“What’s your type?” We’re asked this often by friends and nosy relatives who want to set us up on dates.
Some of us can identify common threads between the people we find attractive—tall people, short people, people with glasses, people who have good manners. But one study says a lot of that is circumstantial: the similarities between our exes might be largely linked to where we go to school, work and live.
“Do people have a type? Yes,” said study author Paul Eastwick, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, to the university. “But sometimes it reflects your personal desirability and sometimes it reflects where you live.”
Over the course of three studies, researchers asked participants to describe past and present relationships they had. They ended up with information about 1,000 relationships, both short-term and long-term.
There are physical similarities between the people we date because we attract people who are about as attractive as ourselves, the study says. By analyzing Facebook photos of about 100 people’s current partners and exes, the researchers found that we’re attracted to people with similar physical traits, and we look for these qualities in potential mates whether the person is merely a hookup or a long-term partner.
“During the partner selection process, people may have difficulty differentiating between partners that prove to be casual and short-term versus committed and longterm,” the researchers wrote.
But our significant others also have common non-visible attributes—like personality, religiousness and education level, the researchers found. Intelligence especially stood out as a common denominator.
And it’s not necessarily because we’re seeking out people who are smart or Christian or anything else, the researchers wrote. The places we spend most of our time and meet the most people—where we go to school, work and live, for example—are for the most part populated with similar people, Eastwick said. OkCupid and Tinder trolling notwithstanding, we pick our mates from the people who surround us.
We “will only ever meet a subset of (our) peers—a subset that historically has been circumscribed by a demographically specific local context,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “People experience the desire to become romantically involved with only some of the… individuals whom they know, and only a portion of this select group will reciprocate that desire. In combination, these elements whittle down each person’s universe of possible pairings to a unique pool of current and ex-romantic partners.”
So, if you’re working and making friends in an environment where a lot of people have college degrees, you’re going to end up dating mostly college-educated people. If you’re spending a lot of time at sporting events and meeting people there, you’ll probably date a lot of sports lovers.
Evidence that we’re not seeking out certain types of people on purpose? Within our local dating pool, we choose mates relatively randomly, Eastwick said.
“Within my particular social milieu, I’m basically dating randomly with respect to these (traits) in that milieu,” Eastwick said to Rewire. “I generally meet intelligent people because of where I live, but within that group, I’m not routinely selecting the more or less intelligent ones.”
“Online dating in a way gives people more of an active choice over the people they’re going to meet in the first place,” Eastwick said.
Online daters are able to easily seek out and meet only those with college degrees or who practice a certain religion. But Eastwick thinks the randomness within the demographic groups, just like what was found in his team’s dating study, is there.
“My bet would be, among the people (online daters) are willing to meet, it’s still going to look randomly distributed within that subset,” he said.
Besides, the way we choose people changes once we meet them in person. We’re no longer thinking about the traits and credentials they listed on their dating profile, Eastwick said.
“Once you have a face-to-face encounter with somebody for the first time, people tend to go with gut reaction,” he said. “They sort of put that information aside.”
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.