One of the easiest ways to sum up a potential mate’s shortcomings is with the simple phrase, “He’s just not my type.” But why do we have types? Most people can write down a list of must-haves and must-not-haves—everything from job status and music taste to eye color and shoe preference (mandals are a surefire deal breaker). But the science of love is a tricky one, and the reasons why people have types and the things that drive their finicky tastes are less clear.
Rules of Attraction
It’s not hard for scientists to determine the traits that make people attractive: a good waist-to-hip ratio; symmetrical features; for men, a masculine jaw and a deep voice; for women, a high voice. All these characteristics relate to hormone levels and overall genetic fitness. We’re attracted to people with whom we’ll have a good chance of having healthy offspring, even if we’re only looking for a fun night or two. Scent also plays a large role in what we consider “chemistry” and relates to how our own immune system matches up with a potential suitor's.
But rarely do we describe our type as someone who’s “symmetrical” or who has kick-butt immune defenses. Instead, we want someone who’s athletic or artsy, or someone who has oodles of ambition and the 401k to prove it.
Birds of a Feather?
Our perfect type may have less to do with biological attraction and more to do with our own personality, style, and interests. Studies have shown that people tend to fall in love with those from their same socioeconomic background, similar levels of intelligence, and consistent values and principles. There’s even a term—homophily, or “love of the same”—that describes the tendency for similar people to attract each other.
In both romantic and platonic relationships, homophily happens. Researchers at MIT’s Media Laboratory looked at homophily in online dating and found that users sought people that were like them most of the time, just as it happens in the offline world. Users were most likely to seek similarities in preferences for marital history and desire for children, but also things like physical build, attractiveness, and smoking habits.
So it seems like our “type” may actually reflect a desire to date someone that’s similar to us, or perhaps our idealized and romanticized self. Our quest for sameness goes even further than just college stats and muscle mass. Although scientists can pinpoint general traits that make someone attractive (strong jaw, physical fitness, etc.), studies have shown that we tend to be attracted to those who look like we do. That’s because people want a mate that looks familiar—like their parents or even themselves. In one example, David Perrett, a researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, showed students faces of the opposite sex and asked them to rate them on attractiveness. For one of the faces, he used a picture of the student and morphed it into the opposite sex. Of all the faces to choose from, the students almost always preferred the face that was essentially their own.
We might balk at the narcissism and point to plenty of couples that don’t look alike or share similar backgrounds. But credentials don’t really describe a person’s personality. That’s what Dr. Helen Fischer, an anthropologist and consultant for Chemistry.com, tries to do in her most recent book, Why Him? Why Her? In it, she constructs four different temperaments, based on hormones and neurochemicals, which explain why certain types are attracted to others.
Instead of just looking at things like socioeconomic background and basic interests, Fischer comes up with four main personality types. The Explorer, ruled by high dopamine levels, is a risk-taker, seeks adventure and novelty, and is curious. The Builder has high serotonin activity and is calm, likes schedules and roles, and is conventional. The Director is influenced by testosterone and is focused, analytical, and logical, while the Negotiator has high estrogen activity, sees the big picture, and is compassionate, altruistic, and imaginative.
People can fall into more than one type, but Dr. Fisher contends that while couples may have similarities, they also have traits that complement each other. In Fisher’s view, personality type doesn’t always follow the “like attracts like” situation—Explorers are drawn to Explorers, but Directors and Negotiators tend to pair up well, too
Personality, looks, similarities—all play a role in determining our ideal type and the overall science of love. There are also sociocultural considerations. For instance, there’s evidence to show that adherence to a masculine or feminine gender role is linked to a preference for certain qualities in a mate. A 2011 paper in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology notes that hyperfemininity, which is a “strong adherence to traditionally feminine attitudes and beliefs,” is characterized by a marked preference for more traditional and stereotypical male/masculine behaviors and a higher tolerance for male sexual aggression and coercion. Hypermasculine men may also tend toward women who display stereotypical “female” qualities.
While it may be hard to curb your enthusiasm for tall, lanky artists, it’s clear that breaking away from what we consider our “types” can be a good thing. If always going for the bad boys leaves you perpetually heartbroken, or if you’re bored by your similarities with the on-paper matches, perhaps try something that doesn’t fit the mold. It can require overlooking Tevas with socks or seeing eye-to-eye (literally), but widening the dating pool certainly can’t hurt.