Science can’t forecast love

No magic mix of personality traits on paper can discern how romantic matches will turn out in real life

NO MATCH  Extensive personality and partner preference questionnaires don’t predict who will strike romantic sparks upon meeting in person, a new study finds.


Here’s some heartbreaking news for people pinning their hopes on online matchmaking sites: It’s virtually impossible to forecast a love connection.

Maybe that’s not so shocking to survivors of the dating wars. But now science is weighing in. Extensive background data on two individuals — comparable to that collected by digital dating services — can’t predict whether that pair will romantically click during a four-minute, face-to-face speed date, say psychologist Samantha Joel of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and colleagues.

People know when an in-person meeting on a speed date has gone smoothly or felt right — and that bodes well for mutual attraction, the investigators report online August 30 in Psychological Science. But on paper, no blend of personal qualities and partner preferences thought to influence mate choices pegged which opposite-sex duos would hit it off, Joel’s group concludes.

Joel expected that, say, a person who reported being attracted to extroverted people would generate the most chemistry with speed daters who reported being extroverted. Or, two people who reported being good-looking and having particularly warm personalities would feel especially attracted to one another after brief dates. But that’s not what Joel and coauthors Paul Eastwick of the University of California, Davis and Eli Finkel of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., found.

The researchers studied 350 heterosexual college students — almost evenly split between males and females — who participated in one of 15 speed-dating events in 2005 or 2007. Participants filled out either 182-item or 112-item questionnaires about their personality traits and preferences in romantic partners. The students then completed about 12 speed dates. Afterward, participants rated their interest in and sexual attraction to each person they met.

Some qualities romance seekers said they wanted — such as extroversion and warmth — predicted individual speed daters’ greater attractiveness to others in general. But a statistical analysis of participants’ responses found that no traits or preferences, or combinations of traits and preferences, predicted how much one person especially desired another person after a speed date.

Joel’s team has not analyzed evidence from online matchmaking services to see if their questionnaires frequently pair people who generate romantic heat. “But our findings suggest that it’s quite difficult to predict initial romantic attraction using self-report measures before two people have met,” Joel says.

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, a senior researcher at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, agrees. “You’ve got to meet someone in person to trigger the brain circuitry for romantic love,” Fisher says.

That comes as no surprise to operators of online dating sites, she adds. These sites typically don’t promise customers romantic connections, says Fisher, who is a consultant for online dating site and founded its affiliated website, The aim is to provide an array of potential dates with background and personality traits requested by a customer. The rest is up to those who decide to go on dates.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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