Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sunday dollars+sense: How we love the one we're with

If you are planning to celebrate Valentines Day this Thursday, you’ll either do it with someone who looks hot, or someone who does not.

Economists have discovered that contrary to the claims in popular songs most of us have a pretty objective idea about whether our true love looks hot or not. We even know the truth about ourselves.

Leonard Lee of the Columbia Business School has published his findings in his new paper entitled: If I’m hot, are you hot or not?

The website Hot or Not invites members to rate each other’s photos and then to ask for dates.

Examining 450,000 ratings Lee and his team have discovered near-universal agreement about who looks hot (those of us with large eyes, symmetrical faces and so on) but big differences in who we try to date...

Women are much more selective than men. One way of thinking about this is that looks matter more to women than to men. Another is that women are more focused than men on finding “the one”.

And good-looking people (both men and women) are much more selective. They can afford to be.

As a result good only good-looking people tend to score dates with other good-lookers and the rest make do.

(In fact most of us don’t even try to date real stunners. Lee says our ideal date tends to be someone who looks just a bit better than we do.)

So how do those of us who aren’t dating stunners reconcile ourselves to that reality? It had been thought that “smoke gets in our eyes” or that “love is blind” – that we imagined our dates and partners to be better-looking than they were. Shakespeare talks about fairy dust in our eyes.

But Lee finds that we are cleverer than that. As he puts it, “whereas less attractive people are willing to accept less attractive others as dating partners, they do not delude themselves into thinking that these less attractive others are, in fact, physically attractive.”

He says rather than change what we see, we broaden what we think we want.

Examining questionnaires from a speed dating event he found that those of us who are less-good-looking are much more likely to say we are not particularly looking for looks in a date – we say we are looking for other things: kindness, intelligence, a sense of humour.

And we find them.

As Lee say, using a line from another popular song: we find ways to love the one we’re with.


Leonard Lee, Dan Ariely, James Hong, Jim Young.
If I'm Not Hot, Are You Hot or Not? Physical Attractiveness Evaluations and Dating Preferences as a Function of Own Attractiveness, Columbia Business School Working Paper 2007.

Raymond Fisman, Sheena Iyengar, Emir Kamenica, Itamar Simonson,
Gender differences in mate selection: Evidence from a speed dating experiment, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 2006

Michele Belot , Marco Francesconi,
Can Anyone be The One? Evidence on Mate Selection from Speed Dating, University of Essex, Economics Discussion Paper 620.