Unpredictable love: Uncertainty and partner preference

When looking for Mr or Ms Right, many of us think we look for a particular type. When using dating apps like Tinder and Bumble, many people think they know who they are seeking in the dating pool. Our research examined whether this was true or if our dating choices are based more on the moment and situation. It seems as though partner preferences are not stable, but change depending on feelings of uncertainty throughout your life.

Previous research investigating partner choice has often tried to explain what exactly determines our partner preferences, but those studies rarely take more temporary psychological states, such as their current emotions or motivations, less into account. We propose, however, that people’s temporary feelings of uncertainty (eg, due to the COVID-19 pandemic or a financial crisis) may affect their partner preferences.

To test our proposition, my co-author Kobe Millet and I conducted four studies to test the extent in which uncertain events (such as COVID-19) influence the types of partners that men and women feel attracted to. We ultimately discovered that partner preferences may not be as stable as we might like to think. In times of uncertainty, we seem to seek out partners that fit with stereotypes (women who are tender-looking and caring vs men who are tough-looking and strong), whereas this need becomes less apparent in times of certainty.

Which facial features of the opposite sex are more attractive under uncertainty?

In the first study respondents were asked to imagine a situation in which they felt uncertain (eg, an economic crisis, being presented with too many choices) or certain (eg, guaranteed high-quality education, assurance of basic services). This task brought feelings of uncertainty to the forefront of people’s minds. Respondents then saw photos of potential dating partners. A professional graphic designer modified the pictures to create two versions of each face: one with more tender facial features, and one with tougher facial features. For the tender feature faces, the outer facial contour was made less angular, and the tip of the nose, cheeks, and lips were rounded. For the tough feature faces, the nose and chin were made sharper and the jawbone more angular. The respondent then indicated which face they found most attractive and whether they would like to go on a date with that person.

The results showed that under uncertainty, women were more attracted to men with tougher facial features, whereas men felt more attracted to women with tender facial features. However, this gender difference disappeared when people felt certainty; both potential dates were found equally attractive regardless of facial structure.

To replicate these findings, we used a morphing technique to create images of the same face that gradually changed from extremely tender to extremely tough. This time we asked participants to either think about COVID-19 and how it made them feel uncertain. In the control condition, people just thought about a regular day in their lives. Our results were the same, such that when thinking about COVID-19 uncertainty, male respondents felt more attracted to the female with more tender features, whereas female respondents to the male with tougher features. This preference disappeared in the control condition when people simply thought of a regular day.

Less about having a ‘type’ and more about a ‘stereotype’

The results of two subsequent studies also revealed that in uncertain times, men and women reported being more attracted to a partner with tender or tough features because they linked these facial features to stereotypical gender roles. Women with tender features were perceived to more caring, whereas men with tough features were believed to be stronger. Apparently, uncertainty leads us to fall back on stereotypes when making partner decisions.

Unpredictable events, such as a climate disaster or the COVID-19 pandemic, create a lot of uncertainty. We often feel the urge to seek certainty during times such as these. We do this, among other things, by looking for order and structure. Using stereotypes makes us feel like we have more certainty about the world.

How can these insights be applied?

These insights are not only important to better understand people’s partner preferences but are also practically applicable. For example, it can provide insight into how candidates on dating sites can best present themselves in uncertain times. In addition, a female model with tender, softer features (or a male model with tough, harder features) might be better used in commercials in times of crisis.

Your type may change

In the end, though you believe that you feel attracted to the same types of guys or gals when you are looking for a date, you may be wrong. In uncertain times, you may end up with a much more stereotypical date than when times are more predictable.

Want to know more?

Femke van Horen is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Her research interests include environmental uncertainty, sustainability, and the effectiveness of product imitation strategies.

Kobe Millet is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. His research interests include consumer psychology, environmentally (un)friendly decision making, and prosocial behavior.

Van Horen, F, Millet, K, (2022) Unpredictable love? How uncertainty influences partner preferences, European Journal of Social Psychology, pp. 1-9, DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2854

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