U of T psychologists find that dating outside your type is harder than you think

June 10, 2019 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

In the classic romantic comedy Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget begins the year with a resolution: “Will find nice sensible boyfriend and not continue to form romantic attachments to alcoholics, workaholics, peeping-toms or megalomaniacs.”

And immediately flirts with and falls into a relationship with her boss — the farthest thing possible from a “sensible boyfriend.”

“It's common that when a relationship ends or after a series of relationships,” says psychology PhD student Yoobin Park, “people attribute the breakup to their ex-partners’ personalities and decide they need to date a different type of person.

“However,” she explains, “our research suggests there’s a tendency to continue to date a similar personality.” In other words, a resolution in a diary isn’t enough to overcome our attraction to a particular type.

“And if you find you’re having the same issues, relationship after relationship,” suggests Park, “you may want to think about how gravitating toward the same personality traits in a partner is contributing to the consistency in your problems.”

Park’s observation emerges not from a dating advice column or podcast about romantic comedies, but in a research paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper is co-authored by Park’s supervisor, Geoff MacDonald, a professor in the psychology department in U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science.

For the study, Park and MacDonald compared the personalities of current and ex-partners of 332 people using data gathered from the partners themselves. Their main finding was the existence of a significant consistency in the personalities of an individual’s romantic partners.

“Our study suggests,” MacDonald explains, “that people to some degree have a type when it comes to the personality of who they date. And this effect is more than just a tendency to consistently date someone similar to yourself.”

“A million tiny little things…”

In the rom-com Sleepless in Seattle, Tom Hanks’ heartbroken character is asked what made his late wife special. “Well, it was a million tiny little things,” he says, “that, when you added them all up, they meant we were supposed to be together.”

Hanks’ character may have relied on a million things to measure compatibility, but Park and MacDonald only needed 21. Their data came from a nine-year study conducted in Germany that measured responses to 21 statements such as:

  • I am usually modest and reserved
  • I get enthusiastic easily and can motivate others easily
  • I tend to be the strong and silent type
  • I am extroverted
  • I am relaxed and don’t let myself be worried by stress
  • I am intellectual and like to contemplate things
  • I appreciate artistic and aesthetic impressions

Respondents were asked to rate their disagreement or agreement with the statements on a five-point scale.

Analysis of the data accounted for biases that had not been accounted for in other studies. For example, other studies used an individual’s description of their partners — not the partner’s descriptions of themselves. The analysis also minimized the possibility that any similarity was due to choosing partners who have personalities similar to our own.

“Because you chose Nick, you may also want to date these people…”

Based on the findings, Park suggests that dating websites and apps could do a better job of matching potential partners. Typically, such services pair individuals using criteria like education, drinking and smoking habits, income, hobbies, activities, etc.

“These websites and apps might want to incorporate information about ex-partners in their algorithms,” says Park, “in the same way that music apps use past listening preferences to predict what else a listener might enjoy.”

According to Park, the research also points to ways of keeping relationships healthy and happy.

“In every relationship,” she says, “people learn strategies for working with their partner's personality. If your new partner's personality resembles your ex-partner's personality, transferring the skills you learned might be an effective way to start a new relationship on a good footing.”

Then again, if relationships were that easy, where would we get our ideas for rom-coms?

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