Mate selection: we actually have a “type”

Ex-partners and their successors are strikingly similar for most people


When choosing a partner, most people stick to a certain "type – the ex therefore often resembles the current partner. © pinepix/ iStock

Just like the ex? According to popular belief, we unconsciously prefer a certain type when choosing a partner – both in appearance and personality. Researchers have now examined more closely whether this is true. And indeed: in most participants, the former and current partners were strikingly similar in personality. Relationships were somewhat more varied among people who are themselves rather open and extroverted.

What determines who we find attractive and with whom we form a romantic relationship? This question is not only asked by women and men looking for a partner – science is also trying to uncover the secrets of our choice of partner. According to their results, not only appearance and behavior play a role in this, but also body odor and genes.

How similar are our partners?

But one question remains unanswered: Do we have a particular type in terms of our partner preferences? For at least some people, it is noticeable that they repeatedly enter into relationships with very similar partners over the course of their lives – in both positive and negative ways. The former and current partners often resemble each other not only in appearance, but also in behavior and personality. But what’s the truth about the myth of the always same "type"??

This has now been investigated by Yoobin Park and Geoff MacDonald from the University of Toronto. Their subjects were 332 participants in a German family study who had at least two different relationship partners over the course of the study period of several years. The researchers subjected all three to a standardized personality test in each case and then used this psychological data to compare the personality profiles.

Same type preferred

The result: for most test subjects, there were significant similarities between their former and current partners. These matches went well beyond what one would expect based on the principle of "like goes with like," as Park and MacDonald found. The preference for a partner who is similar to oneself does not play the decisive role.

"Our data provide evidence that people do indeed have a preference for relationships with a certain type of partner," say the researchers. According to this, we actually have a "type" in our choice of partners. Preference then leads us to involuntarily gravitate toward partners who are very similar to their predecessors – even if that relationship was unsatisfying and failed.

What’s behind it?

Why most people unconsciously prefer a certain "type," however, is unclear. "Our data do not provide an answer to this," say the researchers. However, they suspect that the social environment plays a role in this. Because studies show that even in our circle of friends, people with similar interests and personalities usually dominate. But if this pool of potential partners is relatively homogeneous, then it is correspondingly likely that the partners will also resemble each other.

One indication of this could be another conspicuous feature of the results: Among the subjects, who themselves had more outgoing and extroverted personalities, the similarities between former and current partners were lowest. They change their "type" from relationship to relationship. "This may be related to the fact that such people increasingly seek new experiences and impressions," the researchers say. "But it could also be that their social networks are more heterogeneous – and thus the pool of potential partners is." (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019: doi: 10.1073/pnas.1902937116)

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