People tend to weigh the negative aspects of potential romantic partners more heavily than positive ones, according to a September 2015 study.
The study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, identifies traits that people avoid in potential partners. It is one of the first of its kind, focusing on undesirable rather than desirable characteristics.
“Researchers have studied mate preferences for decades, finding preferences for kindness and intelligence, and men’s greater preferences for physical attractiveness, and women’s greater preferences for dominance and social status,” said Peter K. Jonason, principal investigator and corresponding author.
“Researchers know less about mate aversions…or how people process negative information about undesirable traits in a mate.”
As the scientists predicted, dealbreakers are weighed more heavily than “dealmakers,” and there are differences between what men and women consider relationship dealbreakers. They also found the dealbreakers to be stronger in the context of long-term relationships versus short-term relationships.
In order to gather comprehensive data, the team conducted six separate studies.
Study 1: What are Dealbreakers?
In Study 1, comprised of 92 undergraduate students aged 18 to 53, participants were asked to list dealbreakers in short- and long-term relationships.
Researchers found no significant difference between the number of dealbreakers men listed and the number that women listed; they did, however, find that both sexes listed more dealbreakers for long-term relationships than for short-term relationships.
Study 2: Individual Differences in Dealbreakers
For Study 2, researchers surveyed 285 undergraduate students aged 18 to 55. Participants were asked to rate the 49 dealbreakers from Study 1 according to how likely each one would be to make them lose interest in a potential partner.
Similar to the first study, the results showed that respondents reported more dealbreakers for long-term than for short-term relationships. This study also showed that women reported more dealbreakers than men.
The three most common dealbreakers for short-term relationships were [a partner who] “has health issues such as STDs;” “smells bad;” and “has poor hygiene.” The top three long-term dealbreakers were [a partner who] “has anger issues or is abusive;” “is currently dating multiple partners;” and “is untrustworthy.”
Study 3: Dealbreakers Among Single Americans
The researchers surveyed 5,541 single Americans aged 21 to 76, including participants who were divorced, separated or widowed.
Data showed similar results to the first two studies regarding men versus women and short-term versus long-term relationships. The study also found a correlation between age and number of dealbreakers—older participants reported more dealbreakers than younger ones.
Unlike Study 2, which indicated “bad sex” as a top-ten dealbreaker only for short-term relationships, participants commonly gave this answer for both short- and long-term relationships in Study 3.
Study 4: Context of Dealbreakers
This study recruited 132 heterosexual participants, who were asked to rate the fake profiles of potential friends, sexual partners and romantic partners for suitability—and then were presented with potential dealbreakers.
Participants were more likely to lose interest in potential sexual or romantic partners when the dealbreakers were related to sex or relationships. For general dealbreakers (e.g. “unhealthy lifestyle” or “undesirable personality traits”), participants lost interest in all three contexts, including potential friendship.
Researchers also discovered that after hearing the dealbreakers for romantic and sexual partners, men were less likely to lose interest than women; however, for potential friends, both men and women were equally likely to lose interest.
Study 5: Dealbreakers versus “Dealmakers”
193 men and women answered questions relating to dealbreakers and “dealmakers” and also rated their own potential value as partners.
Results showed that in general, respondents were more likely to be affected by negative traits (dealbreakers) than by positive ones (dealmakers). The data also showed that people who gave themselves a lower “desirability” rating reported fewer short-term relationship dealbreakers and more long-term dealbreakers.
“It may be that those with low value on the short-term mating market focus their efforts in the long-term mating domain making them more discriminating in this context. That is, they are more concerned with finding a long-term mate, and thus have stronger preferences in that context,” said Jonason.
Study 6: Prospect Theory
This study was designed to test prospect theory, which states that people tend to weigh negative information more heavily than positive information. Researchers recruited 271 participants, both single and romantically involved. The data confirmed prospect theory—participants weighed dealbreakers more strongly than dealbreakers.
The data also showed that participants in long-term committed relationships displayed prospect theory more strongly.
“People in committed relationships can afford to be more discriminating because they already have a partner; those who are not can be less discriminating,” reported Jonason.