When it comes to the dating game, the traits people look for in potential mates depend on the size of the dating pool, a new study suggests.
In larger groups, people are more likely to use physical characteristics, such as height and weight, to make their dating choice — features that don't take much time to assess — the study researchers say. In contrast, people in smaller groups are more likely to pay attention to characteristics that require some "getting to know you" conversation, such as whether or not the potential partner went to college or is a smoker.
Since people can only take in so much information at a given time, it makes sense that they would focus on different mate characteristics in different situations, said Alison Lenton, a psychologists at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
"There are constraints on what our brains can do — they're quite powerful, but they can't pay attention to everything at once," Lenton said.
And when faced with a plethora of possible partners, people might focus on traits they can quickly judge. As a result, someone might seem like Mr. or Mrs. Right in a small group, but not in a large one.
"With more choice, it is conceivable that a singleton might like John [or] Jane in one context, but not in another," Lenton told LiveScience in an e-mail.
Too many choices
Scientists have known when confronted with, say, 30 different kinds of sunscreen, or 10 varieties of diet soda, people start using rules of thumb rather than logically working out which would be the best option, Lenton said.
To see if this type of thinking carried over to dating decisions, Lenton and her colleagues looked at choices made during 84 speed-dating events involving around 1,800 women and 1,800 men. The events ranged from quite small (15 to 23 participants) to larger (24 to 31 participants). Each date was three-minutes long, and when the event was over, subjects indicated who they would like to go out with.
Overall, subjects preferred partners who were younger, taller, not too skinny and had a university degree – for both males and females. However, in larger groups, participants were more likely to pick dates based on physical characteristics, and the reverse was true of subjects in smaller groups.
It's possible that participants in the larger group felt more pressed for time, even though their dates were just as long as those of subjects in smaller groups, so they focused on easily-assessable characteristics.
However, since the results are based on speed-dating events, the findings might not apply to other dating situations.
Idea of Mr. Right may change
The results indicate that, contrary to what was previously assumed, people don't just walk around with a list of desirable mate traits in their heads and see how a potential date matches up.
"The choice environment has a hidden effect on people's preferences, on their "list". That is, they change what they are looking for depending on how many options they perceive that they have," Lenton said.
The study was published March 9 in the journal Psychological Science.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.