I'm Paul Eastwick, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. I research the science of relationships. It's my job to overanalyze relationships so that you don't have to. AMA!
What are our ideals for what we want in a romantic partner, and whom do we select? The research might surprise you.
My research investigates how people initiate romantic relationships and the psychological mechanisms that help romantic partners to remain committed and attached. One segment of my research explores how the qualities that people say are critically important to them in a romantic partner—their ideal partner preferences — affect how they choose and retain a partner. I run “The Attraction and Relationship Research Laboratory” at UC Davis. I also teach General Psychology as well as graduate and undergraduate courses on close relationships and evolutionary psychology.
EDIT: And we're done! Thanks for having me, everyone! You can follow me on Twitter u/PaulEastwick and read more about my work here! http://pauleastwick.blogspot.com/
You bet! So I don’t know how practical this advice is exactly, but it’s the thing I wish I could go back and tell my single-and-struggling 19-year old self. It’s that most relationships don’t form immediately upon meeting someone for the first time. They usually coalesce slowly out of networks of friends and acquaintances. So that means that if you’re single and would like not to be, it’s a better idea to cultivate networks of friends and acquaintances than to keep trying to strike up conversations with random strangers in the hope that a spark will magically appear.
Now, it also happens that the romantic initiation process gets less competitive as people get to know each other time. Specifically, people start agreeing less about who is desirable and who is not over time - that means that people who might not have seemed super appealing at first might become much more appealing TO YOU the better you get to know them. And on the flipside, if you’re not the most desirable person out there, it pays to let other people get to know you - some subset of potential partners.
Have there been any particularly surprising findings you've discovered through your research?
Well, I have done a lot of work in the domain of mate preferences: the qualities that people say they desire in a romantic partner. Do you especially want a partner who is intelligent, or attractive, or adventurous? Much of the online dating space is predicated on the idea that we can learn things on a dating profile that give us a sense that a particular possible partner does or does not match or ideals, and we can decide whether we want to initiate a relationship based on what we learn.
The trouble is, once we meet someone face-to-face, the extent to which a person matches our ideals seems to have no real effect on how much we are into the person. And the surprising part is: That even seems to be true if we end up in a relationship with the person! Matching with ideals has a pretty small effect on romantic outcomes.
What I think this means is that people’s standards don’t generalize very well from relationship to relationship. In other words, there are standards you develop in the course of a particular relationship that will affect how you feel about your partner, but those standards probably aren’t things like “intelligent” or “attractive” but rather “lets me vent about how terrible my boss is.” I think that largely what makes a relationship good or bad is not whether the person matches your hypothetical, abstract ideal of a perfect partner, but rather how you and your partner create your own private microculture of norms, habits, and routines - you have to make your microculture work for you.
Are human more fit for Monogamy or Polygamy?
Well, to me, the answer is “serial monogamy”. We are built to bond, but in humans, those bonds don’t always last forever. But it sure does look a lot like polygamy when people are between partners!
People always compare relationships to puzzle pieces, different but a perfect fit. Would you say difference is bad or good in relationships? Do people with more similarities tend to be more successful or less successful long term?
Husband and I are quite opposite but still similar enough to share some common interests and I was super curious about this!
This is a fascinating question - the short answer is that actual similarity doesn’t really have much of an effect on relationship satisfaction. So you and your partner might be quite similar, or quite different - but the effect on your relationship ultimately won’t be very big.
What DOES matter is that you and your partner emphasize the things you do share and de-emphasize the things you don’t share. That is, “perceived similarity” matters a great deal in relationships. Thankfully, it is usually up to you - the two people in a relationship - to decide what factors you want to emphasize.
For more, here’s a paper to read: “Perceived, not actual, similarity predicts initial attraction in a live romantic context: Evidence from the speed-dating paradigm”.
Dr Eastwick! Thanks for taking the time for this. I loved your 2017 collaboration with Dr. Joel and Dr. Finkel on predicting romantic desire.
On that topic, do you believe that dating apps' algorithms have evolved in any significant way in the last few years, and will they continue to make (relatively) blind guesses in the future?
Oh great, very cool! I have to give Dr. Joel the lion’s share of the credit - she took the red pill and become one with machine learning while preparing that piece.
I don’t think they’ve evolved that much unless they’ve started to assess how people feel about their dates AFTER they have met those dates in person. That’s when you could really start to see something interesting - if you know that I’ve liked going on dates with Ryan and Andre but not Brian, that should mean that I should check out Damian but not Luis.
This process is called “collaborative filtering,” and I think it’s a lot closer to the approach that amazon and Netflix take in making recommendations for you. But of course, you’d need the data on whether I liked Ryan/Andre/Brian, etc. - and getting that data will require some effort!
Greetings, Prof. Eastwick! Is MBTI system or generic personality tests reliable enough to be used to determine if the relationship is going to work or not? I've seen many sites claim them to work, but I have my doubts. Thank you for your time.
The short answer: Nope! Now, the MBTI is a funny case - I heard Dr. Brent Roberts (a famous personality researcher) describe the MBTI as “4 of the Big 5 Personality traits, but all made to sound desirable.” So assuming that characterization is true, then matching on MBTI surely does nothing for relationships, because matching on the Big 5 does nothing for relationships! See here: https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2010-16990-001 (sorry it's behind a paywall...)
Is there any data to show that ideological differences do or don’t affect the relationship if said differences do not play a key role in day to day interactions?
Specifically, political differences. I actually have a couple friends in long term relationships (3+ years together) who are on polar opposite ends of the political spectrum.
On the flip side, I’ve had friends, dates, and seen online profiles where people (usually, on the political Left) immediately disqualify anyone who doesn’t align with their political ideals (ie, statements like “I’d never date a Trump supporter / Republican” or “Swipe in the opposite direction of your political beliefs”).
Granted, this may be simply a subset based on locality (Bay Area dating scene / 20-40 year olds within my social network) but I’m curious if there’s anything that shows it either leads to better relationships or doesn’t matter. The fact that people lead off with it is, in my opinion, a sign of other issues (looking for problems rather than commonalities before you’ve even met someone - as has been mentioned in other comments, relationships tend to work better with emphasizing shared commonalities).
You know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. In terms of the existing published data (mostly collected in the 00s, 90s and earlier) the lesson is crystal clear: Matching on political orientation does not matter at all. Not even a little bit. That is, relationship satisfaction is totally disconnected from political orientation similarity.
But it’s possible that all this data comes from a different age in which the nation was less polarized in terms of party affiliation (Ezra Klein’s recent book "Why We’re Polarized" has had me thinking about this a lot). So it might be that, today, political orientation is actually a better marker for our values than it was a generation or two earlier, and so studies conducted in this decade would show different effects.
Hi and thanks for joining us today!
Do you find attractive qualities change over time in relationships? Do societal changes influence those qualities? How might that affect future marriage trends?
My former advisor Eli Finkel has a really interesting book called the "All-or-Nothing Marriage" that talks about the way that expectations for marriage have changed over time. In brief, in the U.S., societal expectations have shifted such that people often look to their marriages to aid and facilitate their goals of self-discovery and self-actualization.
What this means is that we have to spend more and more time engaging in support and intimacy-building with our partners if we are to find our long-term relationships to be truly fulfilling. It’s a big ask of one’s relationship, but it can be quite fulfilling if you’re someone who can devote this level of time and energy to your relationship. If you can’t because, let’s say, you have to work two jobs, or you have a sick parent or child, it’s much harder to feel like you have a “good marriage” today compared to decades past.
I have heard that men's relationship with their mother, and women's relationship with their father, is a way to predict how they will treat their spouse. I have also heard others take this a little further and say that men will seek out women with the same qualities as their mother (and women seek out their father's qualities). Any truth to these anecdotes?
Hmmm….my guess is that these anecdotes are probably mostly anecdotes. To the extent that there is truth in these ideas, it’s probably more general than thing: If you have a good relationship with your mother, you’re going to have good relationships with lots of people. If you have a good relationship with both parents, even better. I doubt there is much truth to the specific mother-son/father-daughter component.
And it’s probably not true that we seek the qualities or attributes of our parents when looking for partners (at least, I would be shocked if there were good evidence for this idea, since what we say we want RARELY connects to what we actually want). But it certainly seems plausible that our parents pass values and beliefs and habits onto us, and we carry those values and beliefs with us, and they affect how we actively shape and create our relationships later in life. So it’s not like we’re looking for a set template when we try to find a partner, but we might (intentionally or unintentionally) create our relationships to be something that feels familiar and “right”.
Have you seen any major trend change in how people initiate relationships? Esp. considering how big online dating and social media has gotten in the past few years
There’s a great paper by Michael Rosefeld recently showing that people are increasingly likely to “disintermediate” their friends when looking for a romantic partner. What this means is that people are looking more to online dating and less to their friends for the way that they form relationships. If you look at this paper here, he has some pretty dramatic graphs:
But that also begs the question of whether the psychological experience of initiating a relationship differs depending on whether people meet someone online or through friends. And THAT is a much more muddy question. My general sense of the empirical work is that it takes a considerable period of time for most couples to truly form a relationship - things typically move in fits and starts. Maybe online dating reduces that a little bit? But generally speaking, most people don’t know immediately upon meeting each other where they want a relationship to go - do they want it to be just a one night thing? A fling? Or let it go wherever it goes? It usually takes time for people to answer those questions for themselves...
Hello Dr. Eastwick, thanks for doing this.
Are there any positive or NEGATIVE effects of your childhood environment (relationship of parents, environment at home etc.) which can drive your marriage/relationship decisions as an adult?
Moreover, if you develop a negative outlook towards relationships because of such reasons how do you overcome?
Chris Fraley (former UC Davis grad student!) has amazing work looking at the continuity of people’s attachment orientations over time (see here, for example): The development of adult attachment styles: four lessons
So your parents do shape your avoidant vs. anxious vs. secure attachment orientation, and you often do carry those working models with you over time. But it is far from determinative - people will often have better relational experiences later than life, and their attachment working models will change for the better!
How do we break off and on again cycles with someone we care about but only seems to care about us half the time?
Yeah, this is tricky. I mean, nothing is quite as good as finding someone who cares about you all the time, right? But in the meantime, if the mercurial partner is someone you really want to avoid, you’ll want to develop implementation intentions for yourself. Things like “If she texts me after 10 PM, I am giving my phone to my roommate” or “if he orders a third drink, I will pretend to get a desperate phone call from my friend and excuse myself.” These things really do work - you just have to commit ahead of time!
I have 2 questions. What usually makes a relationship last a long time? And why do humans find the need to cheat, even though they’re in a perfectly good relationship? Thanks
The biggest predictors of longevity are things like intimacy, trust, and feeling like your partner is a good source of support (and that means supporting your successes, too!) And, importantly, the feeling that one does NOT have many desirable alternative partners also predicts that relationships will stay together.
So part of the problem with cheating is that people let their defenses down prior to the actual cheating event. For whatever reason, they allowed the relationship to get to the point where they even noticed that alternative partners were around and desirable. It’s better to avoid the situation where one might be tempted, and people who are doing well at preserving their relationships will often take steps (consciously or unconsciously) to avoid even experiencing the temptation in the first place. If the temptations actually appear, now you’re playing with fire.
Are there any interesting research in your lines that could be applied to marketing/business (e.g. fostering romantic relationships with corporate brands, etc...)?
The only insight I have along these lines is that humans are built to have relationships with other people (and the animals we anthropomorphize like our pets), and so to the extent that a relationship with a brand is “experienced” as a relationship with an actual person, it’s likely to feel more real to the consumer.
I also think that the extent to which a product or brand is part of a relationship, that’s also likely to become more permanent (e.g., my partner and I always travel together to our favorite location or eat out at our favorite restaurant). There are all sorts of products or brands that can become part of our own little relationship microculture.
I often hear people say the number one quality they're looking for in a partner is humor. Are there any stats on whether or not people are ACTUALLY partnering up with funny people? What types of qualities are people ACTUALLY ending up with vs. what they SAY they want in a partner?
Humor is a great one - in a recent study, we asked people to nominate the top three qualities they wanted a romantic partner to have. Humor was the #1 most commonly nominated trait, out of 95 total - about 13% of people mention it in their top three. See the last few pages of this doc if you want to see the whole list:
But what this paper also shows is that (a) if Vanessa nominated humor as a particularly important quality but (b) Kris did not, that did not really matter in terms of what Vanessa and Kris actually wanted. Both Vanessa and Kris ultimately wanted partners who they thought had a good sense of humor, but whether they nominated it as a top 3 or not was more or less irrelevant.
In other words, go ahead and order off the menu. But you might as well let your friend order for you - you’re equally likely to end up enjoying what you get!
Can you explain why people “ghost” other people? In terms of like people disappearing out of the blue.
I think part of the answer harkens back to the deemphasizing of attachment and the numbness that people need to cultivate to survive in hookup culture. Part of it, too, is that online dating and social media allow us to interact with people who are not deeply connected to our existing “real-world” networks of friends and acquaintances. So if the ghosts don’t have the courage to end a relationship with some dignity, and there aren’t going to be social consequences for him/her/they, then it’s going to happen with increasing frequency, sadly.
What can I do to help myself become more attracted to a long term partner if the spark starts to die?
This is a truly challenging question, and there probably aren’t any simple solutions. There is some evidence that engaging in novel and arousing activities can bring some passion back into people’s relationships, like this work from Art Aron and colleagues: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2000-13328-006 (sorry another paywall)
An alternative approach is to think not about “rekindling the spark” - as in, getting back to what “once was” - but rather, is there a way to reinvent the relationship into something truly new and different? I find it helpful to think that relationships themselves can live many lives over time, and it takes courage to deconstruct an existing relationship that is just going ok and try to transform it into something truly new and more satisfying for both partners.
What are your thoughts on the hookup culture scene? Do they promote better characteristics in a future relationship or the opposite?
I love Lisa Wade’s book “American Hookup”. What I took away from that book - and other empirical work on the topic - is that hookup culture starts with the “common” way that college students have long met potential romantic partners. That is, heterosexual men and women form networks of friends and acquaintances, they see each other periodically in classes, and at parties, they drink, they dance, and things sometimes get interesting from there.
What young students today have scaffolded on top of this typical process is a commitment to deactivating and deemphasizing any of the natural feelings of attachment that sometimes start to emerge in the wake of a sexual encounter. It’s like taking the typical process of relationship formation and making yourself just a little bit numb, so that you reduce the likelihood that a relationship ultimately forms.
So to me, what isn’t super healthy about hookup culture is that it sometimes leads people to embrace this numbness and discarding of feelings of attachment - that probably doesn’t bode well for future relationships. To me, that’s the part of hookup culture that isn’t ideal.
Hi Dr. Eastwick, thank you for doing this AMA. In what way do you think the general public could utilize your research findings in their personal lives, whether it’s initiating close relationships or improving on existing ones?
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