Do we all want the same thing in a partner? Well, ‘yes’ is the short answer. Surprised? Well you might not be after this. We’re not talking about ‘I green eyes’, ‘I like big shoulders’. We’re talking about the general characteristics of people that we like to see in those we plan on falling in love with. All over the world, from ‘developed’ nations to hunter-gatherer cultures, people will generally focus on three groups of qualities:
- Traits related to trustworthiness, intelligence and warmth
- Characteristics relating to vitality and physical attractiveness
- And finally ones that reference the ability to gain resources and social status
More interestingly, those three clusters of factors I’ve put in order of how important they are to people. That means warmth, intelligence and trustworthiness are the most important to people, with physical attractiveness and status/resources coming in (close) second. For those who’ve pottered around our site a bit, these elements relate very much to the four types of attraction that relationship psychologists talk about; social attraction being an indication of one’s ability to gain status, warmth and trustworthiness; lifestyle (task) attractiveness relating to one’s intelligence and ability to gain resources; and physical and sexual attractiveness being self-explanatory to an extent.
So how do we know this? Well, various authors have used various study methods to come to the same conclusion. David Buss (the guy who talks about the primal idea of sexual attraction) and later he and his colleagues did a systematic analysis of people’s rankings of important partner traits across thirty seven cultures. Things like understanding, intelligence and kindness beat out what he called ‘earning power’ (status) and physical attractiveness for both men and women. And before you tell me those 1990 results aren’t valid, Richard Lippa did an online survey in 2007 where more than 100,000 people from fifty-three countries were asked to choose three of a list of 23 items relating to important partner characteristics, and the top nine came back to things like intelligence, kindness and physical attractiveness.
But, Garth Fletcher and his colleagues, among other critics were worried that giving people lists of traits would limit people from describing what’s important in their own words, so they asked people to write down and rate ideal characteristics of partners. Using a computer and a bunch of statistics (called factor analysis), they were able to see how people grouped these things and what do you know; out popped our three groups, all neatly in order regardless of gender or relationship status.
So I’d say it’s fairly conclusive. Warmth and intelligence, then physical attractiveness and vitality, then status and resources are the most important characteristics people look for in relationships. Of course, this doesn’t hold true every day for every person. You’ll find that these change in relation to people’s goals (e.g. short-term vs long-term relationships). But what it means for you, is that whether you’re in a relationship or not there are easy ways to be more attractive to those you’re planning on getting involved with:
- Concentrate on being intimate and loyal. Be loving and warm. Be trustworthy. These things you have plenty of control over.
- For attractiveness, obviously not all of us are graced with perfectly symmetrical features and an impossibly efficient metabolism. But, looking at some of the items in that factor analysis we can see that attractiveness isn’t limited to looks alone. People listed things like ‘adventurous’ and ‘outgoing’ (think social attractiveness). These sort of things are harder to change, but it can be done.
- Status and resources are harder to quantify. Obviously the resources you have are what you have. You might be able to fool people by wearing flashy clothing, but what you may have noticed is that people are looking more for the ability to get these things. This is where task attractiveness comes in. Work hard and be passionate in what you do. Even if your job doesn’t bring in the big bucks, ambition and passion mean results and results mean people will see you’re going places. That’s what’s really important.
For more tips, check out our mini-series on attraction. Or maybe you want to know why it is we love; what’s the point (besides causing heartache for billions)? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of RCKM (Flickr)