Why People Aren't as Picky in Love as They Think

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Why People Aren't as Picky in Love as They Think

We assume we choose our life partners very carefully – but research shows we may be less selective in love than we think.

Finding a life partner is considered a major milestone – one that requires deliberation and careful assessment. We want someone whose long-term plans match our own: someone to whom we’re attracted, someone with whom we feel comfortable sharing our home, finances and, maybe, children. This person is our life partner, after all – naturally, we assume we’ll take care with the decision.

But it turns out we may be less selective about whom we spend our lives with than we think. Research shows hidden biases mean we’ll give people a chance, even if they don’t quite meet our criteria.  And when we do pick a partner, we’re driven by a psychological tendency called “progression bias” to stay in the relationship, rather than end it.

In other words, we’re hard-wired to be in a romantic relationship, say psychologists, despite trends among young people to shun marriage in favour of a calculated approach to singlehood. Yet, even as the combination of evolutionary instincts and societal pressures steer us towards the coupled life, being aware of our progression bias could help us understand why we pick the partners we do – and why we stay with them.


Head over heels

We’re conditioned to think of dating as a rigorous vetting process; a 2020 Pew Research Center study showed 75% of Americans describe finding people to date as ‘difficult’. Young people are also taking longer to settle down; as well as prioritising financial stability, they are taking more time to get to know each other before getting married than other age groups.

But Samantha Joel, assistant professor of psychology at Western University, Canada, and Geoff MacDonald, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, argues people aren’t as choosy about their partners as they may think. In July 2020, they published their theoretical review paper summarising the ways progression bias pushes people to begin and maintain relationships with less discretion than they assume. 

Their findings were twofold: first, there is substantial evidence from multiple studies suggesting people are far less selective when picking people to date than they think. People are drawn to a much broader range of potential partners than they realise; they’re willing to adjust their standards and overlook potential partners’ flaws; and they also end up growing quickly attached to these potential mates, even if they may not necessarily be their ideal partners.


For example, in one experiment Joel and MacDonald conducted, they found that most university students reported that they’d reject potential matches who were either unattractive, or possessed a trait the respondents considered ‘a dealbreaker’, in a hypothetical match-making situation. But those figures plummeted when that match-making scenario was presented as being real and not hypothetical – suggesting that the students were far less romantically selective than they purported to be, and that they overestimated their willingness to reject others.

The second takeaway from Joel and MacDonald’s paper is that, as well as being less choosy about dating than people think, they’re inclined to remain in relationships and try to progress them, rather than end them. The academics point to studies showing that ending a relationship is more painful the longer you’ve been emotionally attached; that separating is more off-putting the more logistically entwined you are with your partner through factors like marriage and finances; and that married couples receive more cultural benefits (such as finding it easier to rent property) than other people.





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