Paul Eastwick finally has a girlfriend, and is about to get a PhD to boot. Professor Eli Finkel is finally engaged, has his honeymoon in Amsterdam set up as a summer sabbatical and just landed a half-million-dollar grant. So many Northwestern University students, both grads and undergrads, apply to work at their Relationships Lab that they can only accept only five percent. All this for demonstrating that the rest of us know a lot less about our own amorous inclinations than we think we do. Are these guys hot, or what?
Eastwick and Finkel are pioneers in researching what social psychologists call IRAs—not retirement accounts, but initial relationship attractions. They use interviews, questionnaires and photographs to measure what we think turns us on, versus speed-dating and actual dating to compare what draws us to real flesh-and-blood partners. They consistently find that what we believe sparks our libido is not what in fact does. For instance, a soon-to-be-published study finds that while men say physical attractiveness in a woman is more important to them than her earning potential, and women say the opposite, in true-life dating no gender differences show up: both men and women resonate strongly to good-looking, personable mates with high earning potential. It doesn’t matter whether we’re looking for a quick hook-up, a casual affair or a committed relationship. Nor does it matter how we rate our own attractiveness, career prospects or personality; a self-described ugly slacker dweeb, male or female, will still try to catch a hottie.
Many of their findings dispel common myths—like the severity of a broken heart, for instance. While we are in a relationship we think we’ll be devastated if it ends, but in fact we’re less upset after a breakup and recover faster than we’d anticipated. Similarly, the attractiveness of “a ladies’ man” or “a woman who likes men” is a myth; we hum when we feel someone likes us in particular, but we find people who come off as attracted unselectively to almost everyone repulsive. It’s also not true that no one likes an insecure partner. Eastwick and Finkel have found that, early in a relationship, anxiety about how your desired mate feels about you makes you do things (like want to hang out together all weekend) that draw a couple closer together.
Their IRA research started in 2004 when Eastwick was a first-year grad student in Finkel’s Close Relationships class. “I was single and lonely, while most of my classmates were in committed relationships,” Eastwick says.
“Most social-psych research focuses on existing relationships, and I had a hard time relating to that. So I kept pestering Eli to do some work on singles—research that was also me-search. The class got the idea of going to a speed-dating event on campus, and from there we developed this whole research methodology.” He met his girlfriend, a clinical psychology student, in the program. “We’d met before all the data came in, but what I’m learning in the research certainly hasn’t hurt our relationship. I mean, why bother to approximate what your prospective partner says she wants when she doesn’t really know what she wants?”
Finkel, who’s one of Eastwick’s graduate advisors as well as co-author and Bears-watching partner, hypothesizes, “Paul was probably a misfit as a struggling rock musician in New York”—an experience Eastwick describes as “punishing.” “People are attracted to people who are stable, centered and confident,” Finkel says, “and the reception this research has received professionally has made Paul all that.” So the appeal of the “bad boy,” the James-Dean-like, marginal, Harley-biker/rock star might be another myth their studies will dispel. Finkel investigates ongoing relationships as well as IRAs, with a focus on conflict resolution. His grant, in fact, is to study intimate partner violence. “My research has made it easier for me to sustain a committed relationship, to defuse fights,” he says. “For my fiancée”—an event planner, not a psychologist—“it’s intuitive.” He suggests that most conflicts are symbolic of something else, and when the couple join together to figure out the subtext the conflict fizzles.
Their studies, however wide-ranging, continue to support the notion that, in Finkel’s words, “we have limited intuitive understanding of our love life.” For instance, the researchers assumed that whites think they would prefer white romantic partners, and that preference might be stronger among political conservatives than liberals. But in fact, while white conservatives show a strong preference for other whites, liberals in real-life dating show a surprising preference for minority partners. “Totally counterintuitive,” Finkel says. “Our findings may also support the lore that online matching doesn’t work well, because people online are using a checklist mentality that doesn’t reflect what really attracts them in person. In a real-life encounter, even just four minutes of speed-dating, people can make a lot of assessments about each other very fast.”
Sort of like Bush looking in Putin’s eyes and reading his soul. Since the speed-dating studies are conducted on campus with underage students and no alcohol, the question arises of how the results apply to the more common meat-market/courting experience in bars. “There’s no question, standards drop,” Finkel says, citing the undocumented Coyote Ugly syndrome. “Alcohol makes social interactions easier and makes people less selective.”
Future research, the duo promise, will explore whether the intensity of initial romantic attraction has anything to do with establishing long-term relationships. (Burt Michaels)