Play the Long Game to Make Yourself More Desirable

May 19, 2014

If you can’t be hot, be interesting. That’s the upshot of new research that studies how attraction works, and how romantic relationships are formed most frequently. (H/T: Stuart Schneiderman)

In So You’re Not Desirable, from yesterday’s New York Times, UT-Austin researchers Paul Eastwick and Lucy Hunt confront that awkward and uncomfortable question – how can the undesirable among us find a romantic partner? Eastwick is known for his work in the area of how couples get together – the mechanisms that are at work in bringing people into romantic relationships.

In their newly published paper Relational mate value: Consensus and uniqueness in romantic evaluationsEastwick and Hunt observe that classic evolutionary theory posits that individual ‘mate value’ varies according to desirable traits, e.g. attractiveness or status, that are intrinsic. These are things that are evident the first time you meet someone.

The term mate value was originally coined by Symons (1987) who suggested that for women, mate value is mostly comprised of attractiveness and youth. Symons defined male mate value by status and prowess.

In the decades following this observation, researchers broadened the definition to account for social exchanges and traits like intelligence and emotional stability. Today, according to Eastwick, mate value is defined ubiquitously by social scientists as the total of favorable genetic endowments that benefit offspring.

It is one of the hard truths of romance: Desirable people attract other desirable people, while the rest of us — lacking in attractiveness, charisma or success — settle for the best partner who is willing to consider our overtures. In the scientific literature, this idea is enshrined in the concept of mate value, which determines who gets to mate with whom.

The word settle is very depressing for young people, especially in an era where the script for romantic attachment requires a Tough Mudder-style emotional obstacle course. Yet there’s no question that we rank one another in this way, at least initially.

Mate value is predicated on people’s ability to reach some degree of consensus about one another’s desirable qualities…If women agree that David has high amounts of attractiveness (or charisma or success), that Neil has moderate amounts and that Barry has low amounts, then David, Neil and Barry have high, medium and low mate value, respectively.

Psychological research on first impressions has shown that men and women do in fact reach some degree of consensus about each other in precisely this way. During an initial encounter, some people generally inspire swooning, others polite indifference and others avoidance. Desirable qualities like attractiveness, charisma and success — the features that differentiate the haves from the have-nots — are readily apparent.

Eastwick and Hunt note that research subjects rating attractiveness easily reach consensus after an initial impression. But little has been studied about perceptions of attractiveness over a period of time. Does the first impression define the relationship outcome?

Studies have shown that men pursuing both romantic attachments and FWB have known their targets for more than a year, on average. What happens to a man’s perception during that year? Eastwick and Hunt introduce the concept of uniqueness:

Alongside this consensus is an equally important concept: uniqueness. Uniqueness can also be measured. It is the degree to which someone rates a specific person as lower or higher than the person’s consensus value.

For example, even if Neil is a 6 on average, certain women may vary in their impressions of him. Amanda fails to be charmed by his obscure literary references and thinks he is a 3. Yet Eileen thinks he is a 9; she finds his allusions captivating.

What they found is that it’s only the most desirable people who pair off quickly. Most relationships heat up gradually, and are then ignited by a spark at some point. In fact, “the majority of romantic encounters spring from initially nonromantic relationships.”

It seems most likely that it is the consensually desirable people who pull off the rare feat of quickly leveraging an initial positive impression into romance, while a vast majority of us get to know our romantic partners slowly, gradually, over time.

Most of us have networks of opposite-sex friends and acquaintances. And even though we would never consider many of them as romantic partners, for a handful, all it would take is the right moment and a spark.

These are the contexts that produce most romantic liaisons — and as our recent work shows, these contexts reveal very little consensus with respect to mate value.

Eastwick and Hunt tested whether initial mate value impressions would dominate over time.

We recruited 129 heterosexual individuals across several small undergraduate classes. These individuals indicated, at both the beginning and the end of the semester, the extent to which the opposite-sex students in their class possessed a set of desirable qualities.

We found that consensus dropped and uniqueness increased as these students got to know one another over time. After three months, uniqueness dominated consensus for all desirable qualities: attractiveness, vitality, warmth, potential for success and even the ability to provide a satisfying romantic relationship.

In other words, everyone can look at a batch of photos or meet at a party and 75% will agree on who’s hot and who’s not. After 14 weeks, the variance increases a lot, and for long-term acquaintances, there’s another huge jump. The variance is large even for Symons’ original cues of attractiveness for women and status for men.

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 12.56.16 PM

Remember, your desirability can go up or down over time. Some of us get more attractive as we have the opportunity to display traits that others value for relationships. Others who make a strong first impression have trouble sustaining attraction over time as their relationship traits are found wanting.

“Fake it till you make it” is not a sound strategy except as a transitional move – that is, you’re going to have to make it, and soon. There are no shortcuts to real self-development, or inner game.

The researchers conclude with this heartening message:

The old axiom says beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to initial impressions, this statement is not really true: Consensus about desirable qualities creates a gulf between the haves and have-nots. But the truth of this maxim increases over time: As people get to know each other, decreasing consensus and increasing uniqueness give everyone a fighting chance.

So if you do not have a high mate value, take heart. All you need is for others to have the patience to get to know you, and a more level playing field should follow.

We’ve known for some time that familiarity breeds attraction. Today many newlywed couples have known one another for years before dating.

Beautiful couples may be more likely to experience love at first sight, but they don’t have a monopoly on passion or falling in love. In fact, quickly formed relationships are initially more superficial, and more likely to flame out. There’s a lot to be said for the slow burn, the awakening interest, the simmering crush, the experience of suddenly seeing someone with new eyes and appreciation.

It’s not settling if you’re into it.