How shallow are we?
Another study comes out and the mainstream news sites jump all over it. This one's about what men and women say they're looking for in a partner, and what they actually choose.
Participants ranged in age from 26 to their early 40s and took part in "speed dating," short meetings of three to seven minutes in which people chat, then move on to meet another dater. Afterward, participants check off the people they'd like to meet again, and dates can be arranged between pairs who select one another.
Speed dating let researchers look at a lot of mate choices in a short time, Todd said.
In the study, participants were asked before the session to fill out a questionnaire about what they were looking for in a mate, listing such categories as wealth and status, family commitment, physical appearance, healthiness and attractiveness.
After the session, the researchers compared what the participants said they were looking for with the people they actually chose to ask for another date.
Men's choices did not reflect their stated preferences, the researchers concluded. Instead, men appeared to base their decisions mostly on the women's physical attractiveness.
The men also appeared to be much less choosy. Men tended to select nearly every woman above a certain minimum attractiveness threshold, Todd said.
"Women made offers to men who had overall qualities that were on a par with the women's self-rated attractiveness. They didn't greatly overshoot their attractiveness," Todd said, "because part of the goal for women is to choose men who would stay with them"
But, he added, "they didn't go lower. They knew what they could get and aimed for that level."
This is only mildly interesting and not really very surprising, and I think it's of limited use. Reading through the coverage, it seems there's a tendency to make bold statements like "Looks are everything". Was there even a question that people are initially interested in people they find more physically attractive? It's nice to have confirming evidence, but it doesn't answer any questions outside of superficial initial attraction.
Speed dating isn't a microcosm of the process of building a relationship. It's more like a meat market. Sure, there's a little conversation, but you can't get any kind of sense of a person in 3 minutes, especially when they're on stage, so to speak.
What I've found in my own experience, and seen in others, is that the better I know a woman, the more my estimation of her attractiveness changes. And I don't mean that I see two discrete qualities - looks and personality - but that they kind of merge and I have a new mental picture of the person as a whole. I've known several women who I didn't find particularly good-looking at first, but as I got to know them, I found them more and more attractive (and vice versa). I know that the same process has happened with my wife, we've discussed it before. You can even see it at work in public - there's no doubt that aesthetically, a lot of people find Brittany Spears to be attractive, but now you hear a lot about how gross or skanky she is, that's due to her behavior more than anything.
And how do people meet their mates or longer-term partners? I think the circumstances in many cases allow people to get to know each other before they start dating. If you date someone at work, church, school etc... you get a chance to decide on more than your first 3 minute impression. In those cases looks are just one piece of the equation. It's clearly important that people who are together be attracted to each other, but attractiveness is more complex than an initial impression.
So I don't think people in general are quite as shallow over the long term as they appear to be from studies like this.