We assume we choose our life partners very carefully – but research shows we may be less selective in love than we think.
Finding a life partner is considered a major milestone – one that requires deliberation and careful assessment. We want someone whose long-term plans match our own: someone to whom we’re attracted, someone with whom we feel comfortable sharing our home, finances and, maybe, children. This person is our life partner, after all – naturally, we assume we’ll take care with the decision.
But it turns out we may be less selective about whom we spend our lives with than we think. Research shows hidden biases mean we’ll give people a chance, even if they don’t quite meet our criteria. And when we do pick a partner, we’re driven by a psychological tendency called “progression bias” to stay in the relationship, rather than end it.
In other words, we’re hard-wired to be in a romantic relationship, say psychologists, despite trends among young people to shun marriage in favour of a calculated approach to singlehood. Yet, even as the combination of evolutionary instincts and societal pressures steer us towards the coupled life, being aware of our progression bias could help us understand why we pick the partners we do – and why we stay with them.
Head over heels
We’re conditioned to think of dating as a rigorous vetting process; a 2020 Pew Research Center study showed 75% of Americans describe finding people to date as ‘difficult’. Young people are also taking longer to settle down; as well as prioritising financial stability, they are taking more time to get to know each other before getting married than other age groups.
But Samantha Joel, assistant professor of psychology at Western University, Canada, and Geoff MacDonald, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, argues people aren’t as choosy about their partners as they may think. In July 2020, they published their theoretical review paper summarising the ways progression bias pushes people to begin and maintain relationships with less discretion than they assume.
Their findings were twofold: first, there is substantial evidence from multiple studies suggesting people are far less selective when picking people to date than they think. People are drawn to a much broader range of potential partners than they realise; they’re willing to adjust their standards and overlook potential partners’ flaws; and they also end up growing quickly attached to these potential mates, even if they may not necessarily be their ideal partners.
For example, in one experiment Joel and MacDonald conducted, they found that most university students reported that they’d reject potential matches who were either unattractive, or possessed a trait the respondents considered ‘a dealbreaker’, in a hypothetical match-making situation. But those figures plummeted when that match-making scenario was presented as being real and not hypothetical – suggesting that the students were far less romantically selective than they purported to be, and that they overestimated their willingness to reject others.
The second takeaway from Joel and MacDonald’s paper is that, as well as being less choosy about dating than people think, they’re inclined to remain in relationships and try to progress them, rather than end them. The academics point to studies showing that ending a relationship is more painful the longer you’ve been emotionally attached; that separating is more off-putting the more logistically entwined you are with your partner through factors like marriage and finances; and that married couples receive more cultural benefits (such as finding it easier to rent property) than other people.
The dark side is that sometimes people stay in relationships where they should get out – Robert Levenson
Progression bias, explains Joel, is similar to psychological tendencies people show in other non-relationship spheres: the sunk-cost fallacy (not wanting to throw something away you’ve already invested heavily in); the status quo bias (opting to maintain the current state of affairs instead of disrupting it and causing discomfort); and satisficing instead of maximising (settling for “good enough” rather than holding out for the optimal ideal). And this bias towards picking a partner is likely fuelled by two factors: evolution and cultural norms.
Millions of years ago, being overly picky would have prevented our ancestors from finding mates. And staying with mates long-term was evolutionarily advantageous: it meant children would have two parents instead of one, increasing the chances of the offspring’s survival.
These behaviours can still be found in us today, says Alec Beall, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia, who studies evolution and the psychology of dating and attraction. “Even though some advantages of long-term romantic relationships are not as critical today as they were in our prehistoric past, these selection pressures still have a lasting effect on our modern behaviour,” says Beall.
There’s also the cultural aspect. “Western culture prizes marriage as being the most important kind of close relationship, with getting married being treated as a personal achievement or an indicator of maturity,” explains Joel. “There is social status that comes along with being married, and that may incentivise people to settle down regardless of who they are currently with, or what the quality of that relationship may be.”
Ideals around romance may also play into our behaviours: a 2021 YouGov survey of 15,000 Americans found that 60% of adults believe in soul mates. This fairy-tale mindset can be quite damaging; Joel says researchers call this line of thinking ‘destiny beliefs’, and it can be part of the reason many of us tend toward progression bias. “It’s often not too difficult to convince yourself that the person you’re currently dating is, in fact, your soul mate,” says Joel.
Striking a balance
Our innate tendency to persist with relationships can potentially be beneficial, because it means committing to a partner to tackle any problems.
“As time passes, you start to develop that relationship history, that narrative about the things you’ve done together and, particularly, the things you’ve overcome,” says Robert Levenson, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who’s studied long-term relationships. That is “all positive, and keeps you in the relationship even when things get a little rocky”.
Unawareness of progression bias can also lead people down the wrong path, causing them to stay with someone who’s a bad match. “The dark side is that sometimes people stay in relationships where they should get out,” says Levenson.
We’re also living in a modern age with infinitely more choice. “Even though humans may have developed a progression bias to suppress choosiness during our evolutionary past, doesn’t mean it’s always the best idea to adhere to its whims in an era when most of us will encounter significantly more than 500 people in our entire lifetime,” says Beall. “It’s important to find a balance. Don’t settle for just anyone, but also don’t spend your entire life waiting to find that perfect person who ticks all the boxes – evolutionarily, that person is unlikely to even exist,” he says.
In the end, though, how picky you are may not be as important as regularly taking stock of the relationship once you’re in it, suggest experts. If you’re unhappy but aren’t doing anything about it, recognise you may be falling victim to progression bias.
“We found that the best predictors of relationship quality, by far, were how people felt about various aspects of the relationship itself,” says Joel. It’s not about the partner you choose, but the partnership that you build. “Maybe it’s not that helpful to search and search for a partner who looks good on paper. But it is helpful, once dating someone, to look for early signs that the relationship is turning out to be healthy and supportive.”
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