Mate-Seeking: The Science of Finding Your Best Partner

Brad Pitt in

Brad Pitt in “Moneyball”

One of my many hats is investor/economist, so this story from NPR by Sean Braswell about applying economic thinking to mate-seeking got my attention:

… [T]here’s another type of virtual eyewear that many of us spend even more time donning — one that has the opposite effect of beer goggles. Call them “expectancy spectacles” if you’d like, because wearing them causes us to raise our standards and expectations, often unrealistically, of everything from potential mates to job prospects.

The primary culprit behind this altered vision is not booze, but a potent concoction of Hollywood movies, social conditioning and wishful thinking. And fortunately, there are a few scientists on the case.

One is Ty Tashiro, a psychologist specializing in romantic relationships who writes for Discovery Fit and Health. His recent book, The Science of Happily Ever After, explores what “advances in relationship science” can teach us about the partners we choose. Almost 9 in 10 Americans believe they have a soul mate, says Tashiro, but only 3 in 10 find enduring partnerships that do not end in divorce, separation or chronic unhappiness. Clearly something is going wrong — and it starts with our expectations.

That’s because in real life the pool of potential partners looks rather different from the cast of The Bachelorette — something Tashiro hopes to address by putting some cold figures to the mating game, employing an approach similar to the one used by scientists who calculate the chances of life on other planets.

For example, say a bachelorette enters a room of 100 male bachelors who represent the broader U.S population. If she prefers a partner who’s tall (at least 6 feet), then her pool of possible prospects immediately shrinks to 20. If she would like him to be fairly attractive and earn a comfortable income (over $87,000 annually), then she’s down to a single prospect out of 100.

If you choose to specify further traits, such as kindness, intelligence or a particular religious or political affiliation, well, let’s just say we’re going to need a much bigger room. And then, of course, there’s the small matter of whether he actually likes you back.

Such long odds are the product of misplaced priorities, says Tashiro, but it’s not strictly our fault. Our mate preferences have been shaped by natural selection’s obsession with physical attractiveness and resources as well as the messages our friends, families and favorite shows transmit about sweethearts and soul mates. And it is at the start of relationships, when we need to make smart, long-term decisions, that we are least likely to do so because we’re in the throes of lust, passion and romance.

Or, as Tashiro puts it, returning to our alcohol analogy: “It would seem wise to hand off the keys to someone with more lucidity until your better sensibilities return.”

Which is why Tashiro advocates a new approach to dating, one that is not so much about lowering standards as giving yourself better ones. Call it “Moneyballing” relationships (Tashiro does); it’s all about finding undervalued traits and assets in the dating market. And, just like with baseball, it starts with trying to ignore the superficial indices of value — attractiveness, wealth — in favor of hidden attributes with a stronger correlation to long-term relationship success.

Citing research that finds no reliable link between income level or physical attractiveness and relationship satisfaction, Tashiro steers his readers toward traits such as agreeableness. With married couples, he points out, “liking declines at a rate of 3 percent a year, whereas lust declines at a rate of 8 percent per year,” so the smarter, long-term investment is finding someone you genuinely like. Plus, he adds, studies also suggest that agreeable partners are in fact “better in bed” and less likely to cheat over the long haul.

Being confused about what you are looking for in a mate is epidemic — part of the cost of freedom to choose yourself (instead of having parents arranging your marriage for you) is valuing the wrong things and being unrealistic about what your partner should be like. Programmed by the Fairy Tale model (“(s)he should be just perfect and make me happy!”) most young people don’t have the sense to look beyond the superficial unless they are lucky enough to accidentally come into close contact with a person who they can love unconditionally. Much more likely is to dismiss many good long-term partner candidates for failing to be exactly as expected — not tall enough, not rich enough, not goodlooking enough… “I deserve better!”

The “Moneyball” reference is to the problem of assembling the best baseball team for the least money. The obvious stars are pursued by many teams and their salaries bid up; because of the overvaluation of the very best players, one manager discovered he could assemble a great team at a lower cost by focusing on the less obvious players, who might be very good at one or two things which went unrecognized.

In the mate-seeking problem, the analogous strategy is to not be distracted by good looks or superficial factors like current wealth, height, or sexiness. The people who have all those things are in great demand, know it, and are less likely to pick you for partnership. Meanwhile, the shy, short guy with the entrepreneurial spirit and drive will someday be wealthy, the plain and unfashionably dressed girl with smarts may blossom into a glamourous woman as she makes it out in the world and has the time and money to work on appearance.

When you are thinking long-term, think like an investor — go after the future great partner, not the ones who satisfy all your shallow “must haves.” Love and commitment make high achievers out of good partners, and young people who are loyal and reliable can build each other up and create that successful life the Fairy Tale talks about; but it doesn’t just happen, you have to work for it and believe in your partner. Look for someone you can trust and believe in.

More reading on this topic:

Why We Are Attracted to Bad Partners (Who Resemble a Parent)
“Why Are Great Husbands Being Abandoned?”
Evolve or Die: Survival Value of the Feminine Imperative
Perfect Soulmates or Fellow Travelers: Being Happy Depends on Perspective
“The Science of Happily Ever After” – Couples Communications

More on Divorce, Marriage, and Mateseeking

Marriages Happening Late, Are Good for You
Monogamy and Relationship Failure; “Love Illuminated”
“Millionaire Matchmaker”
More reasons to find a good partner: lower heart disease!
“Princeton Mom” Susan Patton: “Marry Smart” not so smart
“Blue Valentine”
“All the Taken Men are Best” – why women poach married men….
“Marriage Rate Lowest in a Century”
Making Divorce Hard to Strengthen Marriages?
Student Loan Debt: Problems in Divorce
“The Upside of ‘Marrying Down’”
The High Cost of Divorce
Separate Beds Save Marriages?
Marital Discord Linked to Depression
Marriage Contracts: Give People More Legal Options
Older Couples Avoiding Marriage For Financial Reasons
Divorced Men 8 Times as Likely to Commit Suicide as Divorced Women
Vox Charts Millennial Marriage Depression
What’s the Matter with Marriage?
Life Is Unfair! The Great Chain of Dysfunction Ends With You.
Leftover Women: The Chinese Scene
Constant Arguing Can Be Deadly…
“If a fraught relationship significantly shortens your life, are you better off alone?
“Divorce in America: Who Really Wants Out and Why”
View Marriage as a Private Contract?
“It’s up there with ‘Men Are From Mars’ and ‘The Road Less Travelled’”
Free Love, eHarmony, Matchmaking Pseudoscience
Love Songs of the Secure Attachment Type
“The New ‘I Do’”
Unrealistic Expectations: Liberal Arts Woman and Amazon Men
Mark Manson’s “Six Healthy Relationship Habits”
“The Science of Happily Ever After” – Couples Communications
Free Dating Sites: Which Have Attachment Type Screening?
Dating Pool Danger: Harder to Find Good Partners After 30
Mate-Seeking: The Science of Finding Your Best Partner
Perfect Soulmates or Fellow Travelers: Being Happy Depends on Perspective
No Marriage, Please: Cohabiting Taking Over
“Marriage Markets” – Marriage Beyond Our Means?
Rules for Relationships: Realism and Empathy
Limerence vs. Love
The “Fairy Tale” Myth: Both False and Destructive
When to Break Up or Divorce? The Economic View
“Why Are Great Husbands Being Abandoned?”
Divorce and Alimony: State-By-State Reform, Massachusetts Edition
“Sliding” Into Marriage, Small Weddings Associated with Poor Outcomes
Subconscious Positivity Predicts Marriage Success…
Why We Are Attracted to Bad Partners (Who Resemble a Parent)


  1. “…the plain and unfashionably dressed girl with smarts may blossom into a glamourous woman as she makes it out in the world and has the time and money to work on appearance.”

    Excuse me? You were previously talking about how women needed to lower their expectations of attractiveness (say, height) in a man. Meanwhile, you argue that a woman’s end-game should be making herself as attractive as possible, at least once she has the time to.

    What? Are you serious? Heaven forbid a woman be successful, happy, companionable, but unattractive. How generous of you to assume that any female perceived as unfashionable and unattractive simply needs time to grow into her own before she can focus on those things. Goodness knows the universe would upend itself if it turned out being attractive was never one of her priorities to begin with.

    1. You are reminding me of all our 70s talk about looksism and other ‘isms! You realize you are not the type of person I am speaking to — young and programmed to value stereotypical qualities. While it may no longer be true in your neighborhood, in most of the world girls still grow up wanting a tall, handsome, and powerful male, while boys seek out beauty and sexiness (in whatever notions of beautiful and sexy are promoted in that culture.)

      I picked the two most stereotypical examples where a quality desired by typical young people is easily developed later in life. I could easily have picked less stereotypical examples — a geeky, skinny young man who starts weightlifting and turns into a built powerhouse and techno-millionaire in his 30s; or a young woman brought up in a poor culture with bad teeth, but whose brilliance and grit takes her to the executive suite, teeth straightened and a whiz at business.

      One good point is that these superficial qualities truly aren’t required for a great, mutually growing and loyal partnership; but even for those who value them highly, they can be cultivated. There is nothing wrong with being attractive or efforts to become more so; it is just a part of life. And you can admonish young people not to care about looks all you want, but my goal is to advise people on how to find a good partner, not how to cleanse themselves of all politically incorrect thought.

      1. I think you misunderstood me. I perfectly understand your argument and agree with many points of it. Where I take issue is your statement at the very end, where you unravel your own argument about looking for other, undervalued, non-physical qualities in a partner. Instead of saying ‘give the unfashionable girl a chance because she is smart’ you say ‘give the unfashionable girl a chance because she is smart AND might not always be unfashionable.’ By adding that “may blossom into a gorgeous woman” you place a lot of value you were attempting to assign to other qualities right back into looks. The consolation of the ugly girl is not that she is smart and companionable, but also that she might not always be ugly. Meanwhile, the soon-to-be-wealthy-entrepreneurial-short-guy you mention above has no such clause. Why is it that he must be valued for his traits outside appearance, but the ugly girl must still be viewed in the light of her appearance, even if it’s only in the hope that it might change?

      2. As I wrote elsewhere, “Not necessarily; that’s to point out to even those who value such superficial qualities that those displaying them now may not be displaying them later, and vice-versa. A preference for good looks is deeply embedded in culture and psyche, and probably in part innate; in Moneyball terms, paying a high price for current good looks is probably an unwise investment, since good looks are in part a result of effort expended, and the extremely attractive right now may not be so in a decade or three.”

        I don’t personally value conventional looks and sexiness all that highly in a long-term relationship, but I know others will not give that desire up. I should probably have expanded the comment to point out that we come to love our partners and see them as beautiful and sexy as time forges the bond — or at least that is the ideal, and it does often work that way. Initial judgments give way to experience and appreciation of the special qualities of the beloved. So when one rejects people based on their initial appearances, one is possibly rejecting a great partner. Now some people (narcissists, and others) expect their partners to be status builders for their own image with others — “I couldn’t possibly be seen with a [geeky|skinny|fat|awkward|poor…] person!” For those people there are others similarly shallow they can partner with, though it’s only rarely that such a relationship will survive a challenge like illness or financial reversals.

        I suspect we generally agree, but I am writing for a global audience of young people, so I try to stick to the basics they would all have in common.

  2. I dunno: I found the premise wonderful myself. Resonates with me, perhaps because I feel like one of those (female) diamonds in the rough mentioned.

    Now, to get this mindset/approach into wide release! 🙂

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