A rational checklist is no match for emotions in matters of the heart

For many people, there are few things more rewarding than crossing an item off a checklist. But what if the checklist is about your dream partner? And what if the checklist is wrong?

Relationshopping” is when you hunt for the perfect partner as if people were products. Online dating, now used by almost 40 percent of Americans who are “single and looking,” might be normalizing this tendency. Often aided by search filters, potential daters seek the perfect combination of attributes rather than focusing on the experience of being with a person.

Relationshopping might work if people knew themselves well, but research indicates the contrary. In recent years, psychologists, economists and neuroscientists alike have found that decisions are largely driven by emotion. Furthermore, in the steady, logical environment in which we anticipate our decisions, people struggle to account for visceral drives such as excitement, hunger and sexual arousal.

Psychology researchers like me call this the “hot-cold empathy gap.” This distance between our predicted behaviors in a cold, rational state and our actual behaviors in a hot, aroused state, explains why people often don’t do as they say. It might explain, for example, why you swore you’d stop eating cookies for the New Year – and you really meant it – but then went and ate a dozen (they just smelled so good!) when your colleague brought them to work.

In the cold state, it’s easy to forget about the power of emotions. Given the strong and complex feelings involved, you may be prone to the empathy gap in the search for the perfect partner.

Hot-cold decision-making in dating

Studies have documented the hot-cold empathy gap in an array of behaviors, including young men’s failure to use condoms in the grip of sexual arousal and people’s inability to empathize with social suffering unless they feel a similar pain themselves.

Psychology researchers are now turning to the hot-cold empathy gap to understand why the attributes that people say they want in a romantic partner often differ from the attributes they actually choose in real life. Speed-dating studies provide an ideal venue for examining this question: Researchers are able to compare people’s reports of what they want to their decisions about whom to date.

Who you think you’re looking for gets forgotten when you click with someone in person. Takafumi Yamashita/Unsplash, CC BY
In one speed-dating study, college students’ reported preferences in a partner showed typical gender differences. Women preferred wealth more so than did men, and men preferred beauty more so than did women. When these same participants speed-dated, however, there were no gender differences in preferences for wealth and beauty. Furthermore, participants’ self-reported preferences did not predict whom they offered a date to in the speed-dating event.

In another study, men found more intelligent women to be more desirable in hypothetical situations, but less desirable if they actually interacted with them in a live scenario. These findings might be accounted for by people’s failure to account for their emotions – like excitement inspired by beauty or inadequacy aroused by a smarter woman – in the presence of a potential partner. In the heat of the moment, emotions may override preconceived notions about what you desire.