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Everybody has their own preferences for ideal romantic partners. But what affects you when you decide your “type," and do those types even matter?

Hosted by: Hank Green
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[ ♪INTRO ].

If you experience romantic or sexual attraction, odds are you have a “type.” And that type is specific to you. Like, you probably aren’t attracted to the exact same people as your friends.

Maybe you’ve even wondered, in some back corner of your mind, what a friend sees in their partner. But those differences are kind of strange when you think about it. To be clear, we’re not talking about the bigger things like sexual orientation.

But you'd think that people who experience attraction would have a drive toward certain qualities, like physical health and symmetrical faces. That’s why you can become a supermodel — there are some traits that tend to be universally attractive. Yet there are plenty of people who check off all of those boxes but don’t inspire you to swipe right.

So, there are probably other factors that affect your individual preferences. But whatever your type is? In the end, it may not even matter.

The most important factor that affects what you find attractive seems to be your personal environment and experiences. Like, in one 2015 study, researchers asked hundreds of pairs of identical twins, who have close to the same set of genes, and fraternal twins, who don’t, to rate the attractiveness of pictures of faces. The identical twins found a few more of the same qualities attractive than the fraternal twins, but not enough to be entirely — or even mostly — explained by genetics.

So the researchers concluded that the majority of the differences within the pairs’ ratings were caused by the differences in their individual life experiences — all of the little things each twin encountered throughout their life. Other studies show that while people agree a lot of what makes a face attractive, about half of that comes down to plain old individual preference. Part of that is about what’s familiar to you.

Since the 1960s, psychologists have studied what’s known as the mere exposure effect, which is to say that the more you’re exposed to something, the more you tend to like it. The same goes for people. For example, one study had four women pose as students in a college class of 130 people for a whole semester.

At the end of the semester, the students in the class rated the women who showed up to class more often as more attractive. You can even distort otherwise normal looking portraits, and if people view them enough times, they’ll start to see them as attractive. And of course, you’ve seen your own face more than anyone else’s, so it might not be surprising that people tend to be more attracted to faces that look like their own.

Only to a point, of course, since people are rarely attracted to their close family members. But a certain amount of similarity seems to help. Your type can also be swayed by what your friends and family prefer.

You and your BFF might not agree on every hottie at the bar, but studies show that preferences overlap more between friends and family than they do between strangers. Strangers’ preferences can also have an effect, though — assuming you know about them. In a 2007 study of women in their 20s who were attracted to men, the women tended to rate men’s pictures as more attractive if they had seen another woman smiling at the picture earlier.

In another study, pictures paired with their average ratings were judged as less attractive if those averages had been manipulated to appear lower. In other words, if the participants thought other people found a picture unattractive, they rated it as less attractive themselves. Which brings us to the bigger question here: if your preferences are so easily swayed, does your ‘type’ really matter?

In 2014, a meta-analysis of past research set out to answer that question. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know how much someone’s understanding of their own type accurately predicted which partners they started relationships with. They analyzed nearly 100 studies, and found that while people report being more attracted to potential mates that match their preferences on paper that’s not how it turns out when they meet real, live humans.

When scientists ask people to describe their ideal partner before going to a speed-dating event or looking at online dating profiles, those traits have almost no bearing on who they eventually end up with. The researchers think it’s because of something called construal-level theory, which says that people tend to think about psychologically distant things in high-level, abstract ways, and more immediate things in low-level, concrete ways. According to this theory, when a potential partner is just a hypothetical idea, you’re free to create all sorts of abstract requirements of them.

But once you meet the person, you’re flooded with all these extra details that you have to interpret, and you end up unconsciously tweaking those requirements to match the person in front of you. In a sense, all this research confirms what we already know: Attraction is complicated, and everyone experiences it in different ways. And these studies don’t tell us much about the broader categories, like attraction to different genders.

But whatever your type is within those categories, being flexible could be worth it. Because your perfect partner might be nothing like what you imagine. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

And thanks especially to our community on Patreon, whose support makes this whole channel possible. If you want to help us keep making videos like this, just check out patreon.com/scishow! [ ♪ OUTRO ].