From first dates to new commitments to keeping the spark alive, many people spend the better part of their lives in a hopeful search for a romantic partner. When do people choose to invest in a partner? to give up? to try again? How do they determine "the one"?
Samantha Joel, assistant psychology professor at Western University and director of the Relationship Decisions Lab, attempts to answer these questions by studying these relationship choices through a scientific lens.
“Most people wind up in long-term relationships, and to wind up in that relationship, you have to make this very specific series of decisions at every juncture. You have to choose that person, and I want to understand why,” says Joel.
As one might expect, however, answers concerning matters of the heart can be difficult to pin down. People are nowhere near as predictable as they believe themselves to be, as Joel’s research shows.
She explains that people say they have standards and deal breakers — a list of traits they would ideally want in a partner. In one study, Joel had participants answer a series of questionnaires about preferences before matching them with each other for four-minute dates. She found that zero per cent of who liked whom could be predicted by their answers.
“These things that people say they're making these decisions based on don't actually seem to be factoring into their decisions,” says Joel. “So what are the decisions based on? We don't know, but it's probably some feature of the interaction itself, like you meet someone, and you either click or you don't.”
While Joel’s findings can challenge common conceptions related to romance in this way, they can also align with them on other occasions. In particular, one study on people’s fear of rejection when starting new relationships provided validity to the saying "Better an 'oops' than a 'what if.' "
Participants asked to recall a regrettable dating experience were more than three times as likely to recall a missed opportunity than a rejection. They were also more likely to risk rejection than missed opportunities in both hypothetical and actual romantic decisions.
“People expect to regret the relationships they don't pursue even more than they expect to regret asking someone out and being rejected,” says Joel.
More significantly, one of Joel’s most consistent findings doubles as a positive and negative: people’s altruistic nature. Simply put, people really care about their present or potential partner’s feelings. This can lead to a range of behaviours from agreeing to dates they don’t want to go on to staying in unfulfilling or even miserable relationships for the sake of a dependent or committed partner.
“People have basic pro-social tendencies, and it's really not that surprising in retrospect that they extend to romantic relationships,” says Joel. “I think that, in Western culture, we have an assumption that people make decisions in a really self-interested way,… but that's not the case.”
Currently, Joel is in the recruitment stage of a large-scale project that looks into how people decide to invest in new relationships and how they develop over time. The study will track the relationships over six months through weekly surveys.
Joel explains this field of research is fairly new and significantly understudied thus far. She hopes to find some satisfying answers to why and how people pair up over the next few decades.
“I think there’s a lot more we don’t know than we do know,” says Joel. “We’ve really just scratched the surface of understanding relationships.”