Why Some People Are More Attractive From a Distance

We say we want one thing from our relationships, but behavior shows that’s not the case. (Stocksy)

What we think we want in a relationship and what we actually want can be two different things.

That’s the takeaway from a series of studies from the University at Buffalo that analyzed how attractive a potential partner seems from a distance vs. in person.

The research, which was recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, involved 650 men and asked their opinion on hypothetical women and women they expected to meet, as well as women who were right next to them.

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Researchers discovered that men showed a discrepancy between saying they wanted a potential partner who is smarter than them, and how they behaved when that potential partner was right in front of them.

In one study, men reported being more attracted to a hypothetical woman who outperformed them in a math or English test, but was not in the room. But another study found that men who were outperformed by a female colleague who was in the room rated her as less attractive and had less of a desire to interact with her than those who did not think she had performed better than they did.

As a result, researchers concluded, distance influences how attracted men are to women who outperform them.

Past research has shown that people say they prefer partners that are more skilled than they are, lead study author Lora Park, PhD, an associate professor at University at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Health. Because of that, she says, it makes sense that people would want a partner who is more intelligent than they are.

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But the reality of that preference isn’t as ideal for people. “Other aspects of the immediate situation, such as how the other person’s performance makes you feel at the moment, may trump any abstract preferences you may have had when evaluating that person from afar,” she says. (Park’s research studied the preferences of men but says the concept of thinking you want one trait in a partner and actually wanting something different can apply to women as well.)

Manhattan-based licensed clinical psychologist Joseph Cilona, PsyD, tells Yahoo Health that he’s not surprised.

“Society commonly identifies things like strength and intelligence as desirable traits, and many individuals might internalize those societal messages as their own preference,” he says. “Yet, when they actually experience those traits in a partner, the experience can be far from positive.”

Basically, being with a partner who is more intelligent than us can make us feel insecure, clinical psychologist Suzana E. Flores, PsyD, author of Facehooked: How Facebook Affects Our Emotions, Relationships, and Lives, tells Yahoo Health.

“If you perceive someone as superior in any particular way, you tend to be a little more on your toes or feel that you have to be careful with what you say,” she says. “If someone is less intelligent or slightly less intelligent you may feel more comfortable around that person.”

That’s especially true now that we can fact-check everything online (and may discover that we don’t know as much as we think we do), she says: “People are looking for more of a comfort in their personal lives.”

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Women tend to react similarly when it comes to a man’s earning power, she says. “Women will say they don’t care about a man’s job security and just want someone who is kind and respectful,” she says. “But, when push comes to shove, they care about a man’s job status — from an evolutionary standpoint, women want to make sure that a man can be a provider. It makes them feel secure.”

While the findings are somewhat depressing, Flores points out that this dichotomy tends to become less severe as people age: “Once they’re older, both men and women have more confidence in themselves and aren’t as intimidated by these kinds of differences.

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