Why underestimate acceptable partners?

The romantic view of romance in Western culture says a very small fraction of people would make a great partner for you, customarily one.

Some clues suggest that in fact quite a large fraction of people would make a suitable spouse for a given person. Arranged marriages apparently go pretty well rather than terribly. Relationships are often formed between the only available people in a small group, forced together. ‘If I didn’t have you‘ by Tim Minchin is funny. It could be that relationships chosen in constrained circumstances are a lot worse than others, though I haven’t heard that. But they are at least common enough that people find them worthwhile. And the fraction of very good mates must be at least a lot greater than suggested by the romantic view, as evidenced by people ever finding them.

So it seems we overstate the rarity of good matches. Why would we do that? One motive would be to look like you have high standards, which suggests that you are good enough yourself to support such standards.

But does this really make sense? In practice, most of the ways a person could be especially unusual such that it is hard for them to find a suitable mate are not in the direction of greatness. Most of them are just in various arbitrary directions of weirdness.

If I merely sought mates with higher mate value than me, they wouldn’t be that hard to find. They are mostly hard to find because I just don’t really get on well with people unless they are on some kind of audacious quest to save the world, in the top percentile of ‘overthinking things’ and being explicit, don’t much mind an above average degree of neuroticism on my part, and so on.

The romantic view is much closer to the truth for weird people than normal people. So while endorsing the romantic view should make you look more elite, by this argument it should much more make you look weird. In most cases – especially during romance – people go to a lot of trouble to not look weird. So it seems this is probably not how it is interpreted.

Most of anyone’s difficulty in finding mates should be due to them being weird, not awesome. So why does considering a very small fraction of people suitable make you seem good rather than weird?

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • http://jessriedel.myopenid.com/ Jess Riedel

    > So why does considering a very small fraction of people suitable make you seem good rather than weird?

    I’d say because when people talk about destiny/uniqueness/specialness of love, they do so to directly signal their trustworthiness as a long-term partner, rather than to indirectly signal their value on the romantic marketplace through (claimed) incompatibility.  But I’m not so sure that people actually talk like this that often, especially when they are pursuing short-term relationships.

    > Most of anyone’s difficulty in finding mates should be due to them being weird, not awesome.

    I think *more* difficulty is due to weirdness than awesomeness, but *most* of that difficulty is determined by plain old attractiveness.

    • Gulliver

      I think *more* difficulty is due to weirdness than awesomeness, but
      *most* of that difficulty is determined by plain old attractiveness.

      Weirdness factors into attractiveness. Cultures promulgate the idea that attractiveness is a measure of some platonic physical and behavioral ideal, but in actuality normalcy is basically arbitrary. The further a potential mate skews from cultural norms of beauty and sanity, the less attractive they become to other potential mates seeking that consensus-reality ideal. There will, of course, always be exceptions, but they are the outliers by the very definition of normalcy.

      Also, The Marriage of Figaro and other romantic idealizations notwithstanding, I suspect jealousy and lust are significant factors in far more pairings than paired-off mates would like to admit. Just as greed and avarice can lead people to fixate on acquisitions that may actually be a poor investment or deal, so too can people fixate on prospective mates who are not who they would choose given unlimited time and resources to search. The oxytocin probably helps. Emotions are near, and mate-selection is a very emotional process. It stands to reason that those engaging in it would not think about the search globally, but rationalizing that mate selected from one’s local social circle is actually a global maximum helps one avoid thinking they’ve settled.

      Speaking personally, as someone who is very happy with my mate despite not having filtered out the whole heterosexual adult female human population, I choose, following the initial selection process, not to approach love as a comparative decision, but rather as a mutual investment. The more I put into it, the more value it accrues to her and I uniquely. I might enjoy a great author’s writing, but I wouldn’t choose to be that author because then I wouldn’t be me.

  • Maurile

    People generally desire mates that are both high-status and loyal. Katja questions how the romantic view would signal high status. I think it is instead intended to signal loyalty. If I believe that only one person is right for me, I am less likely to stray once I’ve found that person.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

      This initially sounds plausible, but the other side is that seeming to have no attractive alternatives is a recipe for exploitation. 

      • MPS

        Except the conceit is that the same principle applies to them.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        A near-far analysis suggests asymmetry: “they” tend to see the incidental factors that ended up allowing “them” to be satisfying to their partners.

  • Phil

    My experience is that people are more likely to admit there are many suitable mates for them when they are not yet in a relationship.  For obvious reasons: it’s a compliment to their current mate, and it’s a bad idea to admit the possibility that other people might be better than your spouse, even if it’s true.

    Romantic love tends to make one fixate on a single person, so perhaps often it *feels* like there could only be one.  And if you’ve tried many other partners before finding a good one, it might be rational to suspect that a good match is rarer than previously expected.  Also, when you’ve been with someone a while, it IS true that there are fewer better alternatives, due to the fact that breaking up is hard.  If you rate partners on a scale where 100 is the mean and 1000 is the 95th percentile, and the cost of breaking up is 500, then a “better” mate must now be 1500 or better.  That’s much rarer than 95th percentile.

  • Guest

    It seems entirely plausible to me that there are many acceptable partners that most people could be happy with, but that there can be massively better relationships that people mostly don’t find partners for, but like to pretend that they’re having.

  • rapscallion

    The romantic view is a welcome nostrum because almost everyone is romantically rejected at some point and it’s easier to believe this is because everyone’s trying to solve an incredibly difficult matching problem than that you just weren’t up to their standards.

  • http://twitter.com/esynclairs Elizabeth

    If I were to notice the full span of people I could potentially be romantically interested in, I’d feel less like my current relationship is scarce-and-therefore-valuable and, instead of committing to it, flit amongst potential romantic partners seeking the absolute ideal one. People do a little of this already, but if it’s framed as “lots of people are bad because [made up reason], and few/one person is The One,” there’s a possible settling-down condition. Framing it as “there are a lot of really great options and the only deciding factor is my volition” is harmful.

    • TheInverseAgonist

       My thinking is in full agreement. Once a partner settled on a mate for any long-term pair-bond, there would seem to be a strong advantage to reducing the potential suitor space of alternatives for your partner. Which, if we were to think of the potential suitors as points or small volumes in a high dimensional space of traits, the optimal strategy would be to collapse the ‘optimal’ (or ‘romantic’, take your pick!) solution to strictly that which is the intersection of you two, while being as dismissive as possible that another, better solution could exist while downplaying those other traits.

      As Katja said, the very fact we do meet people demonstrates the potential set is pretty large. Historically, the social networks that would enable new partners were pretty sparse. Before eHarmony, there was Dunbar’s number!

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

    The success of a marriage depends much on circumstances. (I recall that when I got a job for a few years in a small town, more than half of the other professionals who had moved from large city to small town got divorced.) Because of the “fundamental error of attribution” we assume that the other person’s character plays a larger role than it does. (Fundamental error, of course, deducible from near-far.) 

  • http://twitter.com/nicktarleton Nick Tarleton

    So it seems we overstate the rarity of good matches. Why would we do that? 

    First hypothesis that comes to mind:

    Once you have a partner, you want to transparently credibly commit to staying with them. This is implemented (in part, and not only in this situation) by making it transparently feel really good to think about them, or think about being committed to them, or to believe that they’re special. We like stories that are superstimuli for this really good feeling, and these stories wind up being most of what defines “the romantic view of romance”. We like to imagine being in love, and we want to believe the sort of thing it feels good to imagine ourselves (motivatedly) believing.

  • Bruno Coelho

    People search too much finding the right partners. Why bother about mates to have a long relationships? Because some people are suited to that type of relationship. Besides, if you already know about the not-so-bad partners out there, you will mate more often? I doubt.

  • Liberty Risk

    Re: Arranged marriage.
    It could just be that cultures that practice arranged marriage also teach values that are conducive to longterm relationship satisfaction.

  • Bryce Senz

    > So why does considering a very small fraction of people suitable make you seem good rather than weird?

    Interesting question, but the real insight here is that a Katja Grace dating blog would be highly amusing.

  • Sam Bhagwat

    Possibilities:
    – Cultures that practice arranged marriage might also have lower standards of what a good marriage is. (spousal abuse, lack of emotional intimacy)
    – People in tribal groups would have the same culture (and thus similar expectations, communication styles). In American cities, your neighbor might not even speak the same language
    – Greater pickiness enabled by access to contraception — shapes narrative. We are more picky now than fifty years ago. Steve Jobs’ biography notes that his (step-)parents met and were engaged in two weeks

  • Dale Arden

    Flash, I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!

  • John Maxwell IV

    Hm.  Based on the first answer in your arranged marriage link, it sounds as though arranged marriages actually have *more* thought put in to the coupling, not less.

    Why are people so selective?  I’d guess that marriage is a problem that people maximize on, not satisfice on.  I think that probably makes sense as well.  Even if the bar for “good enough” is low, there can still be a big difference between “good enough” and “great”.  (At the very least, if you jump for “good enough”, you’ll risk running in to several “greats” later in life and experiencing remorse.  See http://xkcd.com/310/.)

  • dmytryl

    It is very simple, really. If you are planning to spend a lifetime with that person, small differences in how good of a match it is add to huge expected utility. So a honest party that is choosing a partner for life should be willing to put a lot of resources into selection.

    sidenote: I think one of the problems with OB/LW is that you guys tend to assume complete irrationality before rationality, even when it is issues which fall within domain of expertise of most people (or even many animals) and are outside domain of expertise of the typical nerdy/slightly autistic/weird person that would frequent this kind of site. It’s very narcissistic, in a way, and probably impedes the ability to socialize.

    • B For Bandana

      Re first paragraph: Right, it’s definitely a good idea to be selective among available potential partners. But Katja is talking about something else, which is the belief that the partner I’ve selected is not only better than the couple dozen or so I could have had, but is better than the millions I’ve never met. She correctly argues that this is pretty unlikely.

      Re: second paragraph: You have hit on something, but I would express it a little differently. As you point out: “Things people do, are product of thought of many people, that evolved
      over a long time, it’s hard for an individual to reinvent them from
      first principles, as hard as it is to re-design an organism from
      scratch.” That’s exactly right, and it implies that we spend a lot of our lives executing learned behaviors without knowing why they work, and inventing false beliefs to justify those behaviors (which beliefs also become traditional over time). If there is anything strange about the OB/LW contributors and commenters, it’s that we enjoy puzzling over those learned behaviors and beliefs and trying to figure out what purposes they are actually serving. And if you are wondering why we enjoy it so much (to feel superior to others?) then you are already one of us.

      From this perspective, then, it’s not that we “assume complete irrationality before rationality even when it is issues which fall within domain of expertise of most people,” it’s that we assume that people are absolute masters, experts, geniuses, at living their own lives, and at very little else.

      • dmytryl

        re: first, well, after you have talked with that person they become a better match than some random unmet millions who don’t know of you, and also i don’t think people seriously believe absurd things about unseen millions.

        Second, it absolutely doesn’t strike me as what you describe, and your first is a good example of what I am speaking of.

        There’s just all sorts of attempts at least intelligent possible interpretation of what’s going on. As well as rather silly expectations of being more right due to not doing anything that may’ve been deemed wrong with this so called analysis.

        edit: good analogy, let a typical arrogant programming newbie at a well optimized software system that has to meet time deadlines. Ohh this is wrong, ohh that is wrong, etc etc, before you know it, you have the newbie proposition a very buggy, naive, brute force approach that doesn’t work. In some very narrow sense the brute force approach may even have fewer “wrong” bits. End result when it concerns how you think: gradual decrease in sanity (due to bugged up belief processing creating insane beliefs).

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        There’s just all sorts of attempts at least intelligent possible interpretation of what’s going on. As well as rather silly expectations of being more right due to not doing anything that may’ve been deemed wrong with this so called analysis.

        I don’t think so. There’s only a single plausible interpretation of what Katja describes–near-far bias in the form of the fundamental error of attribution.

        Now, one can be contrarian and dispute the prevalence or even existence of the described phenomenon: that people tend to conceive the range of potential satisfactory partners as truncated. By since this observation follows from what is the most well-researched bias in all of social psychology, the burden probably falls on you.

        Katja is impressively perceptive about social norms and practices, at least those she has experienced. [Perhaps her true calling is sociology-or, better, social psychology, if she likes designing experiments to test her insights.] But problems solved by a simple application of principles are more suitable for an academic exam than discussion.

        The relevant problem with the OB crowd, in my opinion (having tuned LW out) isn’t an assumption of irrationality but of hyperrationality. Signaling, after all, is rational behavior, even though it tends to be economically inefficient. Most commenters have jumped for the most plausible-sounding signaling explanation, although a different explanation more clearly applies; although in fact we signal just the opposite. The bottleneck isn’t in signaling but in brain limitations–that aren’t the affirmative product of adaptation.

      • dmytryl

        >srdiamond

        The simplest explanation: that a rational agent would be willing to put a lot of resources into selection of a long term partner (that is, selection is going to be a hard job, with all associated talk) because it adds up to huge differences in utility, does not pop up.

        This ‘Near-Far’ local fad does, something that will look incredibly silly once the forces pushing it go away. It’s clearly a game of some kind, trying to use ‘only the latest’ cognitive hypotheses, and use them the most. It’s always the case with amateur/armchair anything, that the latest fads are the entire base.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        dmytryl,

        The simplest explanation: that a rational agent would be willing to put a lot of resources into selection of a long term partner (that is, selection is going to be a hard job, with all associated talk of how special the selected is) because it adds up to huge differences in utility, does not pop up.

        I don’t think the OP’s thesis has any clear bearing on how much time or effort one should put into finding a mate. Some commenters have interpreted it that way, but it’s a bad interpretation. 

        This ‘Near-Far’ local fad does, something that will look incredibly silly once the forces pushing it go away. It’s clearly a game of some kind, trying to use ‘only the latest’ cognitive hypotheses, and use them the most.

        I disagree, of course, owing my own appreciation of construal-level theory to Robin and having applied it to politics ( http://tinyurl.com/88d329b  ) and persuasive writing ( http://tinyurl.com/dyqf8jr  ). (I have undergone a traditional doctoral and postdoctoral regiimen in social psychology)

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        Also, dmytryl, you can get the same results for this problematic as from near-far by applying attribution theory (even if you don’t think it reduces to construal-level theory). Attribution theory is fad according to no one–it’s been investigated for half a century. And, there’s no point in deriving and testing predictions if you never apply the corroborated theories.

  • VV

    The romantic view of romance in Western culture says a very small fraction of people would make a great partner for you, customarily one.

    That idea is popular in certain kinds of literature, but how many people do actually believe it and act out this belief? If people were so much selective, most of them would be single.

    Maybe people proclaim or internalize this belief when they are committed to a long-term relationship as a form of post-hoc rationalization in order to to enforce their own committment or at least credibly signal it. This is usually associated with belief in supernatural teleological forces (God or Destiny).
    However, when a relationship is broken, people of reproductive age often retract the belief that their previous partner was “the One”.

    I’m not a psychologist, but suppose that a persistent belief in destined romantic patnership in absence of a long-term relationship is probably a symptom of some pathological condition like obsessive love, erotomania or erotophobia.

    If I merely sought mates with higher mate value than me, they wouldn’t
    be that hard to find.

    Assuming that you are primarily heterosexual and hence you are refering to male partners, how do you compare the mate value of men and women, given that most of the population is heterosexual?

  • MPS

    Maybe the point is to flatter your partner, and thus win his/her loyalty.  Or perhaps prove your trustworthiness.  Or in some other it is a signaling device.

    Consider:  I don’t know about you, but I know several women I based on my knowledge of them — which is not small — I suspect they would make as good a wife as the one I’ve got.  And they are attractive, in some cases more attractive than my wife.  I don’t go around advertising this to people I know because I expect it will not make my wife happy.  She will lose trust in me.  Also, it will make her feel less special.  Although I’m sure there are guys out there who are in many ways better than I am, it wouldn’t make me feel good for my wife to point it out.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

    Katja,

    Perhaps the personal lesson for you should be that you probably overestimate the necessity for some requirements–like obsession with saving the world.

    [After all, you’ve read enough Robin’s written to at least question the depth of your own commitment to that project. Is attending graduate school in philosophy (of all subjects) well-suited for world changing? Even more to the point, is writing blog posts making interesting analyses of trivial questions reasonably construed as the effort of one dedicated to change the world?]

    • VV

       

      Perhaps the personal lesson for you should be that you probably
      overestimate the necessity for some requirements–like obsession with
      saving the world.

      Indeed. I would say that an obsession on such things is probably correlated with a narcissistic personality. Maybe Grace should consider reflecting on why she considers such trait attractive.

  • Anoony

    Modern western romantic love has raised the standards for a “good” relationship.  Traditional societies did not assume that love, respect for one’s partner nor fidelity were essential to a good marriage.  Indeed, happiness and self-fulfillment were not assumed to be a “right” of married partners.  In addition, Western men have to give up many of the deferential privileges that were assumed to be provided by the wife but that women are told they should not provide today.  Yet many/most men still want them in some form or another without feeling they have the right to ask for them. Top that all off with anti-male divorce law in a world in which women remain hypergamous and it’s not a surprise that it is in fact likely that a “good” match is harder to make than historically.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

    Here’s an application that shows something of the effects of the truncation of romantic candidates in far-mode. A man beseeches a woman and is rejected. “You’re not my type!” The man persists and wins the woman. The woman’s initial rejection occurred because of her constricted preconceptions.based on her evaluating suitability in far mode. (For this, near-mode seems better. Incidentals are probably more important than fundamentals (my opinion). 

    {You’ll be surprised at how soon you stop caring about saving the world. Or else, you may convert your partner, other factors being favorable.]

  • Silent Cal

    “So why does considering a very small fraction of people suitable make you seem good rather than weird?” Well, the romantic ideal is “there’s one perfect soul-mate for everyone” rather than “there’s one perfect soul-mate for me.” By claiming that high standards are proper for everyone, you avoid casting yourself as especially good or weird. The loyalty-signaling explanations developed in other comments still fit, though.

  • Eric Hammer

    It might be useful to look at it as a question of narrative and definition. 

    If we look at most peoples’ “world,” it really consists of only a few hundred real people, if that. We have certain circles of friends, relatives, co workers, etc. that we know, and a whole lot of human shaped things we don’t really interact with as other people. Past that, there are just faces on TV and pictures that we don’t really think of as real people. If we accept that each person’s world is really small relative to the actual size of the world, then the notion that there is only one person for us doesn’t seem to jarr with reality too much. After all, even among your friends you have favorites and those you like well enough but wouldn’t want to spend too much time with. It is entirely possible that out of everyone you currently know there is only one of the appropriate gender that is sufficiently pleasing to be a long term partner.Of course the instances of infidelity later suggest that we at least have interests in testing that conclusion when our social groups grow and change, but short term, and more importantly in societies with limited mobility and social shifts, this isn’t as much of an issue.

    Such societies, like the relatively near pre-modern societies in the West where most of our culture comes from, generally focused around smaller towns and villages, with fewer truly large and busy cities, and much less mobility. As a result when writers and storytellers created narrative that reflected and informed upon our lives, they wrote about ideas of one true love for each person as it followed not only the general sense of true, but also the cultural ideals of fidelity.Probably a half dozen other things too, but generally I think it is useful to remember that when people say something is unique in the world, they often really just mean their personal world.

  • Pingback: Assorted links

  • Ryan Long

    This line of thinking really argues against itself. However large the *hypothetical* pool of *potential* matches may be, most of us only choose one life partner. (Or, for those who have more than one marriage, most people only choose a small number of life partners.)

    So, I mean… in practice we only choose one mate. That’s about as exclusive as it gets.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=599840205 Christian Kleineidam

    It’s not about seeking an acceptable partner but about falling in love. Falling in love is a quite complex process. The person who are dating might look as an acceptable partner on paper but have the wrong MHC-complex. 

    The human mating process is prone to error. Even if two people are in principle a good match one of them can make mistakes during the mating process. The mistake can prevent the emotional attachment that’s required to occur. 

    If the mating process fails it’s very convenient to be able to say: “You aren’t the one for me”, instead of saying “You don’t belong to the pool of 50% of the population of your gender that make suitable partners for me”. 

    Failure doesn’t hurt as much when the chances for success were slim anyway.

    The romantic way of love also has other advantages. You don’t play power games to manipulate your prospective  partner into liking you if you believe in soulmates.
    You just meet your prospective partner and attempt to discover that you are soulmates instead of trying to force them into a relationship with you.
    This is a trait that’s valuable to signal to prospective partners.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/XLWLJKN3WJ6M2IUQ5QSPGRCXSE Terren

    In my case, I am a true dyed-in-the-wool romanticist.  My answer to your post is that I ran across a woman forty years ago, now, that took my breath away.  I have never, ever found anyone to match that breathtaking feeling.

    Now, since self-honesty seems to be the rule of the day here, I will add the tiny caveat that, in all of that time, I have only spent about 8 months total with this woman.  So, would we end up in the normal drudgery of modern marriage where each views the other with antipathy.  It’s a very,very long story that I will not get into here (since the rule of thumb is 500 words and, believe me, I can blow right through 500 words in the blink of an eye) but, suffice it to say, that, no, that could not happen.  I have spent a lifetime just preparing for being able to treat this woman the way in which she deserves.  And, who she is has nothing to do with status or wealth, except for the wealth every thought of her brings to my heart.  So, I would guess the last sentence makes it clear just how much of a romanticist I am.  And, while I am posting as “Terren”, just to note you can call me Mike or whichwithy, as well, if you like.

    And, speaking of disastrous romaticists, has anyone seen “The Princess Bride”?  I would expect a lot have.  If so, you should really read the last chapter of the original book.  Too funny.  Total disaster.

    So, Katja, I hope I’m not running way too long but I think the make quesiton, for me, really is whether one wants a relationship that suffices or one that lets you walk on clouds every day.  Honestly?  yes, the relationship that suffices makes more common sense.  But, the reason I came to this site wasn’t for the sake of common sense.  It was to seek out world-changing thoughts.  I think that, for me, comes a great deal from my romantic spirit and seeking of perfection in everything.

  • Gskolnic

    There is also the larger society to think about.  The Catholic church (filled with celibate priests) promoted the idea in the middle ages.  Folks had other reasons to follow the powerful church and went along.  That got the ball rolling.  

  • Pingback: Assorted Links 40 | The London School of Attraction

  • rob

    its just sample size. yes there are a lot of good matches, but there are more nonmatches than matches. you need to go through bad dates and then bad picks, so its not odd at all to end up still unmatched.

  • Pingback: Why underestimate acceptable partners? | Meteuphoric