If someone asked you what your type was, you’d probably have a complicated, adjective-laden answer ready for them. Some people say they prefer blondes. Others will only date football players. Some of us constantly fall over ourselves for skinny, brown-haired musicians — hypothetically speaking, of course. Everyone has an ideal of what “type” of partner they’re looking for, and yet it seems like so often we find ourselves attracted to someone who doesn’t fit the description. Why, we wonder. Why do I like this person? Chances are it’s not because they dabbed on some pheromones before they left their room. It’s more likely that you’re simply wrong about what you want. But rest assured, you’re not the only one. Most of us are actually mistaken about what we like — we just don’t know it.
Countless studies have shown that people are remarkably incompetent when it comes to self-assessment or being aware of their motives for doing something. We may say, or even think that we’re looking for a skinny, tattooed blonde girl who’s into Indian food and yoga, but then we find ourselves drawn to the short, redheaded art history major in the Coldplay hoodie instead.
It might be true that you can’t always get what you want but before you can complain about that, you have to figure out just what is that you do want. So why are we so bad at it?
“This is the million-dollar question,” said Paul Eastwick, a sixth-year psychology graduate student at Northwestern specializing in relationships and the process of attraction, in an e-mail interview. “We have some ideas, but no bulletproof data yet. One possibility is that when you meet another person, you don’t size that person up as a piecemeal set of characteristics. People aren’t comparing a potential romantic partner with their piecemeal ideas appropriately.”
It’s a valid point: When you meet a stranger and feel that little twitch of attraction somewhere in your ribcage, you don’t stop to analyze if it’s because of the clever joke they just made about Malcolm Gladwell’s hair or because they smell like delicious pie. You just go with it.
“Attraction is such a complex phenomenon and often occurs in such an automatic, gut-level fashion, people don’t stop and think ‘He just made me laugh, therefore he has some level of intelligence and creativity, therefore he is a suitable partner,’” said Dr. Mark Prokosch, a researcher and psychology professor at Elon University, in an e-mail.
Finding love…or, let’s be real — a fling
While following your instincts is generally a good way both to go through life and to avoid getting hit by cars, this uncertainty about what is attractive does make it a whole lot harder when it comes to snagging a partner. How can we possibly try to figure out what other people are looking for when we don’t even know what we’re looking for?
There’s no perfect answer to this– but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People aren’t all the same, and most people are looking for different things, which is good. You can’t predict exactly what personality qualities will make that cute girl at the bar go home with you tonight. There are, however, a few qualities that tend to be attractive almost across the board.
Unfortunately for the fascinating and hilarious but genetically-deprived among us, looks still matter. A lot. A study conducted last winter by Eastwick and Northwestern’s famous assistant psychology professor Eli Finkel (did you do that speed-dating event with Finkel back in winter quarter? Congratulations. You are this study.) found that, for both men and women, physical appearance is still the most important deciding factor in attraction. Despite our reactions to other qualities like intelligence, how a person looks is still going to be the first thing we notice about them. Sorry, folks. Blame evolution.
“We do still find that those first impressions are mostly driven by physical attraction,” Prokosch said. “Traits like intelligence and creativity come on line a bit later.”
But just because physical appearance tends to dictate our immediate response doesn’t mean that other traits still aren’t very important, especially beyond that instantaneous first impression.
Glasses are the new Lamborghinis
First of all, stop making fun of the nerds in your econ class. According to a study conducted by Prokosch earlier this year, intelligence is actually one of the most attractive qualities, at least to women. In the study, women watched videos of 15 different men perform a series of tasks, then rated their intelligence, attractiveness, creativity and appeal for a relationship (both short- and long-term). The results showed that perceived intelligence was a strong indicator of both kinds of relationship appeal — a bit surprising, since it often seems like all that most of us require of a one-night-stand partner is a reasonable state of consciousness.
“It isn’t quite clear why intelligence is important,” said Prokosch. “Theoretically, the idea is that women prefer intelligence because higher intelligence indicates that the man has ‘good genes’ that may be passed on to potential offspring. This isn’t a conscious process, but simply occurs because a smart guy who can be clever, witty and hold a conversation is sexy.”
Now I know you’re thinking about it, but guys, don’t try cramming the contents of an encyclopedia into your brain before going out; Prokosch’s research also found that women tend to be fairly accurate judges of a man’s intelligence just from seeing or interacting with him. Faking it isn’t going to work here.
So if intelligence is what gets all the ladies, why do we still have things like Beauty and the Geek telling us that smart guys need Ashton Kutcher’s help to even speak to a girl without stuttering into a state of helplessness? The truth is that, despite the popular image of a Halo-playing, socially incompetent, bespectacled nerd, most of the stereotypes we associate with intelligence are actually positive ones. According to Prokosch, we tend to think of smart people as socially confident, wealthy and witty. There’s even a “halo effect” that makes us perceive intelligent people as being more attractive. So, next time you head to Hundo, wear your Cthulhu shirt with pride. It might be just what gets that hot girl to talk to you.
Men and Women: actually from the same planet
But one characteristic is not going to close the deal for you. Years of sitcoms and countless romantic comedies have informed most of us that women and men are looking for entirely different things. Women want men with big paychecks, and men want women with big tits.
In fact, this idea is absolutely wrong, except maybe for the terrifying people featured on Real Housewives of [insert overpriced, overrated region]. Eastwick and Finkel’s study found that, for the most part, women and men place equal importance on broad traits like physical attractiveness and earning power, even though they said they didn’t. Prior to the study, Finkel and Eastwick had participants rate how important appearance, earning potential and personality were in deciding whether they would want to date someone. More women said they valued earning potential, while more men stressed the importance of physical appearance. Yet the study’s results didn’t support this at all. Instead, Eastwick and Finkel found that both genders rank physical appearance as the most important quality, followed by personality and earning potential. In fact, men and women generally placed the same importance on each quality, totally negating the cultural notions and the participants’ own ideas of what factors matter the most.
“In live interactions, people don’t seem to be pursuing their ideals,” said Eastwick. “But it’s hard to say yet whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.”
We’re finding out more and more that looks aren’t everything, particularly when it comes to forming relationships, and that the qualities we assume are the most attractive ones often aren’t. Maybe we should stop worrying so much about whether our hair is straightened or what brand of our polo shirt we’re wearing, and concentrate a little more on developing a personality beyond the facade of what we think will make people like us. Because most of the time, being genuine is the best option. The only people that like fakeness are the ones running the porn industry.
Now go to class and learn something. It’ll help you pick up chicks.