Psychology of attraction

February 8, 2016

Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day is around the corner—and this psych prof has some advice about mate choice and attraction

If you ask Hollywood or Disney, finding the love of yoIMAGE_CARD_Valentine3ur life should take all of two hours—during which time you embarrass yourself by inexplicably bumping into a good-looking stranger or sing to woodland creatures until your true love sweeps you off your feet. Your love story is epic and simple all at once.

If only real-life compatibility and partner selection were that simple.

“I actually like that it’s messy and complicated,” says Lynne Honey, department chair and associate professor of psychology. Lynne began her career as an academic studying animal behaviour, but most of her research has actually been about mate choice and attraction—big topics of discussion when Valentine’s rears its cupid-loving head.

“From an evolutionary perspective, reproduction is the major thing that we’re selected for, and so it’s unsurprising that we have such strong drives towards choosing the appropriate mate and determining who is most attractive to us.”

Compatibility and compromise

Everybody has a list of qualifications that make up the ideal mate. “A lot of our cognitions around attraction and around choosing a mate are very much about weighing a whole bunch of factors at once and coming up with a yes or no answer.” But the path to a successful partnership is being able to compromise.

“If you take a look at real-life couples that work out really well, it’s not the case that every single feature that they find attractive is present in their mate,” says Lynne. “Typically you find that the things most important to them are there, but it’s more about the whole person and how that all fits together. Mate choice is a compromise between two people who want the best.”

Nobody’s perfect—and if you’re looking for perfection, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. “We can’t even be the idealized versions of ourselves, so why would you expect someone to be the idealized version of who your mate is supposed to be?”

Standards are important, Lynne says, but if you set up too many barriers to your heart, you may be statistically limiting yourself. At the same time, knowing what you find attractive is important and shouldn’t be ignored.

Don’t get blinded by “pretty”

So what’s Lynne’s advice for knowing if you’ve found the right partner? “Marry someone who would make a good ex-husband.”

Lynne admits that sounds counterproductive, but let the words sink in, and it makes a world of sense. “When you think about what makes a good ex-husband—aside from someone who is willing to compromise—it’s someone who is going to treat you fairly, someone who’s not going to take it out on any kids you have, someone who’s going to be able to put aside his own pettiness for a moment and deal with consequences without yelling and screaming. Wouldn’t that be a good person to be married to?”

She also adds that they should be attractive to you—but if you think your potential partner is only physically attractive, try having a conversation with them with your eyes closed.

“Think about the things that they say to you and the way they treat you, and ask, Would I accept this from a friend? Would I accept this from a sibling?” she says. “If you wouldn’t tolerate if from your sister, why would you tolerate it from someone you’re considering spending a significant portion of you time with? Don’t get blinded by pretty. Pretty matters, but pretty can also be temporary.”

The Department of Psychology and the Student Psychology Network present Lust, Love, Loins, and Limbic Systems: Psychology of Attraction with Lynne on February 11.

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