Why you should care
Have you ever wondered what your “mate value” is? Or why a relationship didn’t work out? Paul Eastwick has science to help you navigate the troubled waters of relationships.
We’ve all spent too many hours overanalyzing relationships. Paul Eastwick? He does it for a living.
Eastwick, 35, is a social psychologist specializing in relationships. One of his most well-known studies was on the concept of relational mate value. Basically, people tend to reach a consensus about one another’s desirable qualities (attractiveness, charisma, success) and that is a person’s mate value. Put a group of people in a room with Cynthia and, based on first impressions, they might generally agree her mate value is a 6 on average. However, her uniqueness, exhibited over time, might change her value to a 3 or 9, depending on whom you ask. Do they find her jokes funny or annoying?
The amount of selection power that we are exerting over who we wind up with is more modest than we think.
Love is a fascinating subject, but not one that we tend to think can be cleanly dissected by science. However, Eastwick is devoting his scientific work to affairs of the heart. “He may be the most ambitious thinker in the field,” writes Eli Finkel in an email. Finkel is an esteemed social psychologist who taught and then worked with Eastwick. “When he wants to understand the social psychology of human mating, he not only devours the scholarship in our field, but also takes detours through anthropology, archaeology, biology, etc.”
With research suggesting that U.S. divorce rates have doubled among those over 35, and dating life constantly refashioned by apps, it’s not a moment too soon.
While the mate value project gives a sense of hope that every 3 can become someone’s 8, Eastwick’s next project, on exes, casts doubt on the control we exert over our love lives. He’s looking at how consistent romantic partners are over time, and what your exes say about you and your romantic choices. Eastwick and his colleagues saw similarities among people’s exes, but those were largely dependent on broad sociological factors. For example, your past significant others may all have similar IQs, but that could be driven by where you went to school and your selection pool, rather than personal taste.
“The amount of selection power that we are exerting over who we wind up with is more modest than we think,” Eastwick explains. “A lot of the most important forces are outside of our control.” Meaning: We can relax and not try so hard to date people who check off two or three things on our “must-have” list. That’d be nice, right?
One of Eastwick’s earlier studies suggested that people who tend to like everyone at speed dating events tend to be disliked on average. People can pick up on desperation, and they don’t like it.
However, if you like someone much more than you like other people, let them know. “Unique liking is often reciprocated,” says Eastwick. “In short, you have to make someone feel special if you want them to like you back.”
Eastwick started his work in social psychology in 2000, during an undergraduate course in Cornell. “When relationships are going well, we feel great,” says Eastwick, who is currently an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “When they’re not going so well, we feel terribly. It’s a problem nearly everybody confronts, and I wanted to have a hand in trying to explain it.”
He first tried applying an empirical approach at Northwestern University, in Finkel’s class. Eastwick and his classmates ran a big speed dating study and found that speed dating creates a lot of coffee dates, but not a lot of long-lasting relationships. The data of dating had him hooked.
His original inspiration came from a failed relationship in high school. Eastwick had the “ongoing perplexing dilemma” of trying to understand why the relationship didn’t work out. He sought advice in astrology books, but found that compatibility measures based on zodiac signs were “written in such a way that you can really read any answers that you want.” He thought to himself, “There has to be a better way.”
But can the field of “relationship science” truly offer anything more reliable? Some would argue that the ephemeral state of love isn’t subject to science. Who can know the alchemy of a relationship? Can the human condition be pinned down by a formula?
Relationship psychologist Ty Tashiro says social and personality psychologists often rely on basic science, and it’s rare to find someone like Eastwick who uses applied science on relationships. “People have practical questions that need to be answered,” says Tashiro. He found Eastwick and Lucy Hunt’s relational mate value study “crisp and disciplined,” adding, “I think that’s hard to do with something that’s as complicated as a social relations model.” Tashiro says it frames an idea conceptually, while also telling people in a practical way how friends are good for talking about a partner’s attractiveness, but might not be the best people to ask whether this person is going to provide a satisfying relationship.
It’s rare to find someone like Eastwick who uses applied science on relationships.
Eastwick’s work may have begun from being unlucky in love, but all his time pondering relationships has altered his personal life. Finkel says, “Paul went through a period where he was trying to figure out dating. He couldn’t figure it out for a while, and that caused him to think deeply about romantic attraction and close relationships. He is now completely irresistible. The women flock.”
Eastwick is much more coy, saying he tries to “keep to the data” as much as he can, and avoids anecdotes of his own. Something he does provide clarity on? His mission.
“I think so many people find the initiation of relationships and maintenance of relationships to be such a big damn mystery,” says Eastwick. ”If I could do anything at the end of the day, [I would] really help try to explain why relationships work the way they do, where these emotions and experiences come from. And if people can draw from that, if people can say, ‘Now I get it — this explains the life that I see and the life that I know,’ that would be a good contribution, in my opinion.”