A new psychology study undertaken by researchers at the University of Toronto and Yale found that people have more difficulty rejecting an undesirable potential date when they believe the person actually exists.
They found in two similar experiments that people are less able to reject suitors in real situations than in hypothetical ones. In one experiment, the potential date was physically unattractive, and in the second, the potential date was undesirable based on habits and personality traits. In both studies, participants reported “other-focused” motives, such as not wanting to be mean or hurtful, for accepting a date with the undesirable partner, suggesting that people may be more considerate than they predict themselves to be. The study was published in psychological science on Oct. 24.
“Across two studies, we found that people are more likely to go on dates with people in reality than they think they would be hypothetically, particularly for dates who don’t meet their standards,” said the study’s lead author and University of Toronto graduate student Samantha Joel. “People don’t adhere to the ideals they set for themselves when making choices because we care about other people and don’t like to reject people.”
Researchers divided the participants into four groups. One was told to imagine that an unattractive potential date was in the next room, while another was told that a potential date who was incompatible based on personality traits was in the next room. The third and fourth groups were told to imagine the first and second scenarios, respectively.
Only 16 percent of the those in the physically unattractive hypothetical group said that they would exchange contact information with and meet the person, whereas 37 percent of those who were told that a physically unattractive date was actually in the next room agreed to meet the person.
Researchers then analyzed the groups in which participants were told that the potential date’s personality was incompatible with theirs — what the researchers called “deal-breaker” traits — and found a similar result. The group that was told their unattractive date was in the next room saw 28 percent more participants exchange contact information than the group whose participants knew that their unattractive date was purely fictional. According to postdoctoral fellow in the Paul Rand Lab at Yale and one of the study’s authors Rimma Teper, the discrepancy between the actual and the hypothetical dates shows that hypothetical decisions do not necessarily predict the outcomes in similar, but real, situations.
After participants made their decisions to exchange contact information with the potential date, they answered a questionnaire about their reasoning.
“We are not very good at taking into account how emotions are going to be important for driving our behavior in the moment,” Teper said. “When you are immersed in a situation, the emotions that arise are usually very powerful emotions that may sway you to make a decision in a different direction.”
Susan Rivers GRD ’05, deputy director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, who was not involved in the study, said she “was pleased about the results in the sense that it was showing us humans have compassion and that they take another person’s perspective, and their feelings specifically, in mind when they make decisions.” She added that the results of this study suggest a positive view of human nature — humans are inherently social and care about the feelings of others.
“It’s always good to read science that paints a rosier picture of humanity than we are normally used to,” Teper said, adding that people often underestimate how their emotions drive them to pro-social actions.
Unfortunately, relationships may be the exact wrong time for pro-social tendencies. Samantha Joel explained that it could end up harming others in the long run.
“When it comes to accepting and rejecting dates, that’s exactly the time to be self-interested because that’s really in the best interest of the other person,” Joel said. “It doesn’t waste their time, they can find someone who is genuinely interested in them and you are free to find someone who meets your ideas.”
According to the American Psychological Association, 45 percent of marriages end in divorce.