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Setting Your Standards

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The Science of Settling

Is It Time to Lower Your Standards?

Why you should care

Because sometimes finding the mate of our dreams requires a more realistic view of our prospects. 

In case you missed the buzz on Facebook, scientists recently determined that “beer goggles” do in fact exist, though not precisely in the way we thought. Consuming alcohol, it seems, tends to elevate desire and reduce inhibitions more than alter our actual perception of another person’s attractiveness.

But there’s another type of virtual eyewear that many of us spend even more time donning — one that has the opposite effect of beer goggles. Call them “expectancy spectacles” if you’d like, because wearing them causes us to raise our standards and expectations, often unrealistically, of everything from potential mates to job prospects.

Almost 9 in 10 Americans believe they have a soul mate, but only 3 in 10 find enduring partnerships.

The primary culprit behind this altered vision is not booze but a potent concoction of Hollywood movies, social conditioning and wishful thinking. And fortunately, there are a few scientists on the case.

One is Ty Tashiro, a psychologist and relationship expert at Discovery Health, whose recent book, The Science of Happily Ever After, explores what “advances in relationship science” can teach us about the partners we choose. Almost 9 in 10 Americans believe they have a soul mate, says Tashiro, but only 3 in 10 find enduring partnerships that do not end in divorce, separation or chronic unhappiness. Clearly something is going wrong — and it starts with our expectations.

That’s because in real life the pool of potential partners looks rather different from the cast of The Bachelorette something Tashiro hopes to address by putting some cold figures to the mating game, employing an approach similar to the one used by scientists who calculate the chances of life on other planets.

For example, say a bachelorette enters a room of 100 male bachelors who represent the broader U.S population. If she prefers a partner who’s tall (at least 6-foot), then her pool of possible prospects immediately shrinks to 20. If she would like him to be fairly attractive and earn a comfortable income (over $87,000 annually), then she’s down to a single prospect out of 100.

Man holding roses

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If you choose to specify further traits, such as kindness, intelligence or a particular religious or political affiliation, well, let’s just say we’re going to need a much bigger room. And then, of course, there’s the small matter of whether he actually likes you back.

Such long odds are the product of misplaced priorities, says Tashiro, but it’s not strictly our fault. Our mate preferences have been shaped by natural selection’s obsession with physical attractiveness and resources as well as the messages our friends, families and favorite shows transmit about sweethearts and soul mates. And it is at the start of relationships, when we need to make smart long-term decisions, that we are least likely to do so because we’re in the throes of lust, passion and romance.

It’s not so much about lowering standards as giving yourself better ones.

Or, as Tashiro puts it, returning to our alcohol analogy: “It would seem wise to hand off the keys to someone with more lucidity until your better sensibilities return.”

Which is why Tashiro advocates a new approach to dating, one that is not so much about lowering standards as giving yourself better ones. Call it “Moneyballing” relationships (Tashiro does); it’s all about finding undervalued traits and assets in the dating market. And, just like with baseball, it starts with trying to ignore the superficial indices of value — attractiveness, wealth — in favor of hidden attributes with a stronger correlation to long-term relationship success.

Citing research that finds no reliable link between income level or physical attractiveness and relationship satisfaction, Tashiro steers his readers towards traits such as agreeableness. With married couples, he points out, “liking declines at a rate of 3 percent a year, whereas lust declines at a rate of 8 percent per year,” so the smarter long-term investment is finding someone you genuinely like. Plus, he adds, studies also suggest that agreeable partners are in fact “better in bed” and less likely to cheat over the long haul.

But can nice guys and gals really finish first? And is it possible to make thoughtful, strategic choices when it comes to relationships?

Perhaps you agree with Crash Davis, Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham, who doesn’t “believe in quantum physics when it comes to matters of the heart.” But that shouldn’t mean you ignore the science altogether, especially when it can improve your chances of hitting a home run.

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Sean Braswell

Meet The Author Sean Braswell

Sean Braswell writes about history, politics, film, sports, and most everything else for OZY --aside from this byline, which he assigned to an unpaid intern who was locked in a room, given a Red Bull and an internet connection, and told to make some magic happen, pronto.

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