Preference vs. prejudice: what's ok when picking a partner?

There are vanishingly few amongst us who’d claim to have no physical preferences when it comes to finding a partner. Even insects select their mates based largely on physical appearance, and primates aren’t as different as we might like to think. Specifically, female animals choose mates based on an estimation of their genetic potential, while male animals do their best to restrict that choice – either by defeating rival males or by coercing females. We’re used to this: human couples in which one partner is significantly more attractive than the other draw our interest, and often gossip, all the time.

In biological terms, it’s called assortative mating. People pair up with people who are similar to themselves (sometimes too similar). We’ve written previously about how people tend to choose partners like themselves, despite claiming to prefer the opposite, and that has widespread social consequences. The fairytales are just that: however noble their intentions, princes rarely marry servant-girls.

This plays out in our sexual preferences. “Siblings or dating”? has become a meme, and gay couples are often scorned for finding partners who look uncannily like themselves.

But how can it be wrong to find some people more attractive than others? Is there really anything bad about preferring blond(e) hair or wanting your partner to be a bit taller/shorter than you? The line of social acceptability is drawn somewhere between “I find freckles sexy” and “I only date white women.” But where?

Part of the question can be answered with data. Back in the good old days when dating sites published interesting things, eHarmony revealed the ethnic preferences of its users.

pierson-eHarmony
Source: FiveThirtyEight


The chart is based on actual messages sent, rather than what users claimed their preferences were, making it decently reliable as a behavioural indicator.

Unfortunately, the graphic doesn’t tell us how many users were sampled, whether they were representative of a national (US? UK?) average, or even whether they were representative of eHarmony’s wider user base.

Fortunately, OkCupid stepped into the breach. Using astrological signs as a control (because users and user behaviours are more or less randomly distributed across the zodiac), they found that the ethnicity of someone sending an OkCupid message played a crucial role in whether or not the recipient would reply.

This was true despite the fact that users of each ethnicity matched with each other at pretty similar rates.


It’s possible that part of this discrepancy is accounted for by other factors. For example, Black men may be uniquely socially disadvantaged, and therefore end up less rich or successful, or less well-educated, than their white counterparts. Perhaps the non-Black recipients of their messages are discriminating based on jobs or education, rather than ethnicity. But even if this were provably true, which seems unlikely, the effect is the same: Black men (and all other non-white men) receive fewer replies than white men. (It’s worth bearing in mind that this data is more than 10 years old, and likely to be US-specific, but it’s the best we have to work with.)

It isn’t just disliking certain physical “types” that inspires social distaste. Liking some characteristics too much is also considered a serious faux pas on the grounds of fetishisation: it sexualises ethnicity or body type to the detriment of the human being as a whole.

Sometimes, of course, what we find uncomfortable isn’t so much someone’s preference as the way they approach that preference. Someone very athletic might only be interested in people of similar disposition and build, and as long as they keep quiet about it we don’t tend to object. But if they declared “I would never date an overweight person,” the social reaction would be noticeably different. However various and personal our preferences might be, announcing that we find something unattractive is still tantamount to saying that we find it unacceptable.

Dating apps play a confused role in all this. On one hand, they introduce us to potential partners that we might never have previously considered, because our existing friendship groups are usually made up of people similar to ourselves. Marriage between people of different ethnicities has been steadily rising in both the UK and the US for decades, and it's conceivable that dating apps have played a role in that.

On the other hand, dating apps have taught us to treat the hunt for a partner as something of a tick-box exercise. We compare people's traits as if they're options in building a video game character, instead of subtle and nuanced parts of a whole human being.

Most dating apps started out by offering us the offer to filter prospects by ethnicity, meaning users could just screen out anyone who didn't fit their ideal aesthetic profile. Lots of apps still offer that filtering as a paid feature – nominally for the sake of minorities, who may feel more comfortable with a partner who shares their own background, but in reality for anyone who wants to limit their matches to specific ethnicities. Our least socially-acceptable prejudices are considered just as neutral as a preference for dogs over cats. We're even given the option to act on them.

The good news is that the power to broaden our own romantic horizons is in our hands. Physical chemistry is very important to attraction, but it's also often unpredictable. And our romantic preferences are actually quite malleable: we're more susceptible to suggestion than we might like to think, and our predilections don't arise in a vacuum. We can even change them if we set our minds to it: decisions we make in the present have long-lasting effects on our future preferences, because we want to believe that we made the right choice at any given moment.

So if you find yourself in a dating rut, incapable of finding most people attractive, try analysing your environment. What choices have you made that limited your current preferences? And can you find the opportunity to make new, more interesting decisions in the future?

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