NORTHWESTERN / TEXAS A&M (US) — Online daters are quick to look for a partner that fulfills a wish list of ideal characteristics—but those ideals may go by the wayside once they actually meet in person.
“People have ideas about the abstract qualities they’re looking for in a romantic partner,” says Paul Eastwick, assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M and lead author of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “But once you actually meet somebody face to face, those ideal preferences for traits tend to be quite flexible.”
Say you prefer a partner who, online or on paper, fits the bill of being persistent. “After meeting in person, you might feel that, yeah, that person is persistent, but he can’t compromise on anything. It’s not the determined and diligent kind of persistent that you initially had in mind.”
The idea is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, says co-author Eli Finkel, associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University.
“People are not simply the average of their traits,” he says. “Knowing that somebody is persistent, ambitious, and sexy does not tell you what that person is actually like. It doesn’t make sense for us to search for partners that way.”
“Thinking about this or that feature of a person apart from taking the whole person into account doesn’t predict actual attraction,” says co-author Alice Eagly, professor of social psychology at Northwestern. “While some online dating sites have video features that provide some context, generally people are matched on their answers to specific questions that do not capture the whole person.”
Questions like ‘How much money do you make?’ or ‘Are you extroverted’ only provide two-dimensional facts, Finkel says, so people seeking prospective partners shouldn’t be surprised if they end up ignoring preconceived notions about what would make an ideal mate.
“Based on those ideals, you might end up liking a person upon meeting face to face, or you might have the opposite reaction,” Finkel says. As Eastwick notes, it is not uncommon for someone to say, ‘If you had tried to set me up with this guy, I would never have gone out with him, but I’m so glad I did!’ ”
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