Category: Dating

What is it like to be the partner of someone who is transgender?

GettyImages-530594532By Emma Young

The experiences of people who’ve been through a gender transition have been studied and analysed by psychologists – showing, for example, improved psychological wellbeing and self-esteem after hormone treatment. But when it comes to their partners, there’s been much less research. According to a new study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, though, they often go through a kind of life transition of their own, and while there are certainly challenges, there are often positive changes, too.

Continue reading “What is it like to be the partner of someone who is transgender?”

The reasons we stay friends with an ex

3rd Annual Sean Penn & Friends HELP HAITI HOME Gala Benefiting J/P HRO Presented By Giorgio Armani - Inside
Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin have remained close since their “conscious uncoupling” in 2014

By Emma Young

Why do we sometimes stay friends with ex-partners? There may be many reasons, but according to a new paper in Personality and Individual Differences they fall into seven main categories – and men and women don’t quite see eye-to-eye on them. The research also found that certain personality traits were related to motivations for staying friends after a break-up.

Continue reading “The reasons we stay friends with an ex”

Attractive people have shorter relationships and are more interested in alternative partners

87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Scarlett Johansson announced her split from Romain Dauriac this January

By Christian Jarrett

You probably won’t be reaching for your violin too quickly but a series of new studies provide compelling evidence that beauty is a kind of “relationship liability”. While more physically attractive people have a clear advantage when it comes to finding partners, the results suggest that their relationships are more likely to breakdown, at least in part because they take greater interest in alternative partners, especially when dissatisfied in their current relationship.

The results add further nuance to our understanding of how physical beauty impacts people’s lives. While good-looking folk seem to enjoy many advantages in life, on average, such as higher pay, more happiness and others assuming they are friendly and intelligent, it seems there are complicating factors: jealousy is one, and this new research, published in Personal Relationships, suggests that less stability in their romantic relationships is another.

Continue reading “Attractive people have shorter relationships and are more interested in alternative partners”

Feeling authentic in a relationship comes from being able to be your best self, not your actual self

Couple Hero SilhouetteBy Christian Jarrett

Feeling authentic in a relationship – that is, feeling like you are able to be yourself, rather than acting out of character – is healthy, not just for the relationship, but for your wellbeing in general. This makes sense: after all, putting on a fake show can be exhausting. But dig a little deeper and things get more complicated because there are different ways to define who “you” really are.

Is the real you how you actually think and behave, for instance? Or, taking a more dynamic perspective, is it fairer to say that the true you is the person you aspire to be: what psychologists call your “ideal self”?

For a paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Muping Gan and Serena Chen asked members of the public about this and 70 per cent of them thought that the ability to be your actual self was more important for feeling authentic in a relationship than being able to be your ideal self.

But contrary to this folk wisdom, across several studies, the researchers actually found evidence for the opposite – that is, feelings of authenticity in a relationship seem to arise not from being our actual selves in the relationship, but from feeling that we can be our best or ideal self.

Continue reading “Feeling authentic in a relationship comes from being able to be your best self, not your actual self”

Men who can tell a good story are seen as more attractive and higher status

The results fit with evolutionary theory

Stories can change how we think about the world, about the people they describe, and even ourselves. According to new research, they also influence our attitude to the storyteller. An article published in the journal Personal Relationships suggests that people portrayed as stronger storytellers are considered as higher status than those that aren’t – and this status can make them more romantically attractive, at least in the eyes of women. Cue editing of Tinder bios across the globe.

John Donahue and Melanie Green ran experiments with US undergraduate samples (388 in total, 55 per cent women, two-thirds Caucasian, average age 20) who were asked to rate the attractiveness of a potential partner of the opposite sex based upon basic printed information. In the first experiment, participants received a photo and a short biography of a would-be partner which included information on their storytelling abilities. Participants in the strong storytelling condition, for example, heard that the person “often tells really good stories…he makes the characters and settings come alive.” Other conditions emphasised the mediocrity of the person’s storytelling or did not mention it at all. Stronger female storytellers did not tempt male participants, nor did male raconteurs foster extra female interest in short-term dating. But women were more interested in talented male story-tellers as long-term partners.

A further experiment held the design but added another category of attraction – “Do you think this person would make a good spouse?” – and a measure of the person’s perceived status. Both male and female participants considered storytellers to have higher status than non-storytellers. But for men, that didn’t translate into finding women more attractive, whereas for female raters, there was a clear route from men’s storytelling ability to status to desirability as a long-term partner or spouse.

To examine other explanations for the lure of the story-teller beyond the effect of status, the researchers ran another experiment where participants actually read a story, supposedly recounted by the potential partner. Some stories were fluid with lively vocabulary, and, as hoped, participants rated them as better and more involving than others that told the same facts in a hesitating and digressive manner.

But surprisingly, attraction didn’t depend on being swept up in the story – that is, would-be partners who’d produced a more engrossing story were not rated as more attractive than the bores. I should note, however, that a short oral anecdote transcribed onto paper is not the strongest way to entangle someone in the magic of story, and the researchers acknowledged that other unmeasured qualities of the story, such as personal identification, or sheer enjoyment, may well affect attraction.

Donahue and Green advance an evolutionary theory for their findings: females, with a biologically high investment into producing young, have evolved to seek mates with resources, and storytelling aptitude reflects advantages that prehistorically meant the difference between life and death. But there are other explanatory lenses: for example, that men are socialised to be suspicious of women who take space and focus, considering that active status a threat that masks any liking they might have for storytelling traits, whereas women are socialised to appreciate first impressions of male competence. I suspect there is a rich, specific picture of when and why storytellers appeal, a picture that will depend on looking across cultures and at the specific effects their stories arouse in us. For now, this evidence suggests that young western males who can spin a good yarn are seen, on first blush, as a better catch.


DONAHUE, J., & GREEN, M. (2016). A good story: Men’s storytelling ability affects their attractiveness and perceived status Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1111/pere.12120

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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The secret to a conflict-proof relationship? Feeling like your partner understands you

A relationship under strain can be helped by a dose of understanding. In itself, this is no new insight, and it makes sense that understanding your partner and looking for mutual solutions is healthier than looking to win the argument or change them. But new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that quite aside from any practical value of understanding, simply feeling understood can nullify conflict’s impact – or even allow it to improve relationships.

Amie Gordon and Serena Chen at the University of California conducted several studies with participants recruited through online research pools, most of whom were in their twenties and thirties; all were in an ongoing relationship with at least six months behind it. The first survey-based study showed that the higher the frequency of conflicts in a relationship, the less satisfying it was to participants – unless they felt that their partner understood them well (feeling understood was measured by agreement with statements like  “My partner nearly always knows exactly what I mean”).

In the second study, participants who wrote about a specific conflict that had occurred in their current relationship articulated a lower satisfaction within that relationship immediately post-conflict, compared with a control group who wrote about a neutral event – if, and only if, they were asked to consider a conflict where their partner didn’t understand them. This suggests that conflict needn’t be harmful to a relationship if it occurs in the context of feeling understood.

A diary study over a fortnight showed this effect of feeling understood (this time measured by items like: “Today, how much do you think your partner was able to accurately understand what you were thinking and feeling?”) wasn’t merely a product of laboratory context: here too, as participants went about their lives, conflicts accompanied by feeling understood by one’s partner didn’t appear to harm people’s satisfaction with the relationship.

All these results point to the beneficial effect of feeling understood – yes, there are some alternative explanations for the results, but the studies addressed these. For example, it’s true that when participants felt understood, conflicts were more likely to be resolved, and often (although not always) involved the participant believing they themselves were understanding. Thanks to a key experiment involving video, described below, we know also that these conflicts are typically conducted in a more positive tone. But when these factors were accounted for, the beneficial effect of feeling understood remained. These types of conflicts weren’t for smaller stakes, and the diary study, by controlling for previous-day relationship satisfaction, confirmed that this was not a third variable driving both higher satisfaction scores and a willingness to feel understood.

One of the most compelling experiments in the new research involved both partners in a relationship being invited into the lab to discuss, while being videotaped, a topic that was a source of conflict within their relationship. Afterwards, they completed similar surveys to the other studies, and analysis of this replicated the prior finding, as well as producing two other intriguing findings (note, these do warrant retesting and replication before we put too much faith in them). The pre-and post-conflict measures of satisfaction available here showed that participants who felt understood during the conflict left the the session more satisfied than when they began. In other words, when participants felt their partner understood them, the conflict apparently wasn’t just less harmful, it was actually beneficial. And when one partner felt understood, the other felt happier, even after controlling for how understood they felt themselves. It seems there’s a virtuous circle at play: When you feel understood, that increases your partner’s faith in the relationship.

Regardless of whether we get what we want, how soft and fluffy the encounter was, or its stakes, when we feel understood, it seems our relationships can handle, even flourish, from conflict. Some of that is about feeling cared for, some of it is faith that your partner actually considers what you have to be a partnership: the researchers identified both motivations as having a part to play. But beyond these, feeling understood remained as an end in itself, simply worthwhile. However simple such a need might seem to fulfil, beware: Gordon and Chen point to two ways we can fall short and allow conflicts to rankle. One is not understanding – not being willing to see the other’s concerns. The other is to conclude you are being misunderstood or ignored despite your partner doing their best to understand, as if you’re unable to penetrate your historically-founded conclusions about what they are capable of.


Gordon AM, & Chen S (2015). Do You Get Where I’m Coming From?: Perceived Understanding Buffers Against the Negative Impact of Conflict on Relationship Satisfaction. Journal of personality and social psychology PMID: 26523997

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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The psychology of "mate poaching" – when you form a relationship by taking someone else’s partner

According to one estimate, 63 per cent of men and 54 per cent of women are in their current long-term relationships because their current partner “poached” them from a previous partner. Now researchers in the US and Australia have conducted the first investigation into the fate of relationships formed this way, as compared with relationships formed by two unattached individuals.

An initial study involved surveying 138 heterosexual participants (average age 20; 71 per cent were women) four times over nine weeks. All were in current romantic relationships that had lasted so far from 0 to 36 months. Men and women who said they’d been poached by their current partner tended to start out the study by reporting less commitment to their existing relationship, feeling less satisfied in it, committing more acts of infidelity and looking out for more alternatives.What’s more, over the course of the study, these participants reported progressively lower levels of commitment and satisfaction in their relationships. They also showed continued interest in other potential romantic partners and persistent levels of infidelity. This is in contrast to participants who hadn’t been poached by their partners – they showed less interest in romantic alternatives over time.

The researchers led by Joshua Foster attempted to replicate these results with a second sample of 140 heterosexual participants who were surveyed six times over ten weeks. Again the participants who said they’d been poached by their partners tended to report less commitment and satisfaction in their current relationships, and more interest in romantic alternatives. However, unlike the first sample, this group did not show deterioration in their relationship over the course of the study. The researchers speculated this may be because the study was too short-lived or because deterioration in these relationships had already bottomed out.

It makes intuitive sense that people who were poached by their partners showed less commitment and satisfaction in their existing relationship. After all, if they were willing to abandon a partner in the past, why should they not be willing or even keen to do so again? This logic was borne out by a final study of 219 more heterosexual participants who answered questions not just about the way their current relationship had been formed, but also about their personalities and attitudes.

Foster and his team summarised the findings: “individuals who were successfully mate poached by their current partners tend[ed] to be socially passive, not particularly nice to others, careless and irresponsible, and narcissistic. They also tend[ed] to desire and engage in sexual behaviour outside of the confines of committed relationships.” The last factor in particular (measured formally with the “Socio-sexual Orientation Inventory-revised”) appeared to explain a large part of the link between having been poached by one’s partner and having weak commitment to the new relationship.

Across the three studies, between 10 and 30 per cent of participants said they’d been poached by their current partners. This shows again that a significant proportion of relationships are formed this way, the researchers said, and that more research is needed to better understand how these relationships function. “We present the first known evidence [showing] specific long-term disadvantages for individuals involved in relations that formed via mate poaching,” they concluded.


Foster, J., Jonason, P., Shrira, I., Keith Campbell, W., Shiverdecker, L., & Varner, S. (2014). What do you get when you make somebody else’s partner your own? An analysis of relationships formed via mate poaching Journal of Research in Personality, 52, 78-90 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2014.07.008

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Other people can tell whether your partner is cheating on you

Do humans have an infidelity radar?

We can identify a surprising amount of information about each other from the briefest of glimpses – a process that psychologists call thin-slicing. In the latest study in this area, a group led by Nathaniel Lambert have explored whether we can watch a romantic couple interact and tell within minutes whether one of them is a cheat.

Fifty-one student participants (35 women) in a relationship answered survey questions about their own infidelities toward their current partner. They and their partner were then filmed for three to five minutes performing a drawing task, in which one person is blindfolded and the other guides them as to what to draw.

Six trained coders (one man) later watched these clips and answered questions about whether the study participant in each couple had shown romantic interest in another person; flirted or made advances toward another person; or had sex with someone else. Answers to these questions were averaged to create an overall cheating verdict.

The coders’ cheating scores were correlated with the students’ self confessed levels of infidelity (the beta coefficient was .32; the researchers described the effect size as “moderate”). Further analysis showed this association was not simply due to the coders judging the participants’ social dominance, nor to them simply rating the male participants as more unfaithful on average. The researchers checked these possibilities because past research has linked social dominance with infidelity and because men are more often unfaithful than women.

Lambert’s team think these results show we’ve evolved a radar for spotting cheaters, an ability they think will have helped our ancestors to thrive, given the “adverse consequences of infidelity”. But what were the coders looking out for when they watched the videos?

A second study with 43 more undergrads was similar but this time the researchers also asked the coders to rate the participants’ commitment and trustworthiness. Again, the coders’ judgements of infidelity correlated with the students’ own admissions of having been unfaithful. Moreover, the coders’ judgments of infidelity were mediated by their verdicts about trustworthiness and commitment, so they seemed to be using inferences about these traits to inform their detection of cheating.

“Many people are interested in forming meaningful long-term romantic relationships and our research indicates that people may be internally programmed to identify inclinations that could be devastating to their relationship,” the researchers said. “Specifically, objective coders identified cheaters, and thus individuals seeking a committed relationship may be well advised to listen to their intuition or at least think twice before committing to someone they suspect may be inclined to cheat.”

Unfortunately, as well as being restricted to students and dating relationships, this research leaves many questions unanswered. We’re given little information about the coders, nor the training they received. Also, although we’re told the coders’ cheating judgments correlated with the students’ self-reported infidelity scores more than you’d expect if the coders were just guessing, it’s not possible from the available data to establish the rate of false alarms – those times that the coders felt a participant was a cheater when in fact they were not. You can imagine real life accusations based on such false alarms could cause a lot of emotional damage. Finally, the study unfortunately tells us nothing about exactly what behavioural cues (such as body language and tone of voice) the coders were using to make their judgments about infidelity.


LAMBERT, N., MULDER, S., & FINCHAM, F. (2014). Thin slices of infidelity: Determining whether observers can pick out cheaters from a video clip interaction and what tips them off Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1111/pere.12052

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Drop the strut: Both men and women find humility more attractive

By guest blogger Temma Ehrenfeld.

There’s been much debate about the “cheerleader effect,” the idea that men are wired to attract desirable mates by showing off in silly ways. The effect may not even exist, but if it does, they might try humility instead. New research suggests that both men and women prefer humble to less humble partners.

The studies are part of a push to define humility, a concept associated less with science than Christianity, as in Matthew 11:29 where Jesus says “I am gentle and humble in heart.” While research on narcissism — arguably the inverse of humility — has taken off, it’s been harder to define and measure humility. Researchers do agree that it isn’t another word for modesty. A person who brushes off compliments isn’t necessarily helpful, generous, respectful during conflicts, or accepting of criticism—all traits we might expect of the humble.

According to one model, the humble see their strengths and weaknesses accurately and are inclined to altruism. Such people would be apt to treat their romantic partners well and to act in ways that support the bond. With that model in mind, a team led by Daryl Van Tongeren conducted three studies that tested whether participants valued humility in a potential date and were more inclined to forgive a partner they perceived as humble.

In the first study, 41 students created dating profiles in response to a series of computer prompts and answered personality questions. They expected that other participants would see their results and that, in return, they’d review other students’ profiles. In fact, everyone was presented with the same mock profile alongside mock scores on the personality test. The fictional potential date (who was unnamed, and potentially either male or female) had scores indicating that he or she was agreeable, extraverted, conscientious, not neurotic, and open. But in some cases the phantom was “highly humble” with a score in the 87th percentile—while other participants saw a score of “not humble” (24th percentile). Humility won: the “highly humble” stranger got better ratings from participants, who were also more likely to say they’d give the “highly humble” their phone numbers and make a date. Men and women were equally prone to favor the humble.

Since a score of “not humble” could have been a turnoff just because it came with a low number, in the second study, 133 participants didn’t see any scores. Instead, the team varied the language in the profile to be more or less humble. Among other variations was this one: “I’m a pretty good student, but not a bookworm. Other people say I’m smart, but I don’t like the attention” vs. “I’m a really good student and pretty smart, but definitely not a nerd or bookworm: I guess it just comes naturally.” The profiler who claimed not to like attention was the favourite for both men and women.

The researchers went on to test whether humility was helpful in maintaining relationships. Long-distance romances are especially stressful, and the team hypothesised that perceptions of humility would buffer stress. This time the 416 student participants were currently involved in exclusive relationships with an average duration of 18 months. Half of the relationships were long-distance, the others nearby. Participants completed standard questions measuring their tendency to forgive, their feelings about a recent offence by their partners, and their partners’ humility. After controlling for tendencies to forgiveness and the perceived hurtfulness of the offence, the study confirmed earlier research showing that people were less forgiving of partners who lived far away. It also found that daters who viewed their partners as humble were more likely to forgive them, mitigating the stress of distance.

According to conventional wisdom, people most often get burned by arrogant charmers early in life, so it’s surprising that even college students show the good sense to appreciate the humble. “We certainly think humility is worth cultivating because it is attractive to other people,” says Van Tongeren.

You’d have to be especially humble—and by definition, accurate in your self-assessments—to know how humble you are. Van Tongeren decided to experiment on himself. He guessed that his wife would rate him as slightly more humble than the “midpoint.” As it turned out, “When I asked her, she rated me as slightly below the midpoint; slightly more arrogant,” he says. So how should we measure humility? The John Templeton Foundation sees grants for “character virtue development” as part of its core mission. It has funded a study, led by Don Davis at Georgia State University, to find a “behavioral measure of humility,” van Tongeren says. Once a good measurement is in hand, he expects the field to flourish over the next five years.


Van Tongeren, D., Davis, D., & Hook, J. (2014). Social benefits of humility: Initiating and maintaining romantic relationships The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9 (4), 313-321 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.898317

Post written by Temma Ehrenfeld for the BPS Research Digest. Ehrenfeld is a New York-based editor and writer, a blogger for Psychology Today, and former assistant editor at Newsweek. She is currently ghostwriting a memoir for a neurosurgeon.

The psychology of first impressions – digested

Piercings convey low intelligence and greater creativity, according to research

You’ll have had this experience – you meet a new person and within moments you feel good or bad vibes about them. This is you performing “thin slicing” – deducing information about a person based on “tells”, some more obvious than others.

Psychologists have studied this process in detail. For example, they’ve shown that we form a sense of whether a stranger is trustworthy in less than one tenth of a second. With some accuracy, we can also deduce rapidly more specific information such as their intelligence and sexual orientation.

This post delves into our archive and beyond to digest the science of first impressions:

People who make more eye contact are perceived as more intelligent

Psychologists at Northeastern University asked participants to watch five-minute videos of strangers chatting to each other in pairs, and then to rate the strangers’ intelligence. People in the videos who made more eye contact with their conversational partner, especially while talking, and to a lesser extent while listening, tended to be perceived as more intelligent. Other research has found that people who avoid eye contact are judged to be insincere and lacking in conscientiousness (this last result was found for women, but not men). Don’t go too far with the eye contact though – if you lock on and don’t let go, people will likely assume you’re psychopathic.

White men with brown eyes are perceived to be more dominant than their blue-eyed counterparts, according to a 2010 study. However, a blue-eyed man looking to make himself appear more dominant would be wasting his time investing in brown-coloured contact lenses. The study by Karel Kleisner and colleagues at Charles University in the Czech Republic found that brown iris colour seems to co-occur with some other aspect of facial appearance that triggers in others the perception of dominance.

Back in the 70s, researchers created over fifty synthetic voices and played them to participants at various speeds. Increasing speech rate led participants to assume the owner of the voice was more competent. Similarly, in another study conducted during the same decade, researchers played their participants recordings of male interviewees, either slowed down by 30 per cent or at the normal rate. The participants who were played the slowed-down tapes rated the interviewees as less truthful, less fluent, and less persuasive. Other research has shown that people who “um” and “ah” a lot are assumed to not know what they’re talking about.

Last year researchers asked participants to rate the same man who was shown either wearing an off-the-peg suit or a bespoke suit. When seen wearing the bespoke suit, the man was rated as more confident and successful. Other research has shown that people assume that the same job candidate in formal wear will be more likely to earn a higher salary and win promotion, as compared to when he looks more scruffy.

Smartness and the appearance of wealth brings influence

A study at Tilburg University showed that people wearing a luxury branded shirt (Tommy Hilfiger or Lacoste) were perceived as wealthier and higher status (than people wearing a non-branded or non-luxury shirt); more successful at getting passers-by to complete a questionnaire; more likely to be given a job; and more successful at soliciting money for a charity. But crucially, all these effects depended on the assumption that the shirt wearer owned the clothing.
In this research observers discerned correctly that more agreeable people tended to wear shoes that were practical and affordable (pointy toes, price and brand visibility were negatively correlated with agreeableness); that anxiously attached people tended to wear shoes that look brand new and in good repair (perhaps in an attempt to make a good impression and avoid rejection); that wealthier people wear more stylish shoes; and that women wear more expensive-looking, branded shoes.
Research in 2012 involved observers rating pictures of men and women who were depicted with various numbers of facial piercings. As the number of piercings went up, the ratings of intelligence went down. On the other hand, a 2008 study found that a woman was judged to be more artistic and creative when she was shown with more piercings.
Researchers at the University of Liverpool presented undergrads with line drawings of women that varied in the number of visible tattoos. “Results showed that tattooed women were rated as less physically attractive, more sexually promiscuous and heavier drinkers than untattooed women, with more negative ratings with increasing number of tattoos.” A more recent study found that men were more likely to approach a woman lying on a beach when she bore a tattoo on her back, and to do so more quickly. Men also estimated they would have more chance of dating or having sex with a woman when she had a tattoo on her back.

Men with shaved heads are seen as more dominant

When researchers at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, photoshopped pictures of men, so that they appeared to have shaven heads, the men were judged to be “more dominant, taller, and stronger than their authentic selves.”

In 2012, researchers analysed point-light videos to identify what cues participants used to make judgments about a walker’s personality. This led to the identification of two main factors – one was related to an expansive, loose walking style, which participants tended to interpret as a sign of adventurousness, extraversion, trustworthiness and warmth; the other was a slow, relaxed style, which the participants interpreted as a sign of low neuroticism. Although linked with these observer perceptions, the two walking styles were not in fact associated with walkers’ actual personalities.

A 2011 study found that participants made many assumptions about people based on their style of handshake, but that the only accurate judgments concerned conscientiousness. The researchers’ explanation was that conscientiousness is a trait that reflects how successfully a person can learn any complex behaviour, be that a musical instrument or a handshake. “The ubiquitous handshake may not be as ritualized or as precise as the Japanese tea ceremony,” they said, “but it certainly requires some knowledge of the prevailing social norms and some interpersonal coordination.”

This post is the first in a new series in which we attempt to digest the research on a given topic, or pertaining to a particular question. If there are any topics or questions you’d like us to digest, please let us know by commenting on this post or contacting the Digest editor.


Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.