So You’re Not Desirable ...
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. In popular culture, it is reflected in the choice of comely contestants to vie for the equally comely spouse-to-be on TV shows like “The Bachelor.” Pairing off, it seems, is just one more example that life isn’t fair.
But is this cynicism justified? In a paper that we published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we offer evidence for the seemingly naïve notion that in most romantic contexts your unique appeal is more important than your mate value.
Mate value is predicated on people’s ability to reach some degree of consensus about one another’s desirable qualities. (Rarely do people achieve perfect consensus on anything, but they reach some degree of consensus, for example, that ice cream is tastier than cottage cheese.) 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.
Yet 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.
In initial encounters, consensus and uniqueness are in tension. Which ultimately prevails?
In answering this question, it is crucial to keep in mind the obvious (but underappreciated) fact that most people do not initiate romantic relationships immediately after forming first impressions of each other. One recent study of a representative sample of adolescents found that only 6 percent reported that they and their partners formed a romantic relationship soon after meeting.
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.For one of our studies, 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 a related study of approximately 350 heterosexual individuals, we collected these same measures in networks of opposite-sex friends, acquaintances and partners. Among these well-acquainted individuals, consensus on measures of mate value was nearly zero. These are the people who know what authors you like, what you wore for Halloween six years ago and what obscure movie you will quote the next time you all get together. But they cannot agree on your mate value. Over the years, it has evaporated before their eyes.
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.