What science says about your ‘love list’ to find your ideal partner

  • Most people have a list of top traits they seek in a potential partner
  • According to new research, however, these 'ideal preferences' don't matter that much
  • The researchers, therefore, suggest that it's best not to be too picky before the time

Most of us have a list of at least three essential qualities we’d want in a romantic partner. According to a 2019 study that surveyed 64 000 women, "kindness" and "intelligence" were the top two traits women seek in men. On the flip side, the Business Insider reports that according to several studies men prefer "honesty" in women, while another found "kindness" and "assertiveness" attractive as well.

However, according to a new study, we may not actually have unique insight into what we truly want, as we might just be describing positive qualities that everyone else also likes.

The research, carried out by six researchers from the University of California, was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

How the team came to their conclusion

Let’s say you’re asked to list three attributes in a potential romantic partner. Now take a minute to reflect on this, and ask yourself: do these attributes really matter to you? According to the researchers, they probably don’t. This is based on the results of 700 participants’ answers in their research.

The participants were required to nominate their top three ideals in a romantic partner, followed by listing their romantic desire for a series of people they personally knew. Blind date partners, romantic partners and friends were included in the reported results. 

If these personal acquaintances possessed their top three attributes, participants were found to experience more romantic desire. “On the surface, this looks promising,” said co-author Paul Eastwick, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychology, but the researchers included a twist:

"You say you want these three attributes, and you like the people who possess those attributes. But the story doesn't end there."

Describing qualities that everyone likes?

The researchers took it a step further and asked each participant to consider the extent to which those same personal acquaintances possessed three attributes nominated by some other random person in the study group.

For example, the news release explains, if Kris listed down-to-earth, intelligent and thoughtful as her own top three attributes, Vanessa also experienced more desire for acquaintances who were down-to-earth, intelligent and thoughtful.

What does this mean?

"In the end, we want partners who have positive qualities, but the qualities you specifically list do not actually have special predictive power for you," explained Jehan Sparks, former UC Davis doctoral student and lead author of the study.

Simply put, the team suggests that, based on their findings, people don’t actually have any particular insight into what they personally want in a partner.

Similar to ordering food at a restaurant

Eastwick compared this to ordering food at a restaurant: “Why do we order off the menu for ourselves? Because it seems obvious that I will like what I get to pick. Our findings suggest that, in the romantic domain, you might as well let a random stranger order for you – you’re just as likely to end up liking what you get.”

According to the researchers, these results could have implications for the way people approach online dating as people on dating apps spend countless hours scanning through profiles in the hopes of finding someone who passes their ideal checklist, but Sparks and colleagues’ research suggests that this effort may be misguided.

“It’s really easy to spend time hunting around online for someone who seems to match your ideals,” Sparks said, continuing: “But our research suggests an alternative approach. Don’t be too picky ahead of time about whether a partner matches your ideals on paper. Or, even better, let your friends pick your dates for you.”