What do you want in a hook-up partner?

Let’s say I’m interested in what you find attractive in a partner, and what you think are your most attractive traits—the characteristics that would help you to attract a partner. If I wanted to know these things, I could just ask you. But does asking people outright guarantee an accurate answer?

A better way of uncovering this kind of information would be to observe real people in the act of courtship. That way we could see which characteristics people go for, and which aspects of their own personality and appearance they choose to advertise.

Because hanging around nightclubs with a clipboard and a pair of binoculars is considered by some killjoys as ‘socially unacceptable’, a better way of getting at this info is by examining personal advertisements in newspapers. In personal ads, people are often very clear about what they want in a partner and they offer this information not in the context of a hypothetical lab experiment, but in a very real mating market, with very real consequences.

Much research has confirmed that men tend to seek out young, physically attractive women, while women are on the lookout for a man with a high income. A GSOH is very much a bonus, rather than a necessity.

But what most of this research assumes is that advertisers are on the look-out for long-term relationships, and we know from laboratory studies that people tend to find different traits attractive when they’re looking for a long-term or a short-term partner. Generally, men are less picky about short-term partners, whereas women tend to increase their demands for physical attractiveness.

This month Trish Kelley and James Hare of the University of Manitoba in Canada published a study on web-based personal advertisements with a neat twist. They collected data from a niche dating website: ashleymadison.com. This website is aimed at people who already have a long-term partner. Essentially, it helps people to have short-term, illicit affairs.


Kelley and Hare hypothesised, that because advertisers on ashleymadison tend to already have long-term partners, they should seek partners with traits that are most often preferred in short term rather than long term partners.

The researchers found that pair-bonded women made more demands of potential partners than single women did. Also, women who already had partners used more words in their advertisements to describe the physical appearance of their desired partner, but fewer words to describe material wealth: findings that are consistent with previous research on short-term preferences in the lab.

Ashleymadison seems to be catering for a very specific drive for short-term mating in both men and women. Surely it’s only a matter of time before all this top secret digital dating data end up on the front page of WikiLeaks. Well, if it can happen to United State ambassadors, it can certainly happen to a bunch of randy middle-aged men looking for a bit of furtive how’s your father.

Kelley, T. C., & Hare, J. F. (2010). Pair-bonded humans conform to sexual stereotypes in web-based advertisements for extra-marital partners. Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 561–572. Read paper

The content of this post first appeared in the November 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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