Conventional wisdom tells us that singles should always "dress to impress" when going on a first date. After all, looks and first impressions are supposed to make or break one's chances of making a lifelong connection — or so the thinking goes.
But if responses to a recent survey are to be believed, conventional wisdom is about to be turned upside down.
In surprising new findings by DatingAdvice.com, only 1 in 10 Americans ranked "looks" as the top quality they search for in a partner. In fact, the respondents rated several other qualities as more important than looks, such as things in common (50%), a sense of humor (25%) and morality (12%).
The exclusive study, which surveyed 1,080 adults over the course of three weeks, also found that men are twice as likely as women to put looks first, and that young adults are two times more likely than seniors to put looks as the number one quality.
Gary Lewandowski Jr., Chair of the Department of Psychology at Monmouth University, said only 1 in 10 Americans ranking appearance first is surprising and suggests people are uneasy when answering survey questions about dating, sex and relationships.
"What people say they'll do is often different from what they actually do," he said. "There is research that shows for picking partners, people often say things other than attractiveness matter, but when researchers tracked who people selected to date, it was largely based on attractiveness."What's ironic, according to Lewandowski, is that those other traits are far more important to long-term compatatabiliy.
How does personality affect appearance?
We consulted past research, as well as Dr. Lewandowski, Dr. Wendy Walsh, CNN's relationship expert, and Julie Spira, best-selling author and dating coach, to see how people really feel and if they're lying to save face.
Lewandowski, who spends his days researching this type of phenomenon, said our findings are supported by his own research, which shows how a good personality affects a person's attractiveness.
He refers to this as "the malleability of opposite-sex physical attractiveness" and said it is an integral part of how our brain interprets attractiveness.
Over time, the looks of another individual are greatly influenced by what we think of their personality.
"If you're of average physical attractiveness, but I find out we're similar, you will essentially get more attractive," he said. "It goes the other way, too. If you start out attractive but have a terrible personality, you become less attractive."
These studies show the characteristics that are most desired among men and women include honesty, consideration, affection, dependability, intelligence, kindness, understanding and someone who is loyal and a good companion.
These all focus on personality traits as opposed to cosmetic ones.
Is this pointing to a recent shift in our culture?
Walsh made some assessments of society's perception of attractiveness and the role the media plays in altering that perception.
"This research speaks to a kind of progression that I've seen in our culture where our media is obsessed with youth, beauty and good looks to the point that every photograph and every piece of advertising is Photoshopped, and I think that people in their relationship lives have realized how cartoon-like that is," she said.
So do looks still matter?
While over time, it seems a person's attractiveness can be improved or ruined by their personality, first impressions still matter.
With our modern online dating culture, Spira knows firsthand how important looks are.
"I think [people are] always going to say that they want somebody they have a lot in common with [and] with a sense of humor, but when we look at the profiles together and we do our initial matchmaking searches, [they say] 'I don't like the way he looks,' 'Oh, he's got bad hair' [or] 'Oh, he's overweight.'"
These initial reactions are not the whole story, though. Spira said eventually people "walk away if they see that they don't have enough in common or they just aren't intellectually stimulated" by another person.
Looks just aren't enough to sustain a relationship.
What's the likelihood respondents are lying?
OkCupid recently published a blog post titled "We Experiment on Human Beings!" Within this article, two of their most important experiments are discussed: "Love is Blind (or Should Be)" and "So What's a Picture Worth?"
Experiment 1: Removing pictures from online profiles
In the first experiment, the dating site removed profile pictures for one day. Without these photos to base decisions off, people responded to first messages 44 percent more often, conversations went deeper and contact details were exchanged more quickly than on a typical Tuesday.
However, when pictures were restored and appearances once again came into play, the 2,200 people in the middle of conversations found their chats dropping.
Experiment 2: How much does your image affect your attractiveness?
The latter experiment focused on users' rankings of other profiles. Noticing looks ratings often correlated with personality ratings, the OkCupid team replaced the two scales with just one and ran a test.
A small sample of users had their profile text hidden half of the time they were shown in match results. This generated scores given for picture and text and just the picture.
The results found the text is less than 10 percent of what people thought of others — it's all about the picture and appearances.
The experts' opinions
Walsh said "men and women tend to lie on surveys having to do with sex, love and relationships because they feel they may be judged."
Lewandowski followed this line of thinking, suggesting "people are just giving socially desirable responses. They know they care about those things but also know it makes them look bad."
Based on her experience as a dating coach and matchmaker, Spira said "there's a disconnect between what people look for online and what they say they want offline."
"I think that everybody needs to sort of jump out of their comfort zone and stop being so superficial about what someone looks like and give good people a chance," she said.
What the results boil down to is this: Only 11 percent of Americans say looks is the number one quality they look for in a partner, but that doesn't mean they're telling the truth.
What else did we learn?
1) Men are twice as likely as women to put looks first. Other interesting findings from our survey show 15 percent of men and only 8 percent of women list looks as the most important trait. Why is that? Biology.
The University of Texas study found while participants put those aforementioned qualities first, men favor physical appearance because it's a sign of youth and good health, and therefore reproductive capacity. On the other hand, women tend to focus less on appearances and more on ability to provide.
A study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology also showed men reject and report less attraction toward potential mates with low physical attractiveness. Women, more than men, indicate similar aversion toward those with low social status.
Walsh said, "cross-cultural studies in 37 countries show that men pick beauty and youth before anything else when they're choosing a partner."
Spira agreed, saying, "At the end of the day, a woman wants to be with a guy who can be a good provider and protector, and a guy wants to be with a woman who he finds physically attractive. That's what brings people together."
2) Young adults 2x as likely as seniors to say appearance is #1. Our study also shows 18 percent of adults aged 18 to 24 versus 9 percent of those 65 and older say looks is the most important quality in a partner.
According to Walsh, this is because age teaches us, "looks are false advertising about somebody's psychological ability to have a healthy relationship or not." She also discussed the biological factor that plays into these differences in opinion: fertility.
"As we age, our fertility years are behind us [and] our child rearing is behind us, we're looking for a good partner, a good friend... more than we're looking for someone that is super hot," she said.
Spira also recognized this, saying seniors "are really looking for companionship. They're not even necessarily looking for marriage. They're looking for someone to share times with, create memories with. They are not looking to have children, and... they're not looking for someone to have children that look a certain way. It's more about coupledom than just starting a family."
Once again, biological factors (i.e. fertility) have major influence on what we look for in a partner.
In conclusion, the variety of research we've presented ultimately shows people often say they want someone who is funny, virtuous and similar, but there are a lot of factors that come into play when push comes to shove, including honesty.
Katie Duguid also contributed to this piece.
"The most important sign of attraction is mutual eye contact," says Palmer, who is also a spokesperson for the American Psychological Association. "This is a brief glance, initially. It is not a stare, because staring is hostile." If a woman glances at a guy and he notices, he'll probably glance back. In turn, the woman will probably look again, and if he's interested, he'll look again. This repeated volleying of eye contact is an indication of mutual interest and can lead to more body signals.
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