Dating & Relationships

We Overestimate Our Ability To Reject Undesirable Partners

October 31, 2014 by Justin Lehmiller

Imagine that someone you aren’t attracted to approaches you for a date. How would you respond? Most of you probably said that you’d decline the offer and move on, right? Although that may be how you think you would react in this situation, a set of studies published in the journal Psychological Sciences suggests that some of you would have a harder time saying no than you might expect.

In the first study, 150 college students were asked to create their own dating profiles, which they were led to believe would be shared with other participants. Afterward, they were asked to evaluate a set of three profiles supposedly created by other people from the study. Half of the participants were told that these people were in an adjacent room and they might get to meet one of them (the “real” condition); the other half were told that these people took part in an earlier session and were not available to meet, so participants should just imagine that these folks were around (the “hypothetical” condition).

Next, participants selected their favorite of the three profiles. They were then given a photo of an unattractive person who was supposedly the profile creator, along with fake feedback from this unattractive person, which clearly stated their interest in going on a date with the participant. Again, participants in the real condition were led to believe that this feedback was from an actual person in the next room, while those in the hypothetical condition knew it was fake and were simply asked to play along.

Participants then filled out a questionnaire in which they were asked whether they would like to exchange contact information with the unattractive person for the purpose of arranging a date. After this, participants were asked several questions about why they did or did not want to meet the other person.

The results revealed that, in the hypothetical condition, 16% of participants were willing to arrange a date with the unattractive partner. In contrast, in the real condition, more than twice as many participants (37%) were willing to do so. Why was that? Participants in the real condition indicated being more concerned about hurting the other person’s feelings, and this statistically accounted for their greater interest in meeting the unattractive partner.

A second study was conducted with almost identical methods—the only difference being that instead of the other person being unattractive, they possessed some type of “deal-breaker” trait that would make them a rather poor match for the participant (e.g., having incompatible religious beliefs).

This time around, 46% of participants in the hypothetical condition were willing to go on a date with the incompatible partner, whereas this number jumped to 74% in the real condition! Again, the researchers found evidence that concern for the other person’s feelings helped to statistically account for the difference between the two conditions.

This set of studies reveals that, when an undesirable romantic prospect approaches us, what we think we would do is quite different from what we actually do. Many of us appear to overestimate our ability to reject someone who is unattractive or just doesn’t seem like a good fit for us, seemingly because we’re too nice and don’t want to make other people feel bad.

Difficulty saying no to an undesirable romantic prospect is something that both women and men experience. However, because we live in a culture where women are approached more often than men, women are likely to be put in this position far more often.

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To learn more about this research, see: Joel, S., Teper, R., & MacDonald, G. (2014). People overestimate their willingness to reject potential romantic partners by overlooking their concern for other people. Psychological Science.

Image Credit: 123RF

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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