Personality traits have no influence on initial romantic attraction, study finds

New research published in the European Journal of Personality indicates that perceived personality traits play no role in romantic interest when first being introduced to someone.

In the study, 335 college students watched videos of potential romantic partners of the opposite sex talking about themselves. The participants rated the potential partners’ personality traits and physical attractiveness, then reported the the extent to which they were romantically interested in them.

The participants rated traits such as conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, emotional stability, ambition, faithfulness, sense of humor, independence, intelligence, and physical attractiveness.

The researchers found that women more often than men came to an agreement about the traits of potential partners. However, of all the traits examined, physical attractiveness was the only trait that predicted romantic interest.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Sally G. Olderbak of Ulm University. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Olderbak: There are several ideas about what brings together romantic partners, like “birds of a feather flock together” or “opposites attract”, which just on the face value, cannot all be true. Or, as we investigated, perhaps these sayings are true for some personality traits, but not for others. So we were interested in clarifying when similarity was attractive, when dissimilarity was attractive, and when neither applied, and how this may differ between men and women.

What should the average person take away from your study?

We found that after an initial introduction (well, in our study interactions were one-sided with one person, the target, talking about themselves, and another person, the responder, listening) responders were romantically interested in targets they perceived to be more attractive than themselves. That was it. Perceptions of the targets’ personality and other characteristics were not important. We also found that perceiving similarity or dissimilarity did not matter. And, effects were equal between the sexes meaning the results apply equally to men and women.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Because of the sample collected, we only looked at the predictors of romantic interest for heterosexual participants. The extent to which these results would generalize to LGBT populations is unclear. Also, we looked at predictors of romantic interest for a relatively young sample, and it would be interesting to see whether results are different for older populations. Finally, we only examined predictors of self-reported romantic interest. It was clear to participants that we were not offering the opportunity to meet the targets, or go on a date with them. So we are uncertain about the extent to which our results generalize to actual dating behavior.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Romantic attraction and dating are extremely complicated social processes. With this study, we sought to shed some light on what predicts initial romantic interest, but we know from the literature that other variables, like personality, become important later on in the relationship, with many involved couples actually more similar on many personality characteristics than chance. We also only looked at interest in persons as-of-yet unknown to our participants. Developing romantic interest in someone who was already a friend may be a completely different process.

The study, “Predicting Romantic Interest at Zero Acquaintance: Evidence of Sex Differences in Trait Perception but Not in Predictors of Interest“, was also co-authored by Frederic Malter, Pedro Sofio Abril Wolf, Daniel N. Jones, and Aurelio José Figueredo.