Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Matters of the Heart

What do you imagine when you think of your perfect partner? Are they rich? Good looking? Funny and outgoing?  Would you be surprised if you were told none of those traits mattered as much as you thought they did?

A great deal of research has gone into determining what men look for in women and vice versa. Of course everyone wants someone who is attractive, engaging and reasonably self sufficient. But how important different characteristics are to each gender has seemingly varied quite a bit. Men for example generally claim that looks are more important than earning potential while women find potential wealth more compelling. Both men and women find warmth or friendliness approximately as important as the other gender.

However, these preferences are based on self reported data provided by study participants who are not actually interacting with potential partners. Most studies are conducted via a simple survey or by asking participants to rate pictures and profiles of potential mates. When participants rate real people they've actually met their preferences are quite different.

Recent studies have used a clever method to reveal participants true preferences. Participants were divided into two dating groups. Each group read profiles and saw pictures of the other group and then rated them for  a variety of factors including looks, earning potential and warmth. This provided a baseline rating for each individual without personal engagement. Groups then attended speed dating sessions within their own group (who they had not seen profiles for). After the speed dating sessions they rated their own group on the same metrics as the other group as well as listing which dates they preferred to see again.

If everyone's stated preferences held true we would expect that men would heavily favor more attractive women and women would heavily favor wealthier men. However, the results did not support this hypothesis.  Instead men and women did not show substantial differences between their preferences for attractiveness, wealth or warmth.  In other words although men and women both preferred attractive counterparts neither seemed to prefer attractiveness more than the other gender. The same was true for earning potential, friendliness and a variety of other factors.

The interesting part about this phenomenon is that both the stated preferences and revealed preferences still have significant influence on the mate selection process. However, each preference set is influential at a different time. Stated preferences dominate during the initial "weeding out" phase when individuals must narrow the field from hundreds to a few dozen. Later, revealed preferences are impactful when settling on a certain individual.

Imagine a man or woman attempting to find a potential spouse on an online dating website. During the initial stages when he or she is deciding who to contact for a date their stated preferences are dominant. Men will select women based on looks more than women. Meanwhile women will select men based more on potential future earnings than men. However, once they actually meet their counterpart both genders will weigh such things as looks and wealth equally as compared to the other gender.

So what's the lesson to be learned? Most importantly it would seem that as individuals we often don't know what we really want. In a more practical sense it would seem that exaggerating a bit on a dating profile (or using a flattering picture) might be worth it in order to get past the initial selection stage as long as you don't get categorized as being deceptive.

More economics next week. Until then stay safe and rational.

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