations, educational backgrounds, and ethnicities were more likely to start their romantic relationship as friends than not.

Were some people more likely to be friends before they became a romantic couple? Yes. Younger married people and people in queer relationships were more likely to start their relationships this way.

But Were They Really “Friends” First?

Maybe they had ulterior motives for forming the “friendship” and wanted it to become romantic all along. Our studies suggest that is unlikely, or at least not common. We asked some students whether they or their partner started the friendship with the purpose of becoming romantic partners and 70% said that they hadn’t! Instead, they were just friends and then became romantically interested after getting to know each other. And on average, that took almost two years for friends to develop and act on those feelings.

We also learned that almost half of these students thought that being friends was the best way to start a dating or romantic relationship. For these folks, meeting online or at a bar was rarely ideal. We suspect that being friends first allows you to get to know the other person on a different level—beyond physical attraction. And this might be a good thing: All the qualities that make a good friend, and the closeness from being friends, strengthen romantic relationships.

Can men and women ever be “just friends” like Harry and Hermione in Harry Potter? Of course! Researchers studying friendships between women and men find that friends often have no romantic interest in each other and even fewer ever act on such desires. Even in our own studies participants were friends for years before things turned romantic.

Why Are We Just Hearing About This Now?

Funny thing—the answer is, researchers really haven’t asked before now. We surveyed existing research studies and the overwhelming majority focus on how two strangers meet, start dating, and become a romantic couple. Cultural assumptions about how relationships begin and the difficulty in studying friendships that turn romantic have probably contributed to this lack of research. By studying friendships that become romantic, we hope to learn more about how most romantic relationships begin. We’ll better understand when Hermione might be just friends with Harry or something more like with Ron.


For Further Reading

Stinson, D. A., Cameron, J. J., & Hoplock, L. B. (2021). The friends-to-lovers pathway to romance: Prevalent, preferred, and overlooked by science. Social Psychological and Personality Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/19485506211026992

Cameron, J. J., & Curry, E. (2020). Gender roles and date context in hypothetical scripts for a woman and a man on a first date in the 21st century. Sex Roles, 82(5), 345–362. https://doi.org/10.1007/ s11199-019-01056-6

Guerrero, L. K., & Mongeau, P. A. (2008). On becoming “more than friends”: The transition from friendship to romantic relationship. In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel, & J. Harvey (Eds.), Handbook of relationship initiation (pp. 175–194). Psychology Press.
 

Lisa Hoplock received her PhD at the University of Victoria in Canada and now works in the private sector.

Jessica Cameron is a professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, Canada. She investigates the dynamic relationship between the self and interpersonal relationships, focusing on self-esteem, gender, and relationship initiation.

 

Men Who Look Smart and Women Who Look Attractive Are Judged as More Human

Debates and discussions about gender now seem to be a mainstay in public consciousness. Our understanding of gender has been nudged and pulled, often through intense debate. As a result, changing ideas about gender now reverberate throughout daily life, affecting family dynamics, workplaces, and romantic relationships. In short, Western culture’s views regarding men and women seem to be changing.

It was not too long ago that men were viewed as breadwinners and women as homemakers. Prominent examples of caring men and competent women are now challenging these stereotypes, however. For instance, studies show that men are progressively taking on more domestic and parental duties compared to men of the past. At the same time, women now graduate from college in greater numbers than men do and occupy approximately one-third of senior management positions (for the first time in modern Western history).

But The Stereotypes Are Still There

With all this change, my colleagues and I asked how traditional views about men and women might still affect how they are judged based on two qualities often linked to gender: attractiveness (traditionally associated with the female gender) and intelligence (traditionally associated with the male gender). People likely still value attractiveness especially in women and intelligence especially in men.

Judging How “Human” A Person Is

Our way of getting at lingering stereotypes was to examine whether how “human” men and women appear depends on how attractive and intelligent they look. Why would we ask this—after all, isn’t everyone human? While the idea that some people may seem more or less human than others may sound strange at first, it actually has been investigated for decades. And equally notable, the rejection of another’s humanness, also called dehumanization, emerges in daily life. For instance, Nazis dehumanized Jews, calling them Untermenschen (“subhuman”); Hutus called Tutsis “cockroaches” during the Rwanda genocide; and slave ownership denigrated certain humans by definition.

Dehumanization is not a phenomenon that occurs only in such extreme historical examples, however. Everyday life has examples, such as in how we will often pass a homeless person on the street without any emotional impact or how drivers impassioned by road rage can treat fellow drivers like pylons in the way.

Back To Attractiveness And Intelligence

Because of stereotypes, we proposed that people would judge attractive women as more human than unattractive women, and judge intelligent-looking men as more human than unintelligent-looking men. To study this, we took photos of 206 women’s and 206 men’s faces. We then had strangers judge those photos for how attractive and intelligent each woman and man looked. We now had a set of faces to use for our main studies.

Testing For Humanness

We then asked another group of strangers to judge those same men and women on how “human” they appeared using a scale ranging from 0 (with an associated picture of a crawling ancestral primate) to 100 (with an associated picture of an upright man). We found what we expected: the more attractive the women looked, the more human they were judged to be, and the more intelligent the men looked, the more human they were judged to be. This isn’t to say that attractiveness didn’t matter for men’s humanness or that appearing intelligent didn’t matter for women’s humanness. However, we observed that looking attractive mattered more for women’s humanness than it did for men’s, and appearing intelligent mattered more for men’s humanness than it did for women’s.

In followup studies, we asked another group of strangers to make the same humanness ratings, but they also completed a scale measuring how much they endorse traditional gender stereotypes. We found that the more a rater endorsed traditional gender stereotypes, the more they cared about women’s attractiveness when rating women’s humanness and the more they cared about men’s perceived intelligence when rating men’s humanness.

In our final study, we again presented the face photos to strangers, but with a twist. Instead of asking raters to judge the faces on how human they seemed, we described a hypothetical ethical dilemma: Raters could either save the life of the individual photographed and allow five others to die, or they could sacrifice the life of the individual photographed to save the life of five others. We found that people were most willing to sacrifice the lives of unattractive women and of unintelligent-looking men, consistent with the idea that such individuals are viewed as less human and therefore more expendable.

Despite the great progress that has been made regarding gender values, traditional views about men and women remain impactful. People still pervasively value women more for their attractiveness and value men more for their intelligence. These stereotypical gender values are so deeply entrenched that they influence how “human” men and women seem. Even more, they influence the apparent worth of men and women’s lives.


For Further Reading

Alaei, R., Deska J. C., Hugenberg, K., & Rule, N. O. (2021). People attribute humanness to men and women differently based on their facial appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000364.

Haslam, N., & Loughnan, S. (2014). Dehumanization and infrahumanization. Annual Review of Psychology, 65(1), 399–423. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115045.

 

Ravin Alaei is a medical student at McMaster University. He obtained his PhD in psychology in 2019 from the University of Toronto and is interested in how one’s appearance and nonverbal behavior affect their social outcomes.

Perceived Attractiveness Really is in the Eye of the Beholder

What makes someone physically attractive? In the age of selfies, dating apps, and Zoom calls, how to look attractive—or, at the very least, not unattractive—over a phone or computer screen is on many people’s minds. This is likely not just due to vanity. Being perceived as physically attractive comes with a number of advantages. For example, people who are viewed as physically attractive are perceived more positively on traits such as sociability, health, and intelligence than are people who are less attractive. Additionally, physically attractive people are treated more favorably in many contexts such as dating, job hiring, and political elections. This is all to say that beauty is often taken to be more than just skin deep.

Because physical attractiveness has such a strong influence on our social experiences, it seems important to understand what leads someone to be perceived as attractive. Because smiling is a potential way to increase attractiveness that is available to nearly everyone and it is a regularly present aspect of picture-taking experiences (“say cheese”), this seems like a good place to start.  My colleagues and I at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University tested whether images of people (21-28 year olds from the Pittsburgh, PA area) were rated as more attractive when they were smiling versus not smiling. Because humans evolved to perceive people in motion we also wanted to explore whether attractiveness was higher for people presented in videos than in still photographs. The target people were rated in four presentation formats: smiling photo, smiling video, not-smiling photo, and not-smiling video. We found that smiling did increase attractiveness ratings and that people were rated as more attractive when they were presented in videos as compared to still photos.

While this was good information to have, we didn’t want to just stop there. In particular, we were curious, how much does presentation format (that is, smiling, motion of image) really matter? It’s not hard to imagine that there are other factors that contribute to attractiveness perceptions. For example, most people might agree that Idris Elba and Olivia Munn would be attractive regardless of whether they’re smiling or being depicted in a photo vs. video. However, you can also probably recall times that you’ve disagreed with a friend about the attractiveness of a celebrity or potential romantic partner. These examples suggest that in some cases people generally agree on the attractiveness of others, while in other instances subjective perceptions truly differ.

Because of this lack of consensus, we decided to test the extent to which attractiveness perceptions are influenced by presentation format, the person being perceived, the perceiver, or a combination of the person being perceived and the perceiver. We found that presentation format only accounts for a small amount of the differences in attractiveness ratings (about 1%). Unsurprisingly, we found that the specific target people have a significant influence on attractiveness ratings (about 22%). That is, there simply are some Idrises and Olivias out in the world. What we found more interesting, though, was that the perceiver mattered even more than the target (about 32%). That is, certain perceivers gave higher ratings of the images on average than did other perceivers—like a friend who thinks everyone is more attractive than you do. Moreover, attractiveness was strongly influenced by the unique combination of targets and perceivers, reflecting idiosyncratic attractiveness preferences (about 26%). This means that some perceivers rated certain images as more attractive than did other people, while the reverse was true for other images. For example, your friend thinks person A walking down the street is more attractive than Person B, but you think Person B is more attractive than Person A.

This all suggests that while some people may be rated on average more attractive than others, beauty is also very much in the eye of the beholder. Sure, smiling or doing a video chat may lead you to be perceived slightly more attractive than not smiling or sending a still photo, but it probably doesn’t have a huge impact. Instead, a positive takeaway from these findings might be that just because one person doesn’t find someone attractive, doesn’t mean no one will.


For Further Reading

Bowdring, M. A., Sayette, M. A., Girard, J. M., & Woods, W. C. (2021). In the eye of the beholder: A comprehensive analysis of stimulus type, perceiver, and target in physical attractiveness perceptions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-020-00350-2

Zebrowitz, L. A., & Montepare, J. M. (2008). Social psychological face perception: Why appearance matters. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(3), 1497-1517. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00109.x
 

Molly Bowdring is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research generally focuses on interpersonal processes and substance use (visit https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=QZvbD1QAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao for more information).

 

The Friend Number Paradox

BY Kao Si


When do you think others are more attracted to you: when you have a lot of friends or when you have only a handful of them? The answer to this question seems obvious—most of us are scared of the prospect of being a loner and connected to only a few, while having a large number of social ties conveys our popularity and desirable personalities. This is indeed what we find when my colleagues and I asked our study participants—from both the United States and Asia—this question. A sheer majority of them thought that others would be more likely to make friends with them when they have more friends.

Yet they were wrong, despite how straightforward their answer seems. When we asked another group of participants to tell us whom they actually prefer to befriend, the majority of them chose a person with fewer friends, not more. We dub this mismatch between people’s prediction and their actual preference “the friend number paradox.”

But why would people prefer others with a relatively smaller number of friends? The answer lies in our fundamental motive that stimulates the building of our social relationships. That is, we care for our friends and expect they could care for us as well. It is this reciprocal responsiveness that keeps our friendships alive. After all, a person is not a friend if she seldom cares about you or you rarely care about her.

So one of the potential problems of befriending someone who has a relatively larger number of friends is that she ought to be less able to fulfill the reciprocal obligations as implied in a quality relationship because each of us only has limited resources in terms of time and attention. And our studies suggest that these concerns about relationship quality do exert a heavy influence on people’s preferences for their potential friends in social interactions.

In a real “speed-friending” event we conducted on campus, people chose one another to establish a potentially long-term friendship based only on information about others’ hobbies, food preferences, and number of existing friends. Not surprisingly, people tended to befriend those who have relatively more hobbies and food tastes in common with them. Importantly, people also tended to choose other participants who have relatively fewer friends in their session, even though they predicted that the others would do the opposite to them. Moreover, those with the largest number of friends in their session were actually the least likely to obtain the opportunity of initiating a long-term relationship in our speed-friending event.

Thus, the friend number paradox is perilous to the establishment of desirable social relationships among people. A question that follows is what makes people ignorant of others’ concerns when thinking about others’ preferences towards them? We found that the answer has something to do with egocentrism. That is, we are disposed to think about others’ preferences by consulting our own. Since people in general would personally consider having a lot of friends to be desirable, they tend to infer that others would find them more attractive when they have relatively more friends.           

Correcting people from making this mistake could be very meaningful, as doing so might help them make wiser choices about how to behave when initiating social relationships. In a further study, we showed that reminding people of their reciprocal obligations in social relationships can help adjust their predictions to be more in line with others’ true preferences. We asked our participants to think about what others would expect them to do as a friend under various circumstances. As a result of this reminder, substantially more participants indicated that others should be more likely to befriend them when they have a relatively smaller number of friends, not larger. Therefore, taking others’ perspectives seems to be the key to success both in maintaining our social relationships and in initiating them.


For Further Reading

Si, K., Dai, X., & Wyer, R. S., Jr. (2021). The friend number paradox. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(1), 84–98. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000244
 

Kao Si is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at University of Macau. His research focuses on judgment and decision making. Web: https://fba.um.edu.mo/faculty/kaosi/

 

Photographic Appeal Lies Also in the Personality of the Beholder


Via social media, dating apps, and job applications, photographs have become very important for forming impressions and making evaluations. In this dominantly visual social world, photographs are therefore more decisive than ever in determining whether two people will ever meet each other.

There are certain looks that appeal to an average person. People who appear healthy, energetic, laughing, physically attractive, or neatly dressed are, on average, evaluated more positively. Smiling in photographs is also generally liked, but the appeal of smiling depends on whether it looks authentic or not. The more authentic-looking smiles involve activation of the cheek raiser muscle that creates crow’s feet around the eyes. These smiles are generally evaluated more positively than smiles that involve only the mouth. 

While certain types of appearance are appealing to an average eye, this does not rule out that, at the same time, fondness for certain looks also lies in the eye of the beholder. My colleagues and I at University of Helsinki asked 385 people to rate their personal preferences for a set of knee-up portrait photographs of other people with diverse looks and appearances. We confirmed the general photographic appeal of people who were rated by expert observers as healthy, stylish, laughing, energetic, relaxed, warm, feminine, or physically attractive. Smiles that looked authentic were also evaluated positively and inauthentic-looking smiles negatively.

But, more importantly, we also found that participants varied in the degree to which the different appearances were liked. Not all people found warm, energetic, and people with authentic-looking smiles appealing, albeit these characteristics were generally more welcomed than their opposites, cold or tired appearances, tight-lipped facial expressions, or smiles that looked inauthentic.

Actually, differences between observers in the degree of liking of certain types of looks were more of a rule than an exception. What could account for this? We decided to test if photographic appeal is in the personality of the beholder. We used five broad personality traits (Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness) to test if these traits are associated with individual preferences in photograph preferences.

Indeed, liking certain types of looks in photographs is associated with personality traits. People who scored high in Openness to Experience liked the type of looks that are often associated with the looks of open people. That is, open people preferred distinctive rather than ordinary, non-traditional rather than traditional, and unpreparedness rather than people who were well-prepared for the portraits. Open individuals also gave less weight to physical attractiveness as compared to an average person.

Conscientious and extraverted individuals, on the other hand, preferred some of the things that open individuals disliked, for example, being prepared and dressed up for the photo shoot. Extraverted individuals also were the fondest of healthy and physically attractive looks. Because extraverted, open, and conscientious individuals are themselves known to possess the type of looks and appearances they were fond of in the photographs of other people, our findings support the well-established fact that perceiving similarity to oneself in others breeds attraction. On the other hand, agreeable individuals also liked non-traditional and distinctive looks more. This may be indicative of the lower prejudice of agreeable people; they might be less judgmental and more accepting of looks that are not typical.

Liking and disliking the smiles that looked inauthentic was also associated with personality. Neurotic people disliked those smiles, possibly reflecting that neurotic individuals could interpret such smiles as deceitful or with hidden intents. Disagreeable people, on the other hand, who are not as motivated to scrutinize others’ intentions, did not penalize those smiles as much as an average person did.

So, how should one appear in a photograph? Although our study supports the idea that stylish, energetic, laughing, smiling with both mouth and eyes, warm, and relaxed appearances are generally positively evaluated by others, this also depends on whom you want to appeal to the most. If you are motivated to appeal to disagreeable individuals, you don’t need a smile that lights up your whole face, but in general such a smile creates the best impression. If you want to be liked by extraverted and conscientious people by preparing well or dressing up in more traditional choice of clothing, you could end up looking less favorable in the eyes of open people. It is therefore important to know your audience.


For Further Reading

Gunnery, S. D., Hall, J. A., & Ruben, M. A. (2013). The deliberate Duchenne smile: Individual differences in expressive control. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 37(1), 29–41. doi:10.1007/s10919-012-0139-4

Lönnqvist, J. E., Ilmarinen, V. J., & Verkasalo, M. (2021). Who likes whom? The interaction between perceiver personality and target look. Journal of Research in Personality, 90, 104044. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2020.104044

Naumann, L. P., Vazire, S., Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2009). Personality judgments based on physical appearance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(12), 1661–1671. doi:10.1177/0146167209346309


Ville-Juhani Ilmarinen is postdoctoral researcher in an Academy of Finland funded project led by Professor Jan-Erik Lönnqvist at the Swedish School of Social Science in University of Helsinki.

 

What do Men and Women Want in a Mate?

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Think for a moment about the people to whom you have been romantically attracted. What characteristics did these people have that attracted you to them? Were they kind? Good looking?  Did they have a stable job? Were they intelligent, humorous, caring?

What we desire in a partner—what psychologists call our “mate preferences”—seem to come to mind easily. Ask a friend what type of person they’d ideally like to marry, and they can effortlessly list off a set of characteristics they prefer. But why are certain characteristics desirable to us?

Psychologists have attempted to answer this question for decades, coming at it from several different angles. For example, researchers in evolutionary psychology have emphasized the role of human evolutionary history. They suggest that our mate preferences correspond to the challenges our prehistoric ancestors faced in the environments in which evolution occurred. Throughout human evolutionary history, both men and women benefitted, reproductively speaking, from finding a good cooperative partner. Therefore, both men and women want mates who are kind and generous.

Women, though, faced the unique challenge of nine months of pregnancy, followed by lactation, processes that require extra resources such as food. Therefore, women, more than men, look for characteristics in a mate that indicate abilities to acquire resources needed for themselves and their children.

Men, on the other hand, faced the unique challenge of finding fertile partners. Whereas most men are fertile throughout their entire adult life, women’s reproductive years are limited by menopause. As a result, men, more than women, prefer characteristics such as relative youth and attractiveness because, throughout human evolution, men who preferred younger over older mates had more offspring. Evolutionary researchers think that these preferences for the characteristics men and women look for in their partners are the products of universal psychological adaptations—aspects of human nature that all of us share.

Although most researchers agree that both evolution and socialization play a role in shaping human mate preferences, some emphasize the role of socialization. These researchers theorize that differences between men and women’s bodies led to a division of labor between men and women that created different societal expectations of gender roles. For example, because men have greater upper body strength than women on average, they may have historically performed tasks involving strength. In contrast, because women are the ones who bear children, they historically performed tasks that involved caring for infants and young children. With these gender roles in place, we learn to prefer characteristics in our partners that reflect social role expectations of what men and women are supposed to be like. Of course, societal expectations about gender roles vary somewhat across the globe. Socialization researchers have predicted that in places where men and women are treated more equally, the mate preferences of men and women will be more similar.

My colleagues and I recently tested these two theories about the origin of mate preferences. We asked more than 14,000 men and women from 45 countries around the world what they wanted in a long-term mate. We asked: “How kind should your ideal mate be? How physically attractive? What should their financial prospects be like? How healthy should they be? How intelligent?” This large, multi-country sample provided us an invaluable opportunity to identify both the aspects of mate preferences that are common around the world as well as those aspects that differ from culture to culture.

Replicating other research, we found that, around the world, both men and women preferred kindness, health, and intelligence the most in a mate. However, women wanted slightly more of these qualities than men did on average. Women also indicated that they wanted an ideal mate to have better financial prospects than men said they wanted. Men, on the other hand, said they wanted a more physically attractive mate than women said they wanted. These universal patterns represent clear fingerprints of human evolution on our mating psychology.

However, the differences between men’s and women’s preferences varied in magnitude across cultures. In China and Nigeria, for example, women and men indicated similar levels of preference for physical attractiveness.  To examine whether this variation could be explained by differing societal expectations about gender roles, we looked at whether men and women had more similar preferences in countries with greater gender equality. We found that, even in countries where men and women had more similar roles, their mate preferences still differed in ways predicted by evolutionary researchers.

However, one difference did narrow in locations that have greater gender equality. In terms of who people actually chose as a partner, women around the world tended to have partners who were a few years older than them, on average, and men had partners a few years younger than themselves. Yet, in countries with greater gender equality, men and women tended to have romantic partners closer to their own age.

Overall, we found some support for predictions from both evolutionary and socialization perspectives. It might be tempting to interpret these results in terms of the old standbys of “nature” vs. “nurture”—or, worse, to declare one the winner! This would be misguided. Our results indicate that our mate preferences result from our evolutionary history but are shaped through socialization, too. Nature and nurture are not in competition. Rather, our evolved psychology enables us to adjust our mate preferences in response to information in our local social environment. This relevant information could include the number of potential mates around us, our own ability to attract desirable mates, or messages from older, experienced members of our society.

In the future, if you find yourself gazing across a restaurant table at a desirable potential mate, pondering “Why do I like this person?,” don’t just look inside yourself. Remember that you are the product of an unbroken chain of ancestors, each of whom successfully mated and reproduced. From them, you’ve inherited a mating psychology that interacts with your particular circumstances, leading you to prefer some characteristics more than others. Your desires are the result of a lifetime of experience, shaped by thousands of years of human culture, itself structured by billions of years of evolution.


For further reading

Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, 1–14. doi:10.1017/S0140525X00023992

Walter, K. V., Conroy-Beam, D., Buss, D. M., Asao, K., Sorokowska, A., Sorokowski, P., … Zupančič, M. (2020). Sex Differences in Mate Preferences Across 45 Countries: A Large-Scale Replication. Psychological Science, 31(4), 408–423. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620904154

Wood, W., & Eagly, A. H. (2012). Biosocial Construction of Sex Differences and Similarities in Behavior. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 46, pp. 55–123). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-394281-4.00002-7

 

Katy Walter is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She studies human mating psychology.

 

Why Online Dating is Heaven—and Hell

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If you are single today and looking for a partner, you may consider yourself lucky. Before online dating emerged on the internet, dating was usually restricted to the other single people you might meet at work, in school, or in the local pub. But online dating has made it possible to date virtually anyone in the world—from the comfort of your own living room.

Having many options to choose from is appealing to anyone who is searching for something, and even more so if you are trying to find something—or someone—special. Not surprisingly, online dating platforms are exceptionally popular.  One out of three adults in the U.S. has used an online dating site or app, and more people are finding their partners online than through any of the ‘traditional’ pathways to love such as meeting people through friends or at work or school.  

So, online dating clearly works. However, if it is so easy to find love on dating sites and apps, why are there more single people in the Western world today than ever before? And why do users of the dating platforms often report feelings of ‘Tinder fatigue’ and ‘dating burnout’?

The explanation may be found in the complicated relationship that people have with choice. On the one hand, people like having many choices because having more options to choose from increases the chance of finding exactly what you are looking for. On the other hand, economists have found that having many options comes with some major drawbacks: when people have many options to choose from, they often start delaying their decisions and become increasingly dissatisfied with the selection of options that are available.

In our research, we set out to discover whether this paradox of choice—liking to have many options but then being overwhelmed when we do—may explain the problems people experience with online dating. We created a dating platform that resembled the dating app ‘Tinder’ to see how people’s partner choices unfold once they enter an online dating environment.

In our first study, we presented research participants (who were all single and looking for a partner) with pictures of hypothetical dating partners. For every picture, they could decide to ‘accept’ (meaning that they would be interested in dating this person) or ‘reject’ (meaning that they were not interested in dating this person). Our results showed that participants became increasingly selective over time as they worked through the photos. They were most likely to accept the first partner option they saw and became more and more likely to reject with every additional option that came after the first one.

In our second study, we showed people pictures of potential partners who were real and available. We invited single people to send us a picture of themselves, which we then programmed into our online dating task. Again, we found that participants became increasingly likely to reject partner options as they looked at more and more pictures. Moreover, for women, this tendency to reject potential partners also translated into a lower likelihood of finding a match.

These two studies confirmed our expectation that online dating sets off a rejection mindset: people become more likely to reject partner options when they have more options. But why does this happen? In our final study, we examined the psychological mechanisms that are responsible for the rejection mindset.

We found that people started to experience a decrease in satisfaction with their dating options as they saw more possible partners, and they also became less and less confident in their own likelihood of dating success. These two processes explained why people started to reject more of the options as they looked at more and more pictures. The more pictures they saw, the more dissatisfied and discouraged they became.

Together, our studies help to explain the paradox of modern dating: the endless pool of partner options on the dating apps draws people in, yet the overwhelming number of choices makes them increasingly dissatisfied and pessimistic and, therefore, less likely to actually find a partner.

So what should we do—delete the apps and go back to the local bar? Not necessarily. One recommendation is for people who use these sites to restrict their searches to a manageable number. In an average Tinder session, the typical user goes through 140 partner options! Just imagine being in a bar with 140 possible partners, having them line up, learning a little about them, and then pushing them left or right depending on their suitability. Madness, right? It seems like human beings are not evolutionary prepared to handle that many choices.

So, if you are one of those frustrated and fatigued people who use dating apps, try a different approach. Force yourself to look at a maximum of five profiles and then close the app. When you are going through the profiles, be aware that you are most likely to be attracted to the first profile you see. For every profile that comes after the first one, try to approach it with a ‘beginner’s mind’—without expectations and preconceptions, and filled with curiosity. By shielding yourself from choice overload, you may finally find what you have been looking for.


For Further Reading

Pronk, T. M., & Denissen, J. J. (2020). A rejection mind-set: Choice overload in online dating. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(3), 388–396. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 1948550619866189

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. Retrieved from http://works.swarthmore.edu/fac-psychology/198

 

Tila Pronk is Assistant Professor in Social Psychology at Tilburg University (The Netherlands), relationship therapist, and expert on relationships for television shows. The research described here was conducted in collaboration with Jaap Denissen.

People’s Faces Can Give Clues about What Kind of Partner They Are

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New dating applications—such as Taffy, S’More, and Willow—market themselves as the next generation of dating tools that allow users to prioritize social connection over appearance.  Rather than asking users to construct a profile with pictures of themselves and a short personal description (as first-generation dating apps did), platforms like S’More and Willow display blurry pictures of users that gradually clear up as users converse with each other.  

These new dating apps have emerged in response to criticisms that older dating apps place excessive importance on looks when seeking a romantic partner. Yet, perhaps appearance can provide useful information about a person. Research has shown that, in addition to obvious features such as gender, age, height, and weight, people can infer more subtle characteristics from others’ appearance, including their political orientation, personality (for example, their level of extraversion), and even music preferences.

We were interested in exploring whether people could also identify someone’s attachment style based on a first impression. Attachment style is the extent to which people perceive that their relationships are capable of meeting their needs and are a source of comfort during difficult times. People’s attachment style can be described along two dimensions: anxiety and avoidance.

Individuals who are high in attachment anxiety fear rejection and often worry about whether their partners truly love and care about them. Those high in attachment avoidance feel uncomfortable being close to others, and so they tend to seek emotional distance in their relationships. People high on both dimensions exhibit signs of both attachment anxiety and avoidance (they are concerned both about being rejected and about getting too close), and people low on both dimensions are referred to as “securely attached.”  Securely attached people both see themselves as worthy of love and feel comfortable being close to their partner.

Knowing someone’s attachment style quickly, such as from a glance at their face, could certainly help people understand what kind of person they may be meeting for a first date. So, we conducted two studies to test whether people could identify a stranger’s attachment style based only on facial cues. In two studies, we took pictures of 331 university students posing with a neutral facial expression and also measured each person’s attachment style. These photos were then shown to a group of research participants who rated each person’s level of attachment anxiety or avoidance based only on their photo. We also measured the attachment style of these participants.

Across both studies, we found that participants could identify men’s levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance from their facial appearance at better than chance guessing. However, participants were not able to identify women’s attachment anxiety or avoidance above chance.  But why do only men’s faces seem to carry subtle hints about their attachment style?

One possibility is that people’s emotional habits as a result of their attachment style affect their facial appearance. For example, people high in attachment anxiety, who frequently experience negative emotions, may have specific facial cues relating to negative emotionality that hint to their anxious attachment style. But maybe things that many women do to change their appearance—for example, wearing makeup—mask these cues, so these cues are visible only in men’s photos.    

We also found that participants’ own attachment anxiety biased their judgments of others’ attachment style.  Participants who were more anxiously attached perceived the people in the photos as more anxiously attached.  This bias affect anxiously-attached individuals’ behavior in relationships. People who are higher in anxious attachment may give their partner more care and attention than the partner needs, which may cause the partner to withdraw and confirm the anxiously-attached person’s view that they are unloved.

All in all, our research shows that there are hints of men’s attachment style in their face. Moreover, people’s own attachment style can bias what kind of partner they think someone else is. Understanding the role that facial appearance and attachment style play in romantic decision-making can provide more insight into how romantic relationships unfold.


For Further Reading

Alaei, R., Lévêque, G. MacDonald, G., & Rule, N. (in press). Accuracy and bias in first impressions of attachment style from faces. Journal of Personality. https://doi.org/10.1111/ jopy.12540.

Alaei, R., & Rule, N. O. (2016). Accuracy of perceiving social attributes. In J. A. Hall, M. Schmid Mast, & T. V. West (Eds.), The Social Psychology of Perceiving Others Accurately (pp. 125-142). Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781316181959.00

 

Isabelle Vanasse Grosdidier is a lab manager in the MacDonald Social Psychology and Research Lab at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Ravin Alaei is a medical student at McMaster University. He obtained his PhD. in psychology in 2019 from the University of Toronto, working under Dr. Nicholas Rule.

People Convey Less Authentic Impressions of Themselves to Potential Romantic Partners after Thinking about Sex

When people want to make a good impression on a potential romantic partner, they usually have two goals. On the one hand, people want to show who they really are, strengths and shortcomings alike, in the hope of finding a compatible partner who accepts them as they are. On the other hand, people also want to put forward their best face in order to maximize their immediate appeal.   

In our recent research, we investigated the possibility that when sex looms, people may be more likely to “put their best foot forward” in order to impress a prospective partner. In other words, we explored whether sexual desire lowers concerns about authenticity and instead makes people try to make the best possible impression on potential partners.

To test the effects of a sexy mindset, we conducted four studies in which we first had participants look at either sexual (but not pornographic) stimuli or neutral stimuli. Next, the participants interacted with a stranger of the other sex. In the first study, participants tried to resolve a dilemma in a face-to-face conversation with a person who held an opposing position. After the discussion, participants indicated the degree to which they had agreed with the other participant’s position during the discussion. Participants were more likely to report that they had agreed with the other participant after viewing the sexual pictures. In other words, rather than stay true to themselves, they tried to look like they agreed more with the other person.

In our second study, we wanted to take this idea even further. In addition to saying they agree with a stranger's views (as Study 1 showed), would people actually change their own preferences to conform to the other person’s preferences? Participants completed a questionnaire that asked about their preferences in various life situations (such as “to what extent does it bother you to date someone who is messy?” or “do you like to cuddle after sex?”). Then, they were shown either a sexual or a neutral set of pictures.

We then told our participants that they would take part in an online chat with another participant, who in reality was an attractive opposite-sex member of the research team. We gave participants an online profile that purported to describe this person’s preferences on various subjects—but we designed these preferences so that they differed from the participants' own preferences. After viewing the profile, we asked participants to create their own profile, telling them that the other person would see their profile before beginning their chat. Note that participants had already rated themselves on these items earlier in the experimental session, so we knew what their actual preferences were. We found that participants changed their online profiles to conform to the other person’s views more than to their own actual views. In other words, participants presented themselves in ways that matched what they thought the good-looking partner would want – not what they were actually like.

In Studies 3 and 4, we explored whether participants would lie about the number of lifetime sexual partners they had had in order to impress a new acquaintance. We set up a situation in which we asked participants to talk with an attractive person of the other sex (who again, was actually a research assistant) about their total number of sexual partners.  But first, to provide an accurate indication of their actual number of partners, we asked them about their previous partners on an anonymous questionnaire. As we expected from our earlier studies, exposure to sexual cues, but not to neutral cues, led participants to lie about their sexual experience. In this case, they reported a smaller number of partners so as to appear more selective—or less promiscuous—and thus as more desirable to a potential partner.

Overall, our results demonstrate that a sexually-tinged mindset leads people to present themselves more favorably—conforming to a stranger's views and reporting fewer prior sexual partners—over authenticity.  In everyday life, the sexiness of a potential partner or the sexy ambience of a first date may encourage people to convey inauthentic personal information to create a positive impression.  However, this kind of self-disclosure is risky because inauthenticity can undermine relationship satisfaction in the long run. 


For Further Reading

Birnbaum, G. E., Iluz, M., & Reis, H. T. (in press). Making the right first impression: Sexual priming encourages attitude change and self-presentation lies during encounters with potential partners. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Birnbaum, G. E., Mizrahi, M., Kaplan, A., Kadosh, D., Kariv, D., Tabib, D., Ziv, D., Sadeh, L., & Burban, D. (2017). Sex unleashes your tongue: Sexual priming motivates self-disclosure to a new acquaintance and interest in future interactions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43, 706-715.

Birnbaum, G. E., Mizrahi, M., & Reis, H. T. (2019). Fueled by desire: Sexual activation facilitates the enactment of relationship-initiating behaviors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(10), 3057-3074.

Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2006). The heat of the moment: The effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19, 87-98.

 

Prof. Gurit E. Birnbaum works at the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology, the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya (Israel).  Her research focuses on the underlying functions of sexual fantasies and on the convoluted role sexuality plays in the broader context of close relationships.

Harry T. Reis is Dean’s Professor at the University of Rochester (USA). He studies close relationships, with an emphasis on responsiveness and the formation of intimate bonds.

Disclosing Racial Preferences in Online Dating: Are You Making it Easier for Yourself or Shooting Yourself in the Foot?

Imagine logging on to an online dating app, such as Tinder or Grindr, for the first time and swiping through the potential dating prospects. You come across a profile that initially piques your interest, but then the person’s profile text states: “Whites only.” What would you think? Would you assume that the person is racist? And, even if you are of the person’s preferred race, would you enthusiastically invite them out or instead keep looking for someone else who does not list his or her racial preferences?

To someone who isn’t familiar with online dating, this situation might seem to be rare. In fact, the reverse is true. The explicit communication of racial preference is common on online dating profiles, especially within the gay community. Such statements either focus on what people want (such as “Whites only”) or on what people don’t want (such as “No Asians”). These statements obviously have a negative psychological impact on members of the groups being excluded, but they raise additional questions as well.

Presumably, people write these profiles to ensure that only the kinds of people they are interested in will contact them; they think that this is an efficient dating strategy. Another possibility, however, is that such statements are seen as racist and unattractive by other users, therefore lowering their dating success, even among people who are in their preferred racial group. We investigated this possibility in a recent series of experiments.

In our first experiment, we assigned same-sex attracted male participants to view a dating profile that either included a disclosure of racial preference (“No Asians or Blacks”) or did not mention a racial preference. We measured how racist, attractive, and dateable participants found the owner of the dating profile, as well as how personally willing participants would be to have platonic, sexual, or romantic relations with him.  

Our results showed that the owner of a dating profile who disclosed a racial preference was considered more racist, less attractive, and less dateable than the owner of a dating profile who did not specify a racial preference. Participants also reported being less personally willing to befriend the person, have sex with him, or date him. Surprisingly, these effects emerged even for participants who had told us up front that they didn’t think having racial preferences in dating was “racist.”

We then replicated the experiment and found the same results when the disclosure of racial preference was framed in a different way (i.e., “White guys only”). In a final experiment, we demonstrated that it did not matter whether the disclosure of racial preference was absolute (such as “White guys only”) or soft (“prefer White guys”).  Participants rated the owners of dating profiles who expressed either form of racial preference less favorably than owners of profiles that did not include a racial preference.

Our studies suggest that explicitly communicating racial preferences on a dating profile can make people appear more racist, even to those who claim that having racial preferences is not racist, thereby negatively impacting their dating success. Thus, not only do explicit racial preferences make those who are excluded feel bad; they also make the person who expresses them look bad. If the goal of using online dating sites is to maximize one’s dating prospects, the take home message from this research is clear – think twice before openly disqualifying entire racial groups when dating online.


For Further Reading:

Thai, M., Stainer, M. J., & Barlow, F. K. (2019). The “preference” paradox: Disclosing racial preferences in attraction is considered racist even by people who overtly claim it is not. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology83, 70-77. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2019.03.004


About the Authors

Michael Thai is a lecturer at The University of Queensland. His research investigates intergroup relations, prejudice, and sex.  Associate Professor Fiona Kate Barlow is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland. Her research focuses on intergroup and interpersonal relations, with a particular emphasis on prejudice and discrimination.