With Valentine’s Day upon us, The Backdrop explores the mysterious and complicated topic of human relationships.

UC Davis Psychology Professor Paul Eastwick investigates how people initiate romantic relationships and the psychological mechanisms that help romantic partners remain committed and attached.  As principal investigator for the Attraction and Relationships Research Laboratory, he seeks to build connections between research into attraction and close relationships, evolutionary psychology, and social psychology.

In this episode, Eastwick discusses the latest research on finding the best partner, how compatibility is constructed in a relationship, and whether men and women really approach relationships differently.

More Info:

Paul Eastwick, UC Davis Bio Page


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Paul Eastwick: Well, it's the old adage of you kind of have to get out there and kiss a lot of frogs, right? And I think that this is sometimes underappreciated.

Soterios Johnson: It's that time of year again. Valentine's Day is upon us a time when romantic relationships are celebrated and honored. The vagaries of human connection have baffled and confounded human beings for millennia. But can science help us better understand something as seemingly intangible and emotional as love? This is The Backdrop a UC Davis podcast exploring the world of ideas. I'm Soterios Johnson. Can Relationship Science help us find a compatible partner? Is there a secret to a healthy, long-term relationship? Do men and women really approach relationships differently? Paul Eastwick is a professor of psychology at UC Davis. He studies how people initiate romantic relationships and the psychological mechanisms that help romantic partners remain committed and attached. He's also the principal investigator for the Attraction and Relationships Research Laboratory. Welcome to The Backdrop, Paul.

Paul Eastwick: Thanks so much for having me.

Soterios Johnson: So before we get into it, can you briefly explain what Relationship Science is?

Paul Eastwick Sure. So relationship science is really a branch of the social sciences that interfaces quite a bit with psychology, but also a little bit with some related disciplines like family studies, evolutionary psychology, also sociology to some extent. And the general idea is that relationship scientists are interested in using scientific approaches to better understand how relationships work. What factors go into people's decisions to want to date one partner rather than another. And what are the different factors that affect whether your relationships end up going well or end up going poorly?

Soterios Johnson: So based on your research, you know, when people go a-courtin', as it were, how can they increase the chances that they will find the right partner for them?

Paul Eastwick: It ends up being a very challenging question, and I hope this answer isn't too unsatisfying because the reality is there is no sort of magic formula or sort of magic set of checkboxes that a person is going to be able to go through to figure out how well they're going to click with somebody else. And this is one of the primary fundamental mysteries of relationships, which is that it is very, very hard to predict how a given pairing is going to go based on the things that those two people might say about themselves or say about what they want before they actually meet each other. This is not consistent with all the online quizzes you may or may not have ever taken to try to get a sense of what kind of partner is right for you and what your type is and anything that is getting you to sort of fill out a lot of questionnaires online. If you're signing up for online dating platforms that use that sort of information to try to match you up with people who are going to be especially good for you. It turns out that that sort of matching process is very, very hard to do in advance of two people actually meeting for the first time and seeing how well they click.

Soterios Johnson: So when people are, they are thinking to themselves, "Alright, I want a person who you know, has a, b and c, as you know, characteristics." You're saying that actually in reality doesn't pan out that that's actually what the person -- they really want.

Paul Eastwick: That's right. Especially if you are a single person and I'm asking you, what are the different things that you're looking for in a partner in advance of actually meeting somebody? In other words, if you say you're the kind of person who really wants somebody who is intelligent and funny and maybe adventurous, we all like intelligent, funny, adventurous people. Right? There is a certain amount of desirability that goes along with those qualities, but I'm not likely to create better pairings for you specifically by matching you up with somebody who has those qualities. So in other words, what you end up seeing in initial attraction contexts can be a lot of, you know, we want to go for the people who have desirable qualities, and we're less excited about the people who don't have desirable qualities. But it ends up being very challenging to find somebody that's a unique or especially good fit for you based on this kind of information.

Soterios Johnson: So if we don't know what we want, how does someone go about trying to find a partner?

Paul Eastwick: Well, it's the old adage of you kind of have to get out there and kiss a lot of frogs, right? And I think that this is sometimes underappreciated just because of the typical human ability to look back on a particular sequence of events and assume that it had to go in that particular direction. In other words, you meet somebody and there's something about their ambition that really clicks with you in a way that other people's ambition might not. And so now you fancy yourself as the kind of person who really likes ambitious partners. But really, that was sort of a new self-conception that unfolded as you got to know this particular partner whose level of ambition just happened to strike you in the right way. And so what this means is that it's -- we have to see where a given potential pairing goes to know whether all of those different unique pieces of a particular partnership, both the ones that work and the ones that don't sort of how those things gel with our sense of ourselves and our sense of the world to to to see, you know, sort of how that relationship ultimately is going to unfold.

Soterios Johnson: Mm-Hmm. And how did you come to this conclusion? Like what -- how did you apply science to determine this?

Paul Eastwick: That's a great question. So there are a number of different ways that we've tried to tackle this problem. Basically looking at can we figure out where the unique pairings are that this person belongs with this particular other person than that that's really going to create good fit. And we've used machine learning processes to try to do this at various points in the past. So we've conducted a number of speed dating events. Now, speed dating, for those of your listeners who may not be familiar if you have a heterosexual speed dating event, what you're doing is you're introducing a whole set of men and women to each other, and all of the different pairings are going to get a chance to meet each other for a few minutes. Some of these pairs will end up liking each other. Some of these pairs won't end up liking each other. There are popular people, there are unpopular people. But what we wanted to try to do was to use machine learning to take all of the data that people reported about themselves prior to the speed dating event, prior to meeting any of these people and try to figure out well which pairs ended up liking each other more than you'd expect due to chance. What we end up finding is that it's certainly possible to predict who is generally going to be selective or unselective at these events. So some people are kind of willing to date anybody and other people are a little bit pickier. Some people end up being very popular at these events, and other people end up being less popular. Right? You might imagine that, you know, people who are going to be especially attractive, they end up being more popular. But our machine learning paradigm could find no evidence that any of the unique pairings could be predicted from any of the variables that these people reported about themselves ahead of time. So in other words, we generally tend to like popular people. That is certainly true. But there was no amount of matching that we could get to take place from all of these variables ahead of time. And that was really our first clue that maybe there is something about matching that really can't be done that can't be predicted from anything that you'd be reporting before you actually meet somebody face to face.

Soterios Johnson: So it sounds like the whole kind of endeavor is I don't want to say up to chance, but I mean, you're saying like, there's no predictability to it. I mean, so you just as you say, you really just have to put yourself out there and just meet a lot of people. Right?

Paul Eastwick: I mean, I guess I would say there is little predictability when it comes to compatibility. Right? That compat -- if  compatibility is the thing that we really want to fundamentally understand. And, you know, compatibility I'm deliberately pitting against things like popularity and things like selectivity, right? I want to think about compatibility as separate from those things. I can predict who's selective. We've got lots of data that can do that and we can predict who's going to be popular. But it's that compatibility element that I really want to understand. And, you know, I think most people want to understand the compatibility component of relationships, too. Right? I mean, that's sort of, you know, it's it's pretty easy to tell who the popular people are going to be. But, you know, what you want to do is try to find the pairing that is right for you, somebody that clicks with you. And I think the the realization that a lot of people working in this field are starting to have is that people kind of figure out compatibility along the way. And oftentimes what that probably means is they're also creating it along the way as they get to know a particular person and as they start to form a more, you know, a closer, more interdependent relationship with that other person.

Soterios Johnson: So it almost sounds like there -- well, I mean, again, there are so many factors in this. There's physical attraction. There is an attraction to a certain personality type and things like that. There are so many factors that go into it, but it almost sounds like there might be an initial attraction. But that compatibility factor is the real one that's going to determine whether a relationship lasts long or not.

Paul Eastwick: Yes, that's right. And I think where you certainly find the biggest, most powerful effects when you look at relationships research is when you ask people to reflect on sort of how well you handle conflict in your relationship, how well you and your partner sort of navigate your different goals and your different needs together. You know, if we now jump ahead to relationships that are well formed and well established, these things end up being really, really important in terms of, you know, making people feel like they're in a satisfying partnership that's meeting their needs and that they want to stay committed to. But a lot of the way that people come to handle conflict well, a lot of the way that people come to sort of find ways of balancing between both partners' needs and goals is a sort of dance that happens over an extended period of time. You sort of learn what works and what doesn't work in your relationship. And in many ways, one of the trickiest things is as you're sort of building the relationship along the way, how do you select and keep the things that are working well for you and get rid of the things that aren't working well for you and ends up being pretty challenging because in many cases, the things that might have worked for you in a prior relationship or in some sort of alternative relationship might not be the things that end up working for you in your current relationship.

Soterios Johnson: So when you say you mean you say like compatibility is kind of built along the way? Does that mean that, you know, two seemingly incompatible people could actually become compatible if they were willing to work at it?

Paul Eastwick: So, yeah, so these are the kinds of experiments that ideally you'd want to be able to do. And quite frankly, we haven't done them yet. But the basic idea is what if you had a number of people who were willing to, let's say, date a set of people over an extended period of time, regardless of how well that first or second date went? And this is one of the challenges of dating is that it's very easy for people to, you know, especially in the online dating world. It's pretty straightforward to just disengage if that first or second date are not exactly stellar. And so you know what that ends up doing is it ends up selecting for -- you need those first few dates to go exceptionally well in order to want to keep this thing going, in order to want to persist with it. And there is reason to believe that if people instead had a fairly limited number of options that they could choose from, like what would have happened at many points in human history, that there would be cases where people would end up making it work, right? They would end up building something that these end up being relationships that sort of never come to fruition and in in today's world.

Soterios Johnson: So do people have a type, you know, people always talk about like, "Oh, you know, I have a certain kind of, you know, person I'm looking for," is that actually, you know, when you talk about people thinking they know what they want, but they don't necessarily really do know what they really want. Do people have a type?

Paul Eastwick: Not really. So to the extent that people have a type. It's what we meet or what we would look for in terms of evidence of people having a type would be something like this. Do you tend to date people who are more similar to each other than you would expect due to chance alone? OK, now that "due to chance alone" part actually ends up being the most complicated part of that, because odds are your partners probably are similar on a variety of dimensions. For example, they are probably similarly intelligent and have similar levels of education, and they're probably similarly religious, too. And as I start to mention these factors, many people would rightly think, wait a minute. But that's because I'm meeting people who approximately share my education level and who approximately share my level of religiosity. And indeed, that's where a lot of people's types come from. It comes from the fact that you tend to meet people who are pretty similar to each other on average relative to the full population of people that you could be meeting. So I usually end up answering the question about whether people have a type with yes, but it's probably not something you're doing, or at least the agency that you have in picking similar people is really probably mostly a function of the people you're meeting. It's not some set of choices that you're making as you meet a field of eligible partners and narrow that down to choose to date these partners and not these partners.

Soterios Johnson: Right. It's really more a factor of the people you're able to meet in your, your circles and in the kind of the spheres that you, you know, you live your life in.

Paul Eastwick :That's right. And so, you know, people end up having this strong, subjective sense that they have a type because they can see the similarities among the people that they've dated. But essentially, what you're you know, the the real thought experiment requires people to also see the similarities among the people you didn't date.

Soterios Johnson: Right!

Paul Eastwick: The people you turn down and realize, Oh, wait a minute. They who are also pretty similar along those same dimensions. And that's where the the sort of you have this sense of having a lot of agency and choice over who you're dating. That may not be totally within your control at the end of the day.

Soterios Johnson: Have you found differences between men and women when it comes to this? And how about gay people and straight people?

Paul Eastwick: These are great questions. And you know, we actually began a lot of this endeavor by thinking about sex differences because there had been a lot of work looking at the differences in the attributes that men and women want in a partner. So for example, if you ask men and women, how much do you care about qualities like attractiveness or earning potential? You'll see sex differences. So, men say they care about attractiveness in a partner more than women. Women say they care about ambition and earning potential more than men. So these are very reliable, robust sex differences and you know, you see them across cultures. And what we have tended to see is that you can replicate those sex differences in basically any sample. But the real challenge comes when you just reframe the question ever so slightly and say, OK, so does that mean that the attractiveness of a set of partners inspires men's attraction more than women's attraction? That's sort of the logical extension of this idea. Men say that attractiveness is more important to them, they should weight it more heavily. And that means that you should find essentially a stronger appeal, a stronger boost to somebody's attractiveness if you know it's a man evaluating those women than if it's a woman evaluating those men. And you don't see that. That is not a sex difference that emerges reliably at all. So in other words, attractiveness is -- it's very appealing and it's appealing when it's a feature of men and women are evaluating those men. It's also appealing when it's a feature of men and men are evaluating those men. And it's a feature that appealing in women and and in when men are evaluating those women and when women are evaluating those women. So essentially, the appeal of attractiveness is very strong. But you don't really see sex differences in how powerful attractiveness predicts things like how much you want to date this person, how much you like this person, do you want to have sex with this person, et cetera.

Soterios Johnson: Right. It almost comes back to the idea of people saying that they want one thing. But then when they actually, you know, act, it reveals that that's not necessarily what they really want.

Paul Eastwick: That's right. And it's a useful way of thinking about this distinction. It it is as if what people are doing is when they try to introspect about what they want in a partner. They end up telling you in some measure what are the qualities that members of the other sex have if they're heterosexual. So this is, you know, where we think some of those sex differences come from. So, you know, this is not that surprising an observation, but it turns out if you ask men and women to evaluate how attractive is this set of men and this set of women? One of the most reliable sex differences you'll see is that everybody agrees the women are more attractive than the men. And so some of where at least that heterosexual sex difference is coming from is what men are saying, like, "Yeah, I care about attractiveness in a partner. Women are hot." And it's that sort of overall average stereotype that is coming in and affecting men's judgments. This explains the earning potential sex difference, too. Right? So it's not that earning potential appeals to women more than it appeals to men. It's that men on average, make more money. Right? You know, the wage gap. Men, you know, generally being ambitious is sort of part of that agentic male stereotype that people have and that is seeping into people's judgments of what they want in a partner. So it doesn't really reflect sort of unique personal insight about what are the attributes that are especially appealing to me. It's that people are also, in part, describing what are the desirable things that the sex I'm attracted to has. And that's sort of part of of this challenge of just sort of taking those sex differences at face value and why we think it's important to also look at what are the attributes that inspire people's actual interest in real-life partners.

Soterios Johnson: It almost sounds like, you know, you get past those first couple of dates. And if you can kind of convince the other person to give you a shot that you can kind of work things out, even if there's not 100 percent compatibility from the beginning, like you kind of got to get in there. And then if both people kind of are willing to go for it, then you can kind of work it out. Maybe.

Paul Eastwick: I think that that is a reasonable take, and it's also worth thinking about that, you know, sort of the opposite can happen too, right? That two people get in a relationship and they make some choices along the way that aren't optimal for them. And they end up in a pattern in a situation that is really making both of them pretty miserable. But it's not really about this other person. It's really about the pattern and the system that you've constructed together. Now that's not to say that it's easy to fix, right? It's not to say like," Oh, all you got to do is re-imagine the system and re-imagine the patterns." That's very, very hard. And a lot of therapists get paid a lot of money to help people do that, and it's often very, very challenging. But the reason I make this point is because it is very useful to think about relationships as this goal-constructed entity, right? It is not about, oh, it's this other person and his or her faults and his or her flaws. And, you know, God help the next person that ends up in a relationship with, you know, with your ex-partner or something like that -- that much of it is constructed along the way. Another way that I sometimes like to put this is that most people have the potential to be a very, very good, long-term relationship partner and a very, very bad, long term relationship partner, right? That there really aren't a whole great variety of features that make somebody a wonderful or a terrible long-term partner -- that really the potential is in all of us to be very, very good or very, very bad, depending on how you construct things along the way.

Soterios Johnson: I feel like a lot of that kind of initial attraction is it's almost like a gut feeling. So how as a scientist, do you quantify that or how, you know, how do you get a hold of that to be able to study it?

Paul Eastwick: Well, you know, there are a number of ways that we -- you know, honestly, I work with a lot of self-report data and you know, my view on this is if what you care about is people's subjective experience, right? How do I feel about you? Do I feel positively? Do I feel negatively? Am I sexually attracted to you ? That it's really best just to ask people. And as long as they trust that you're not going to go sharing their data on a bulletin board somewhere, they're going to tell you the truth, especially when it comes to romance. If they don't like somebody, they're happy to tell you that. And if they're into somebody, they're happy to tell you that. So, you know, usually we are using subjective self-report data or people are telling us, usually on rating scales, but sometimes in open-ended responses too, how they feel about particular other people. Now, once you have those data in hand, you know the the statistics that you use to make sense of those data can range from pretty simple to, you know, sort of mind-bogglingly complex. And so without going into those details, generally speaking, I find it the most helpful to have those kinds of data sets where you've got many people telling you how they feel about many other people. And so when you've got groups of people who are all evaluating and rating each other, you're in a great position to be able to tease apart those different core elements of, you know, things like selectivity, popularity and then also compatibility.

Soterios Johnson: How did you become interested in studying relationships?

Paul Eastwick Yeah, it's a good question! You know, I actually I really got into studying relationships in the first place, sort of coming across the various studies suggesting that, you know, that sort of talked about that humans evolved nature and, you know, speculating about what it would have been like as humans were evolving tens or hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago. And I found it's fascinating to use these ideas to try to better understand how relationships worked. And at the same time, I found some of the data on things like sex differences that we discussed earlier somewhat unpersuasive. And so I wanted to try to figure out how we could strengthen the science and also try to connect in a seamless, continuous way, the you know, the aspects of, you know, sort of what are people looking for initially when they're starting to date somebody? And then how does that actually turn into a full-fledged relationship over time? So, yeah, so you know, as time went by I, as I, you know, I was initially interested in setting attraction, but it just sort of evolved into really wanting to study the whole thing, the entire relationship from start to finish.

Soterios Johnson: Hmm. Okay. So let's get real practical now as we, you know, begin to wrap up here. What's your advice for people who are single who say they're having an impossible time trying to find their person?

Paul Eastwick: Yeah, it's very challenging out there and certainly COVID and you know, the sort of various ways that our lives have changed and moved online make things more challenging. I mean, that's probably an understatement in many cases. So I really can't say that I have quick fixes, but I do think it is important to appreciate the limitations of any sort of browsing online process of trying to find romantic partners. Now, I think most people subjectively get that, right? They know that there is a major difference between swiping a bunch of photos and what it's like to actually meet and interact with somebody, and it can be really hard to like, force yourself to get out there and meet new people. And many of the avenues that we used to use to do that are beyond online dating. I mean, you know, people used to regularly go to, you know, parties where they meet in one tiny, cramped apartment and interact with a whole bunch of other people that they didn't know. And, you know, sort of make new acquaintances that way. And I recognize a lot of people still do that. But you know, there are limitations to the amount of that that that we can do depending on case levels and other things. So it's not easy to meet other people, especially today. And it is worth finding ways of getting to actually meet other people, sometimes under the guise of a guise that's not romantic, strictly speaking. You know, in ways that are about sort of exploring similar interests or, you know, doing things like that.

Soterios Johnson: So before we wrap up, I was wondering if we can get a little personal.

Paul Eastwick: Sure, sure.

Soterios Johnson: Do you have a partner?

Paul Eastwick: I do.

Soterios Johnson: OK. How does your partner feel about your line of work? I mean, do they feel like it maybe it gives you an upper hand in a way, or or maybe it makes you more empathetic because you're bringing some evidence-based knowledge to the table? I mean, what's that like?

Paul Eastwick: Well, you know, it's I mean, she is also a social scientist, and she she she is interested. You know, she doesn't study relationships per se, but she's interested in many of these same questions, at least at a slightly more abstract level. So it it ends up being more of a, you know, set of scientific conversations than it does sort of being about our own lives. But you know, I'd be lying if I said it never had any sort of cross-cutting implications. The reality is, you know, her level of knowledge and awareness about, you know, much of the science is pretty comparable to mine. So I usually don't try to pull rank by by suggesting that I know more about this stuff than she does. It wouldn't take much for her to beat me.

Soterios Johnson: Very wise, man.

Paul Eastwick: Yes.

Soterios Johnson: Well, this is really great. Thank you so much for sharing so much insight on, you know, what is really a complicated part of so many people's lives.

Paul Eastwick: Yeah. Yeah, you bet. Thanks for having me.

Soterios Johnson: Paul Eastwick is professor of psychology at UC Davis and the principal investigator for the Attraction and Relationships Research Laboratory. You can find out more about his work on our web site ucdavis.edu/podcast. And hear more from him, along with fellow psychology professor Karen Bales discussing the science of romance and relationships in humans and in animals on UC Davis Live, the February 10th, 2022 edition. And if you like The Backdrop, check out our other UC Davis podcast Unfold. It breaks down complicated problems and unfolds curiosity-driven research like why songs get stuck in your head or what real world engineering concepts you can learn from comic books. Join public radio veteran and host Amy Quinton and co-host Kat Kerlin for Unfold. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Soterios Johnson and this is The Backdrop a UC Davis podcast exploring the world of ideas.