Do You Really Know What You Desire In A Romantic Partner?

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No, not really.  

Saying things like “looks don’t really matter to me” or “it’s his character and personality that really counts” has become  commonplace nowadays. But what people say they want and what they actually want are often two very different things when it comes to romantic attraction. We tell our friends and family and even to ourselves what we value in a romantic partner but study after study show that those preferences don’t accurately predict who or what they are actually attracted to.

To investigate this further, researchers from Northwestern University and Texas A&M University measured whether people’s implicit preferences for physical attraction matched what they consciously stated or thought. The test they used was similar to the one developed at Harvard called the IAT, or the Implicit Association Test. These tests try to examine thoughts and feelings that exist either outside of our conscious awareness or outside of conscious control through quick, reflex-type inputs.

To describe the task briefly, a word would pop-up on the screen and the participant’s task was to categorize that word into one of two categories, things they thought was important or things they thought was unimportant at a lightning pace so that their conscious mind would have little time to affect their answers. So synonyms of “physical attractiveness” (like chiseled abs or broad shoulders) with other words that they happen to like, such as Britney Spears, or fried chicken, or romance novels would come up on the screen and they would use two keys on the keyboard to quickly sort through the list of words as quickly as possible.* The people who performed well on this task have a strong implicit preference for physical attractiveness, and it just so happens that most people do have a moderate to strong preference for physical attractiveness.

In most cases, people’s consciously stated attitudes and preferences predict their corresponding behavior quite well. But when it comes to attraction, people’s implicit and unconscious preferences seem to do a better job. So I guess it’s possible to delude ourselves to a certain extent, but our unconscious side is not swayed that easily. 

Bottom line: Most people still want sexy partners, despite what we might say. 

*If you had a hard time understanding my explanation, just go take one of the tests yourself. It’s pretty straightforward. And the results might be quite interesting.

Source:

Eastwick, Paul., et. al. “Implicit and Explicit Preferences for Physical Attractiveness in a Romantic Partner: A Double Dissociation in Predictive Validity.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (2011)

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