You are more likely to eat pasta if you grow up in a city with a lot of Italian restaurants, and you are similarly likely to date pretty, well-educated women with long, shiny brown hair if you attend a school teeming with them. It’s also because you like those things. It’s also because those things like you back. You may not have needed a study to tell you this, but there is a study nonetheless that has. A study out of the University of California at Davis, finds that yes, you have a type, but that the type is more than the sum total of your preferences — it has a lot to do with your environment.
We like to think of attraction as an unknowable formula where fate takes our hand and places it directly into the hand of some mysterious and unique creature designed just for us. Most of us like to pretend we don’t have a type, either — that attraction is unique and specific to the individual person and if all our exes were rounded up in a room together there would be a rainbow of diverse, complex people present because we are so broadminded and cool. But previous research has found that exposure to certain people and faces makes us like those people and faces more — it’s why if you grow up in a town full of white people you might only date white people. (Also, it’s possible you’re racist.)
But in reality, there are only so many people in the world, and only so many you’re going to meet, and only so many of them you’re going to find attractive, and only so many of them who are going to find you attractive back. And most of them will cluster around some specific factors that reflect where all this is going down — like school, work, neighborhood, church, socioeconomic background, race, community, or taco stand. “In combination, these elements whittle down each person’s universe of possible pairings to a unique pool of current and ex-romantic partners,” the study authors write. Unique — yet remarkably similar.
The new study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, analyzed relationships between 1,000 heterosexual couples. Taken together, they looked at whether a person’s current and past partners share similar physical qualities, intelligence and education levels (previous studies had not looked at past relationships as well). Not surprisingly, they do — so much so that participants could not predict which past partners were long-term or short-term. Most of a person’s partners were equally educated and equally smart, but again, because they were all being plucked from the same pool as the dater — school or work.
However, within this range of possible options at say, work or school, the predictability of who you’ll pick from there is not so obvious. “Within their local school context, people were no more or less likely to select educated, intelligent, or religious partners,” the authors note. Furthermore, they note that “once a face-to-face interaction has occurred, there is no replicable evidence that people are more likely to select mates who match rather than mismatch their preferences for a particular attribute.”
As with so many things in life, you’re dealt a specific hand, and your options are more limited than we like to imagine. But while you may be served up the same sort of people again and again, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with plotting the same course over and over. Nor does it mean you shouldn’t go rogue and go against type if you happen to meet someone you like who isn’t at all like your past partners.
But the truth is most of us are passive, lazy lovers — happy to weave a web and sit back and see who gets caught in the trap. Keep on setting the bait, but don’t be shocked if the day’s catch looks eerily familiar.