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Insecurity leads to traditional partner choices on dating sites

17 June 2022
Are you single and ever looking for a date through a dating site? In their research, consumer psychologists Femke van Horen and Kobe Millet show that in uncertain times - such as during a pandemic, economic crisis, or major political changes - other partners come across as a lot more attractive than when you live in secure times.

Their research emphasises that men's and women's partner preferences are not fixed, but dynamic and depend on how insecure they feel. When women feel insecure, they are more attracted to men with harder facial features than those with tender features. With men, it is just the opposite: they actually fall for women with soft facial features than hard ones. However, this gender difference disappears when one feels confident.

Insecurity and stereotypical gender roles

There are many studies on gender differences in partner choice, but the extent to which they depend on the context has hardly been examined. Van Horen: "We asked respondents to imagine a situation in which they felt insecure (e.g., due to Covid-19 or due to a financial crisis) or secure (confidence in good education, assured of basic services). With this task, we made feelings about (in)certainty temporarily accessible. Then we showed pictures of potential dating partners. These were manipulated via morphing techniques so that the respondent was shown the same face with softer or harder facial features. Then the respondent indicated which person they found most attractive and whether they would want to go on a date with that."

The study additionally showed that men and women are attracted to a partner with soft or hard facial features under uncertainty because they are associated with stereotypical gender roles (nurturing and protective). That people do not seek out such stereotypical partners when they feel secure is an extraordinary research result. Apparently, stereotypes play a bigger role under insecurity, says Van Horen. "Stereotypes can help increase predictability and create more certainty in a chaotic world. If you look at society, it is notable that in affluent societies with good social services, security is greater, so people have less need to fall back on the classic gender roles." 

Practical applicability

These insights are not only important for better understanding people's choice of partners, but are also practically applicable, according to both consumer psychologists. For example, it can provide insight into how candidates on dating sites can best present themselves in uncertain times. In addition, a female model with softer facial features (or a male model with harder facial features) might be better used in commercials in times of crisis. Finally, it is helpful for policymakers to know that removing uncertainty could help create more gender equality. 

Read more about the study Unpredicted Love: How uncertainty influences partner preferences (pdf).