Rational Romantic Relationships, Part 1: Relationship Styles and Attraction Basics



Part of the Sequence: The Science of Winning at Life. Co-authored with Minda Myers and Hugh Ristik. Also see: Polyhacking.

When things fell apart between me (Luke) and my first girlfriend, I decided that kind of relationship wasn't ideal for me.

I didn't like the jealous feelings that had arisen within me. I didn't like the desperate, codependent 'madness' that popular love songs celebrate. I had moral objections to the idea of owning somebody else's sexuality, and to the idea of somebody else owning mine. Some of my culture's scripts for what a man-woman relationship should look like didn't fit my own goals very well.

I needed to design romantic relationships that made sense (decision-theoretically) for me, rather than simply falling into whatever relationship model my culture happened to offer. (The ladies of Sex and the City weren't too good with decision theory, but they certainly invested time figuring out which relationship styles worked for them.) For a while, this new approach led me into a series of short-lived flings. After that, I chose 4 months of contented celibacy. After that, polyamory. After that...

Anyway, the results have been wonderful. Rationality and decision theory work for relationships, too!

We humans compartmentalize by default. Brains don't automatically enforce belief propagation, and aren't configured to do so. Cached thoughts and cached selves can remain even after one has applied the lessons of the core sequences to particular parts of one's life. That's why it helps to explicitly examine what happens when you apply rationality to new areas of your life  from disease to goodness to morality. Today, we apply rationality to relationships.


Relationships Styles

When Minda had her first relationship with a woman, she found that the cultural scripts for heterosexual relationships didn't work for a homosexual relationship style. For example, in heterosexual dating (in the USA) the man is expected to ask for the date, plan the date, and escalate sexual interaction. A woman expects that she will be pursued and not have to approach men, that on a date she should be passive and follow the man's lead, and that she shouldn't initiate sex herself.

In the queer community, Minda quickly found that if she passively waited for a woman to hit on her, she'd be waiting all night! When she met her first girlfriend, Minda had to ask for the date. Minda writes:

On dates, I didn't know if I should pay for the date or hold the door or what I was supposed to do! Each interaction required thought and negotiation that hadn't been necessary before. And this was really kind of neat. We had the opportunity to create a relationship that worked for us and represented us as unique and individual human beings. And when it came to sexual interactions, I found it easy to ask for and engage in exactly what I wanted. And I have since brought these practices into my relationships with men. 

But you don't need to have an 'alternative' relationship in order to decide you want to set aside some cultural scripts and design a relationship style that works for you. You can choose relationship styles that work for you now.

With regard to which type(s) of romantic partner(s) you want, there are many possibilities.

No partners:

  • Asexuality. Asexuals don't experience sexual attraction. They comprise perhaps 1% of the population,1 and include notables like Paul Erdos, Morrissey, and Janeane Garofalo. There is a network (AVEN) for asexuality awareness and acceptance.
  • Celibacy. Celibates feel sexual attraction, but abstain from sex. Some choose to abstain for medical, financial, psychological, or philosophical reasons. Others choose celibacy so they have more time to achieve other goals, as I (Luke) did for a time. Others are involuntarily celibate; perhaps they can't find or attract suitable mates. This problem can often be solved by learning and practicing social skills.

One partner:

  • Monogamy. Having one sexual partner at a time is a standard cultural script, and may be over-used due to the status quo bias. Long-term monogamy should not be done on the pretense that attraction and arousal for one's partner won't fade. It will.2 Still, there may be many people for whom monogamy is optimal. 

Many partners:

  • Singlehood. Singlehood can be a good way to get to know yourself and experience a variety of short-term partners. About 78% of college students have had at least one 'one-night stand', and most such encounters were preceded by alcohol or drug use.3 Indeed, many young people today no longer go on 'dates' to get to know a potential partner. Instead, they meet each other at a social event, 'hook up', and then go on dates (if the hookup went well).4
  • Friendship 'with benefits'. Friends are often people you already enjoy and respect, and thus may also make excellent sexual partners. According to one study, 60% of undergraduates have been a 'friend with benefits' for someone at one time.5
  • Polyamory.6 In a polyamorous relationship, partners are clear about their freedom to pursue multiple partners. Couples communicate their boundaries and make agreements about what is and isn't allowed. Polyamory often requires partners to de-program jealousy. In my experience, polyamory is much more common in the rationality community than in the general population.

Hugh points out that your limbic system may not agree (at least initially) with your cognitive choice of a relationship style. Some women say they want a long-term relationship but date 'bad boys' who are unlikely to become long-term mates. Someone may think they want polyamorous relationships but find it impossible to leave jealousy behind.7


The Science of Attraction

A key skillset required for having the relationships you want is that of building and maintaining attraction in potential mates.

Guys seeking girls may wonder: Why do girls say they want "nice guys" but date only "jerks"? Girls seeking rationalist guys are at an advantage because the gender ratio lies in their favor, but they still might wonder: What can I do to attract the best mates? Those seeking same-sex partners may wonder how attraction can differ from heterosexual norms.

How do you build and maintain attraction in others? A lot can be learned by trying different things and seeing what works. This is often better than polling people, because people's verbal reports about what attracts them don't always match their actual behavior.8

To get you started, the virtues of scholarship and empiricism will serve you well. Social psychology has a wealth of knowledge to offer on successful relationships.9 For example, here are some things that, according to the latest research, will tend to make people more attracted to you:

  • Proximity and familiarity. Study after study shows that we tend to like those who live near us, partly due to availability,10 and partly because repeated exposure to almost anything increases liking.11 A Taiwanese man once demonstrated the power of proximity and repeated exposure when he wrote over 700 letters to his girlfriend, urging her to marry him. She married the mail carrier.12
  • Similarity. We tend to like people who are similar to us.13 We like people with faces similar to our own.14 We are even more likely to marry someone with a similar-sounding name.15 Similarity makes attraction endure longer.16 Also, similar people are more likely to react to events the same way, thus reducing the odds of conflict.17
  • Physical attractiveness. Both men and women prefer good-looking mates.18 Partly, this is because the halo effect: we automatically assume that more attractive people are also healthier, happier, more sensitive, more successful, and more socially skilled (but not necessarily more honest or compassionate).19 Some of these assumptions are correct: Attractive and well-dressed people are more likely to impress employers and succeed occupationally.20 But isn't beauty relative? Some standards of beauty vary from culture to culture, but many are universal.21 Men generally prefer women who exhibit signs of youth and fertility.22 Women generally prefer men who (1) display possession of abundant resources,23 (2) display high social status,24 (3) exhibit a 'manly' face (large jaw, thick eyebrows, visible beard stubble)25 and physique,26 and (4) are tall.27 Both genders generally prefer (1) agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion,28 (2) 'average' and symmetrical faces with features that are neither unusually small or large,29 (2) large smiles,30 (3) pupil dilation,31 and some other things (more on this later).
  • Liking others. Liking someone makes them more attracted to you.32
  • Arousing others. Whether aroused by fright, exercise, stand-up comedy, or erotica, we are more likely to be attracted to an attractive person when we are generally aroused than when we are not generally aroused.33 As David Myers writes, "Adrenaline makes the heart grow fonder."34 This may explain why rollercoasters and horror movies are such a popular date night choice.

But this barely scratches the surface of attraction science. In a later post, we'll examine how attraction works in more detail, and draw up a science-supported game plan for building attraction in others.


Attractiveness: Mean and Variance

Remember that increasing your average attractiveness (by appealing to more people) may not be an optimal strategy.

Marketers know that it's often better to sacrifice broad appeal in order for a product to have very strong appeal to a niche market. The Appunto doesn't appeal to most men, but it appeals strongly enough to some men that they are willing to pay the outrageous $200 price for it.

Similarly, you may have the best success in dating if you appeal very strongly to some people, even if this makes you less appealing to most people  that is, if you adopt a niche marketing strategy in the dating world.35

As long as you can find those few people who find you very attractive, it won't matter (for dating) that most people aren't attracted to you. And because one can switch between niche appeal and broad appeal using fashion and behavior, you can simply use clothing and behavior with mainstream appeal during the day (to have general appeal in professional environments) and use alternative clothing and behavior when you're socializing (to have strong appeal to a small subset of people whom you've sought out).

To visualize this point, consider two attraction strategies. Both strategies employ phenomena that are (almost) universally attractive, but the blue strategy aims to maximize the frequency of somewhat positive responses while the red strategy aims to maximize the frequency of highly positive responses. The red strategy (e.g. using mainstream fashion) increases one's mean attractiveness, while the blue strategy (e.g. using alternative fashion) increases one's attractiveness variance. Hugh Ristik offers the following chart:

This goth guy and I (Luke) can illustrate this phenomenon. I aim for mainstream appeal; he wears goth clothing when socializing. My mainstream look turns off almost no one, and is attractive to most women, but doesn't get that many strong reactions right away unless I employ other high-variance strategies.36 In contrast, I would bet the goth guy's alternative look turns off many people and is less attractive to most women than my look is, but has a higher frequency of extremely positive reactions in women.

In one's professional life, it may be better to have broad appeal. But in dating, the goal is to find people who find you extremely attractive. The goth guy sacrifices his mean attractiveness to increase his attractiveness variance (and thus the frequency of very positive responses), and this works well for him in the dating scene.

High-variance strategies like this are a good way to filter for people who are strongly attracted to you, and thus avoid wasting your time with potential mates who only feel lukewarm toward you.


Up next

In future posts we'll develop an action plan for using the science of attraction to create successful romantic relationships. We'll also explain how rationality helps with relationship maintenance37 and relationship satisfaction.


Previous post: The Power of Reinforcement




1 Bogaert (2004).

2 About half of romantic relationships of all types end within a few years (Sprecher 1994; Kirkpatrick & Davis 1994; Hill et al 1976), and even relationships that last exhibit diminishing attraction and arousal (Aron et al. 2006; Kurdek 2005; Miller et al. 2007). Note that even if attraction and arousal fades, romantic love can exist in long-term closed monogamy and it is associated with relationship satisfaction (Acevedo & Aron, 2009).

3 Paul et al. (2000); Grello et al. (2006).

4 Bogle (2008).

5 Bisson & Levine (2009).

6 Two introductory books on the theory and practice of polyamory are: Easton & Hardy (2009) and Taormino (2008).

7 See work on 'conditional mating strategies' aka 'strategic pluralism' (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000).

8 Sprecher & Felmlee (2008); Eastwick & Finkel (2008). Likewise, there is a difference between what people publicly report as being the cause of a breakup, what they actually think caused a breakup, and what actually caused a breakup (Powell & Fine, 2009). Also see Inferring Our Desires.

9 For overviews of this research, see: Bradbury & Karney (2010); Miller & Perlman (2008); Vangelisti & Perlman (2006); Sprecher et al. (2008); Weiten et al. (2011), chs. 8-12. For a history of personal relationships research, see Perlman & Duck (2006).

10 Goodfriend (2009).

11 This is called the mere exposure effect. See Le (2009); Moreland & Zajonc (1982); Nuttin (1987); Zajonc (1968, 2001); Moreland & Beach (1992). The limits of this effect are explored in Bornstein (1989, 1999); Swap (1977).

12 Steinberg (1993).

13 Zajonc (1998); Devine (1995); Rosenbaum (1986); Surra et al. (2006); Morry (2007, 2009); Peplau & Fingerhut (2007); Ledbetter et al. (2007); Montoya et al. (2008); Simpson & Harris (1994).

14 DeBruine (2002, 2004); Bailenson et al. (2005).

15 Jones et al. (2004).

16 Byrne (1971); Ireland et al. (2011).

17 Gonzaga (2009). For an overview of the research on self-disclosure, see Greene et al. (2006).

18 Langlois et al. (2000); Walster et al. (1966); Feingold (1990); Woll (1986); Belot & Francesconi (2006); Finkel & Eastwick (2008); Neff (2009); Peretti & Abplanalp (2004); Buss et al. (2001); Fehr (2009); Lee et al. (2008); Reis et al. (1980). This is also true for homosexuals: Peplau & Spalding (2000). Even infants prefer attractive faces: Langlois et al. (1987); Langlois et al. (1990); Slater et al. (1998). Note that women report that the physical attractiveness is less important to their mate preferences than it actually is: Sprecher (1989).

19 Eagly et al. (1991); Feingold (1992a); Hatfield & Sprecher (1986); Smith et al. (1999); Dion et al. (1972).

20 Cash & Janda (1984); Langlois et al. (2000); Solomon (1987).

21 Cunningham et al. (1995); Cross & Cross (1971); Jackson (1992); Jones (1996); Thakerar & Iwawaki (1979).

22 Men certainly prefer youth (Buss 1989a; Kenrick & Keefe 1992; Kenrick et al. 1996; Ben Hamida et al. 1998). Signs of fertility that men prefer include clear and smooth skin (Sugiyama 2005; Singh & Bronstad 1997; Fink & Neave 2005; Fink et al. 2008; Ford & Beach 1951; Symons 1995), facial femininity (Cunningham 2009; Gangestad & Scheyd 2005; Schaefer et al. 2006; Rhodes 2006), long legs (Fielding et al. 2008; Sorokowski & Pawlowski 2008; Bertamini & Bennett 2009; Swami et al. 2006), and a low waist-to-hip ratio (Singh 1993, 2000; Singh & Young 1995; Jasienska et al. 2004; Singh & Randall 2007; Connolly et al 2000; Furnham et al 1997; Franzoi & Herzog 1987; Grabe & Samson 2010). Even men blind from birth prefer a low waist-to-hip ratio (Karremans et al. 2010).

23 Buss et al. (1990); Buss & Schmitt (1993); Khallad (2005); Gottschall et al. (2003); Gottschall et al. (2004); Kenrick et al. (1990); Gustavsson & Johnsson (2008); Wiederman (1993); Badahdah & Tiemann (2005); Marlowe (2004); Fisman et al. (2006); Asendorpf et al. (2010); Bokek-Cohen et al. (2007); Pettay et al. (2007); Goode (1996).

24 Feingold (1990, 1992b).

25 Cunningham (2009); Cunningham et al. (1990).

26 Singh (1995); Martins et al. (2007).

27 Lynn & Shurgot (1984); Ellis (1992); Gregor (1985); Kurzban & Weeden (2005); Swami & Furnham (2008). In contrast, men prefer women who are about 4.5 inches shorter than themselves: Gillis & Avis (1980).

28 Figueredo et al. (2006).

29 Langlois & Roggman (1990); Rhodes et al. (1999); Singh (1995); Thornhill & Gangestad (1994, 1999). We may have evolved to be attracted to symmetrical faces because they predict physical and mental health (Thornhill & Moller, 1997).

30 Cunningham (2009).

31 Cunningham (2009).

32 This is called reciprocal liking. See Curtis & Miller (1986); Aron et al (2006); Berscheid & Walster (1978); Smith & Caprariello (2009); Backman & Secord (1959).

33 Carducci et al. (1978); Dermer & Pszczynski (1978); White & Knight (1984); Dutton & Aron (1974).

34 Myers (2010), p. 710.

35 One example of a high-variance strategy for heterosexual men in the dating context is a bold opening line like "You look familiar. Have we had sex?" Most women will be turned off by such a line, but those who react positively are (by selection and/or by the confidence of the opening line) usually very attracted. 

36 In business, this is often said as "not everyone is your customer": 1, 2, 3.

37 For discussions of relationship maintenance in general, see: Ballard-Reisch & Wiegel (1999); Dinda & Baxter (1987); Haas & Stafford (1998).



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