Once New Yorkers exhaust apartments, subways, and careers, party conversation inevitably turns to the suckitude of dating in New York City. It’s the narrative engine of at least three of television’s most successful sitcoms and the subject of an endless supply of hand-wringing transplant takes. But, for all the misadventures of Ross, Joey, Jerry, and Elaine, there’s little explanation as for why it’s so nasty out there. That’s where social science comes in.
This is important because previous research on speed dating has found a disconnect between people’s stated preferences for a mate and whom they actually select — even if people claim they’re looking for kindness or smarts, they still typically just make selections based on looks. But, while speed dating is useful for getting data on initial attraction (there’s good news for narcissists), it’s obviously limited in the sense that saying you’d go on a date with someone doesn’t exactly map to whether you’d marry that person.
But in a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, University of Texas psychologists Daniel Conroy-Beam and David M. Buss took the idea of speed-dating research a step further: They set out to find whether people’s stated mate preferences matched with the people they ended up with in the long run. The researchers asked a group of newlyweds and a group of longer-lasting married couples about their preferences for a partner (everything from height to personality), as well as their “mate value,” or how much of a catch they were. The newlyweds were rated on their mate value by independent researchers, while the long-term married couples rated themselves and their partners. The researchers took those preference and mate values and plugged them into a computer model, where simulated “agents,” or virtual characters with preferences matching those of the real-life individuals, paired up with one another in a virtual dating market. (Kind of like how you can simulate the results of an NFL season with Madden, if you’re so inclined.) In the model, the authors explained, “pairing occurs based on the strongest combination of attractions among still-available mates under the assumption that people will tend to pursue and mate guard mates to whom they are strongly attracted,” which sounds eerily parallel to real life.
Contrary to the speed-dating data, the researchers found a “strong correspondence” between stated preferences and mate selections, both in the real-life data and the simulations. What’s more intriguing is that the virtual modeling gives further credence to a finding that’s been kicking around relationship psychology for a while — “associative sorting,” whereby the most desirable people are able to find the most desirable partners. “Our simulation provides the first theoretical evidence that this assortative mating effect emerges from the guiding effects of mate preferences among the full set of dynamics and constraints of realistic mating markets,” the authors asserted. There’s a sort of romantic invisible hand at work: You can only capture the affections of the people who are available to you, and the most desirable people get to be the choosiest, so they get the pick of the litter, with the litter getting smaller as people pair up.
The paper also offers some hard truths about mate selection, like that “people must select their mates from among restricted pools where ideal partners may not exist,” and that “each potential mate represents a collection of traits, and so fulfilling one preference often requires relaxing another.” And, as everybody learns by the time they hit senior prom, you can’t just crush on somebody; they have to like you back.
There are certainly limitations with this sort of research. The real-life data was collected from small sample sizes (including a single midwestern county for the newlyweds). Also, asking people who have been married for a decade to rate their and their partner’s “mate value” invites a swarm of doubts about self-reporting: How much do people alter their ratings to assure themselves they didn’t Marry the Wrong Person? Who wouldn’t say they’re pretty damn mateable unless they had serious self-worth/self-love/self-compassion issues?
Also, as the great linguist George Lakoff observed in Metaphors We Live By, the metaphors we use frame the way we conceive of things: Research suggests that when crimes are framed as monsters, people recommend that criminals be attacked with pitchforks; when they think they’re viruses, they think violence needs to be cured (which works way better). Which is why a “market” metaphor for dating could be destructive: If you approach a new partner with the intention of “owning” them in the way you purchase a new iPhone, you’re going to end up with way worse than a cracked screen. Still, the research helps to name a particular beat of New York status anxiety: The city is filled with people who appear to be brilliant and beautiful and maybe even kind, so there’s an impulse to “trade up” to some ideal. The good news, though? At least you’re not in San Francisco.