Research Roundup

Drawing of hearts between a man and woman

Psychology graduate students conduct an array of innovative research. Here's a taste of their findings.

Love lab

Half a century of research has shown that men prize attractiveness in potential mates, while women are lured by earning power. However, those differences may not hold in real-life dating situations, says Paul Eastwick, a fourth-year social psychology student at Northwestern University.

According to his new research, "men and women are equally inspired by a potential partner's physical attractiveness, and it's the same with earning prospects," he says.

Eastwick and his adviser, Eli Finkel, PhD, ran a study that mimicked speed dating, in which singles sit down for a four-minute chat with a potential date. A bell rings to signal time is up and everyone switches to a new conversation partner. After the roughly two-hour event, participants list who they would like to get to know better and the speed-dating service helps them get in touch.

The researchers largely followed this model, recruiting 163 undergraduate students who each speed-dated nine to 13 opposite-sex singles. But before the event began, the students rated, on a scale of one to nine, how much importance they placed on the attractiveness and career ambition of a potential partner.

As with previous studies, men rated attractiveness higher than women did-in this study, one point higher. Women rated earning prospects about one point higher than men. However, these differences disappeared once the participants started picking actual dates.

During the speed-dating session, the students rated each conversation partner's attractiveness and ambitiousness. Participants also reported their level of romantic interest in each partner, both at the session itself and 10 additional times during the month following the session. After the speed-dating event, the students noted which conversation partners they would like to see again.

Unsurprisingly, participants reported more interest in attractive speed-dating partners than unattractive ones, but this preference was equally true for women as for men. Highly ambitious participants were also equally likely to get the nod from their speed-dating partners, whether they were men or women.

The results suggest that such pairings as model Anna Nicole Smith and oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall--63 years her senior--are well outside the norm, Eastwick notes.

"This stereotype we have of the wealthy guy and the pretty girl on his arm--certainly it happens--but it is probably a lot less common than we think it is," Eastwick says.

The results also show that people are not good at predicting the qualities they want in potential partners, says Eastwick. For example, participants who said attractiveness was especially important didn't pick dates on that basis. The findings suggest that Web sites or other dating services that match by clients' stated preferences could be ineffective, he notes.

Eastwick and his colleagues are now following the couples that began to date after this study to see what traits affect their romantic interest over the long haul.

-S. Dingfelder