There is a wealth of research that suggests humans are more biased toward beginning, advancing, and maintaining romantic relationships than they realize, according to a new article published in Personality and Social Psychology Review. Rather than being highly selective, people appear to have a tendency to push relationships forward, even when things are not going well.
“I’ve been studying relationship decisions for about a decade,” said Western University assistant professor Samantha Joel. “I’m interested in romantic relationships because they are a very emotionally charged aspect of people’s lives, and I’m interested in decisions because they give people agency. What can people actively do to improve their own relationship outcomes? Are there ways to help people choose partners who are better for them, or build relationships that are better for them?”
“As I’ve been studying these decisions, I’ve repeatedly noticed this pattern where, when people are faced with a relational fork in the road, the path that leads to a long-term relationship seems easier than the path that leads to singlehood. The goal of this paper was to systematically consider that thesis.”
Joel and her co-author Geoff MacDonald reviewed the scientific literature on the formation and maintenance of romantic relationships. They noted that people are not particularly selective when choosing a partner. A large speed-dating study, for instance, found that participants said yes to an average of 40% of their dating options. Research has also found that people tend to overestimate their willingness to reject potential partners who have expressed an interest in them, even if they have some undesirable traits.
Falling in love is not particularly rare, either. Instead people have a tendency become rapidly attached to their partners. “For example, in one classic study, single undergraduate students were recruited and their experiences of falling in love were tracked over the course of a semester (Aron et al., 1995),” the researchers explained. “Of the undergraduate students recruited for the two longitudinal studies, 33% of participants in Study 1 fell in love over the course of a 12-week period.”
Deciding to leaving an established relationship, meanwhile, appears to be especially difficult for many people, even when the relationship is abusive. People often experience guilt and other negative emotions when they do make the decision to break up with a partner.
“Even after a relationship is dissolved, the breakup does not always ‘stick.’ On-again/off-again relationships are common, whereby a relationship dissolves and renews, often repeatedly,” the researchers noted.
“The main argument of the paper is that, as a rule, people very much want to wind up in a long-term relationship, and so our judgment and decision-making tendencies seem to be calibrated toward that goal,” Joel told PsyPost. “Decisions that move a relationship forward tend to feel like default options — the easy options — whereas decisions that forgo romantic opportunities or reject romantic partners feel a lot more challenging.”
Relationships, of course, are complex and influenced by a countless number of factors.
“This paper puts forth a broad thesis that no doubt has many boundary conditions,” Joel said. “In the paper, we consider the possibility that highly physically attractive people can afford to be choosier about romantic partners (mixed evidence), and that women are choosier than men (mixed evidence).”
“The data we are drawing from are also limited in a number of important ways, in that relationship science, like psychology more broadly, tends to greatly oversample cis, white, affluent, non-disabled Western participants (e.g., Williamson et al., 2021),” Joel added.
“The Western courtship process looks very different from that of much of the world, where families tend to play a bigger role in mate selection. Further, the same marginalized groups who tend to face barriers to dating (e.g., stigma on dating apps) are also notably absent from our samples. Obtaining more diverse samples, both within and outside North America, is a crucial future direction for our field.”
The review article, “We’re Not That Choosy: Emerging Evidence of a Progression Bias in Romantic Relationships“, was published July 10, 2021.