The Real Laws of Attraction

We've all heard the adage: Men want a beautiful partner, while women want a guy who can bring home the bacon. But is it true?

In the new issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Northwestern University social psychologists Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick report that both genders initially place the greatest value on physical attractiveness, followed by personality and then earning potential.

To find out more about how we choose our mates and dates, Finkel and Eastwick invited 163 undergraduate college students to a two-hour speed-dating event. Each student spent four minutes with a dozen potential partners—and then looked at their photographs on a computer, and answered yes or no to indicate whether they'd like a date. The participants then rated their choices, based on who they found most attractive and who they thought would have the greatest earning potential. Finkel and Eastwick followed the students for a month to check on their subsequent romantic activities.

NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen spoke with Finkel and Eastwick about their research in the Northwestern Relationships Lab and about how men and women may be rethinking old questions about what they want in a mate. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Before you held your speed-dating event, you had participants state how much appearance, personality and earning potential would matter in deciding whether they wanted to see someone again. More women said earning prospects were important in an ideal romantic partner, and more men said beauty. But that's not what they ended up valuing in real life, right?
There was a disconnect between what they said they wanted and what they actually wanted. Physical attractiveness tends to inspire desire a lot. Earning prospects tend to inspire desire a moderate amount [for both men and women].

Why do many men and women have the wrong idea about what they really value in a romantic partner?
We all live in a culture where we're bathed in this idea that women are more interested in earning potential than men are. So when we're asked what is it we desire, we say, I'm a man—I'm more interested in beauty. That's what's sensible to them in the absence of doing a careful analysis of everyone they've ever been attracted to.

Eastwick: Men and women haven't sat down and looked at all the available evidence on all the people they've been attracted to over the course of their lives and come up with a comprehensive answer. People have theories, and those theories guide us, but they might not always be correct.

How does speed dating help you figure out what men and women want in a partner?
Speed dating allows you to examine each person's preference across a range of potential suitors. We can look not only at what you said you preferred 10 days before the event but what you actually preferred when you met living, breathing beings. We can compare what you said was important to you and what actually was important to you.

What's the take-home message for people looking for love?
Beware the shopping list. When you go into finding a romantic partner, don't have this list of necessary characteristics that you need. Go in with an open mind. Actually meet people face to face. Because you might find yourself surprised by the person you're attracted to. Those sex differences and mate preferences that are so reliable when people report on hypothetical ideal partners disappear when people meet living, breathing partners.

So personality really matters, too?
It's not that looks don't matter, or earning potential doesn't matter, or personality doesn't matter. It's that they matter equally strongly for men and women. Looks are most important, personality is second and earning potential is third—at least in the first month of dating.

And that's good news, right?
It's good news with regard to earning prospects and bad news with regard to looks!

So what's the verdict on beauty vs. brains?
It might be that men and women don't differ in how much looks matter in initial attraction. We are running a study now, in collaboration with a speed-dating company, with 6,500 people who were single at the time. Now three years later, we're following up to see whether they got married and did that person match. What we'll be able to do is see if their stated ideals three years ago actually match with the person they're marrying.

Eastwick: My hunch is that their ideals changed, not that they found the person who matched their original ideals.

The other dating adage is that attractive people get extra benefits in life and may just marry other attractive people, who earn more money. Right?
Attractive women are marrying attractive husbands, and attractive people make more money because attractive people get more of everything in life.

Did you actually get some love matches in the course of your study?
We did create several couples. I don't know if any of those couples are still around today. When we like to brag about the effectiveness of speed dating, we will talk about figures like one third of our speed daters in the month following the event spent at least some time hanging out with somebody they hadn't known prior to the event.

How did you find the participants?
We always collaborate with student groups. We had to turn away hundreds and hundreds of people.

So lots of students wanted to do their part for research and science?
They'll date for science, yes!

Finkel: We have videotapes of the dates this time. It's funny how frequently people will say things like, "This is kind of goofy, but I'm happy to do it. It's for a study."

Are you married?
I am engaged, and Paul is in a serious relationship.

Did you ever meet anyone through speed dating?
We did as a class field trip go speed dating four years ago. It was fun. Basically everybody Paul met said yes to him. I ended up dating someone.