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Do Opposites Attract? Not Really

People Want to Find a Mate Who Shares Similar Traits
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WebMD Feature

June 30, 2003 - When it comes to settling down and finding a mate, "likes" may attract better than "opposites." New research suggests that people actually seek out mates who have similar traits as themselves rather than following the old "opposites attract" pattern.

The study also found that how a person perceives his or herself as a potential mate has a large impact on the traits they look for in a mate. Men and women who had a high self-perception of themselves were more discriminating than those who had a lower self-perception of their value as a mate.

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Researchers say that previous studies on mate selection have focused on the theory that people prefer mates that rank high on qualities associated with successful child rearing, such as financial wealth and commitment to family. But for people who don't perceive themselves as desirable mates, they say this "opposites attract" theory may not be the most successful strategy for long-term relationship success.

A Strong Link

For the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 978 heterosexual college-age men and women completed a two-part survey. Participants rated the importance of various attributes they want to find in a long-term mate in four basic categories:

  • Wealth and status
  • Family commitment
  • Physical appearance
  • Sexual fidelity

They then ranked themselves on these same traits.

Researchers found a strong link between how the individuals perceived themselves as a mate and what they looked for in a mate. For example, someone who ranked himself or herself highly on physical appearance also placed a high level of importance on finding that particular trait in a mate.

The study showed that how women perceived themselves in each category explained about 35% of the variation in what they were looking for in the same category. Among men, about 12% of the variation in these categories was also explained by their own self-perception in the same categories.

"Likes" Attract?

Researchers say those results dispute the "opposites attract" rule and suggest that humans use a "likes attract" rule when finding a long-term mate.

"The implication of this result is that in an open marriage market, individuals of low self-perception will find it hard to find and keep a satisfactory partner, because such partners will themselves be seeking individuals of higher mate quality," write researchers Peter Buston and Stephen Emlen of the department of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University in New York.

They say the findings may also explain why homogenous marriages have been found to be more common and more successful than marriages between more disparate individuals.

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