What people say they want in a romantic partner and and what they actually want are often two very different things, say researchers who have come up with a new method to measure what people really want in a love match.
“People will readily tell you what they value in a romantic partner,” said Dr. Eli Finkel, associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University and co-author of the new study.
“But study after study shows that those preferences don’t predict whom daters are actually attracted to when they meet flesh-and-blood partners. Now we can get under the hood with this quirky methodology to see what people actually prefer in live-interaction settings.”
Dr. Paul Eastwick, assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M University and lead author of the study, notes that the new research shows that what people say isn’t worth much. “Instead, it would actually be more useful to measure reaction times on this new task,” he said.
The implicit measure in the study, which was focused on physical attractiveness, was based on reaction times to various words flashed in the middle of a computer screen. Participants were tasked with quickly sorting synonyms of physical attractiveness with other words that they happen to like, such as tequila, motorcycles, or romance novels.
According to the researchers, the people who perform well on this task have a strong implicit preference for physical attractiveness.
“In many cases, people’s consciously stated attitudes and preferences predict their behavior quite well,” said Dr. Alice Eagly, professor of psychology in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and a co-author of the study.
“But in the case of attraction, people’s implicit, unconscious preferences seem to do a better job.”
She noted a number of psychology studies reveal a disconnect between stated preferences for partners and actual choices. While most of those studies use explicit measures, in which people report what appeals to them in a partner, in the new study the implicit measure developed by the researchers predicted how much the participants liked physically attractive potential partners. This was measured both at a speed-dating event and in a face-to-face interaction in the laboratory.
“People’s reports of why they like certain partners might not be especially accurate,” Eastwick said. “But that doesn’t mean that romantic desire is random. The reasons might still be there, hovering just outside of conscious awareness.”
The study appeared in the November issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Source: Northwestern University