good partners

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)